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  • Alistair Tait

The modern lure of professional golf

Interesting read from Mike Clayton on the Golf Australia website about a subject dear to my heart: the lure modern professional golf has on good amateurs, and how money has practically killed the amateur game.

Clayton points to the 1978 Australian Amateur Championship final as the day “the game changed.” Clayton writes:

“Not because I managed to beat defending champion Tony Gresham in the final, but because it drew a line between traditional amateur golf and what it was about to morph into.
“Since 1978, almost every national amateur champion has turned pro and it’s simply an assumption the world's professional tours are the goal of not only the winner, but a significant number of his or her rivals.”

The parallels between what’s happened in Australia and the British Isles are all too stark. You won’t find many winners of the Amateur Championship since 1978 who didn’t turn professional. I count just six.

Stuart Wilson is the last Amateur champion not to turn professional. He won the title in 2004. (Small caveat: recent winner Joe Long (pictured) obviously hasn’t turned professional. To do so would be to throw away appearances in the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship, but I’d bet a lot of money he’ll turn professional later next year.)

The days of someone like Gary Wolstenholme playing in six Walker Cups are long since gone. These days Walker Cup captains are lucky to get two appearances out of players in the biennial match.

Padraig Harrington played in three Walker Cups. He only turned professional because he looked around the amateur game and realised he had no one else to beat. He made his European Tour debut in the 1996 FNB Players Championship in South Africa. He finished T49 and earned €2,611.38, just over £1,500 in old money.

“That seemed like a fortune to me,” he said. “I hadn’t played very well. I phoned my mum and said: ‘they’re just throwing money away out here.’”

The European Tour has thrown €26,665,489.45 in official money at Harrington ever since.

Therein lies the rub: there's so much money to be made that players have almost no choice but to turn professional. Wolstenholme had to do that when he reached a stage where it was no longer viable to play full-time amateur golf. He joined the European Senior Tour. He has three career wins on that circuit and €935,090.86 in earnings.

I’ve previously chronicled the woes of past amateur champions, past amateur stars, who haven’t made the grade. That’s to be expected. After all, as four-time Walker Cup player and three-time Walker Cup captain Nigel Edwards once noted about amateurs rushing to turn professional:

“They can’t all play on the European Tour.”

There was a time not too long ago when amateur golf got a decent shout on primetime TV. The BBC covered the Amateur Championship on a regular basis. These days it’s hard to find amateur golf on television. Usually all we get are highlights packages even from marquee tournaments. One of the problems is good amateurs spend about five minutes in the unpaid game, and so there are no names to entice TV executives.

Years ago, I tried to impress on Sky TV the importance of amateur golf. I offered my services to do a weekly wrap up of what was happening in the amateur game, movements on the Official World Golf Ranking, especially during the busy summer months. Sky devotes so much time to golf but gives just a fraction of its time to the amateur game. I tried to convince the Sky Sports representative that a weekly recap of who won prestigious titles like the Lytham Trophy, Brabazon Trophy, St Andrews Links Trophy, the Helen Holm Trophy, St Rule Trophy, Carris Trophy, McGregor Trophy, the national amateur titles, male and female, and other important events was a worthwhile exercise. A regular, short roundup was surely newsworthy to the legions of golf fans watching Sky coverage. It seems a better option than two talking heads filling in time between yet another commercial break from a PGA Tour event.

My pitch fell on deaf ears. The guy from Sky wasn’t interested one little bit. Amateur golf coverage on Sky Sports is still woeful.

Clayton knows Gresham and fellow Australian Kevin Hartley would have turned professional if they were playing today. He writes:

“With the money on offer in this era – amounts unimagined to our generation – both Harley and Gresham would have played for money simply because the lure of the rewards are irresistible.
“But they are perfect reminders of a time when players saw that playing as an amateur was an unpaid but very serious “career” in golf.

We’ve got very few of top level career amateurs today in the British Isles. Playing top level amateur golf is merely an apprenticeship, usually a short one, for turning professional.

And the game is poorer because of it.

#JustSaying: “What can you do with 27 toasters?” Moe Norman on why he turned pro.

Photograph courtesy of the R&A

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