2004: Status Symbol

You see it at all levels of amateur competition, from city and club championships and state events to top national tournaments and even U.S. Golf Association championships. A former golf professional regains amateur status and wins a tournament. It’s hardly new. Yet when PGA Tour veteran Dillard Pruitt won the prestigious Sunnehanna Amateur in 2002 at age 40, six months after regaining his amateur status, it sparked a controversy that still rages.

For nine years (1988-96), Pruitt was a full-time member of the PGA Tour. He earned more than $1 million and even won the 1991 Chattanooga Classic, a tournament that was played opposite the British Open but nonetheless was an official PGA Tour event and earned him a two-year exemption.

Pruitt, who works as a Tour rules official, followed his Sunnehanna triumph with a victory at the Canadian Amateur that summer. Suddenly, career amateurs began questioning the rules on reinstatement and asking, “Where do you draw the line?”

The answer is, for a top player like Pruitt, there is no line. At least not a definitive one.

“I never really thought about it much until Dillard won Sunnehanna,” said career amateur Danny Green, winner of the 1999 U.S. Mid-Amateur. “I don’t fault him, because he did everything by the rules.

“But I think there has to be a line in the sand somewhere, a point of no return. I don’t know where that is . . . That’s up to the USGA. I do feel there needs to be a hard line and some exact language defining that line. I think once you reach the top of your profession (in golf), you shouldn’t be able to go back.”

Reinstatement is covered under Rule 9 in the Rules of Amateur Status (see box, p24). Players seeking reinstatement face a probationary period that typically lasts one to three years. For example, recreational golfers who win a car or cash for a hole-in-one normally must wait a year, as do players who have played in a limited number of professional tournaments.

Club pros and those who have played professionally on any level for more than a year usually have to sit out for two years – the waiting period the vast majority (approximately 85 percent) of reinstated players are assigned. Receiving at least a three-year wait period: Those who have competed exclusively on the pro level – be it mini-tours, the Nationwide Tour or the PGA Tour – for an extended period.

The USGA says it processes approximately 700 reinstatement applications per year, and it granted 605 in 2003. Players are rejected if their applications are inaccurate, they are applying for the third time (twice is the maximum) or if the USGA Amateur Status and Conduct Committee deems that person to be or have been “nationally prominent.”

The last stipulation has been called into question because it is open to interpretation by the committee.

“While most of the (reinstatement) cases are pretty much routine, there are some that are not, as was the case with Dillard,” said Tony Zirpoli, USGA senior director, Regional Affairs/Amateur Status. “We do have guidelines and look at each of those cases individually.

“Dillard’s case was reviewed, and we did not consider him a nationally prominent player, like say a Jack Nicklaus, Davis Love III, Phil Mickelson or players like that. We felt if he did nothing (competitively) for three years, he could be reinstated.”

Many believe the probation should be longer for anyone who has played on the PGA Tour for an extended period. Pruitt’s three-year wait was the same length given to Michael Morrison, who turned pro after the 2000 U.S. Amateur and decided in January 2002 he wanted his amateur status back. Morrison, a member of the 1999 University of Georgia team that won the NCAA Championship, mostly played the Hooters Tour and also Monday qualified for a few Nationwide Tour events. But because he played in more than 55 events as a pro, he will have to wait the maximum three years.

John Morrissett, who as Manager/Rules of Golf is the USGA’s No. 2 person behind Zirpoli in matters concerning amateur status, noted that Pruitt initially was given a four-year wait, but the committee reconsidered and the penalty was reduced to three years because of Pruitt’s competitive inactivity in the year before his application.

None of the current members was on the Amateur Status and Conduct Committee when Pruitt’s case was reviewed. Morrissett said the committee doesn’t appear inclined to change or delete the “nationally prominent” criteria from Rule 9.

“Recent discussions have been more about interpreting the current rule rather than changing it,” he said.

Morrissett acknowledged that the Pruitt controversy has prompted the committee to tinker with its definition of “nationally prominent.” Among the considerations are number of years exempt on Tour, victories on Tour, total events played, number of cuts made and overall performance, such as position on money lists.

For the foreseeable future, Morrissett said, the definition of “nationally prominent” will be applied case-by-case. Asked if Pruitt would gain reinstatement were his case presented to the current committee, Morrissett said: “It would have been close. I can’t say for sure.”

Though the USGA did not deem him nationally prominent, Pruitt was an accomplished player during his Tour career. In 227 events he made 130 cuts and posted 12 top-10 finishes. His best year was 1991, when he won $271,860 and finished 63rd on the money list. His career earnings were slightly less than $1.2 million.

“I don’t feel sorry or bad about this (being reinstated),” Pruitt said. “Sure, I played the PGA Tour, but I finally decided that wasn’t for me. When I missed out at the second stage (of qualifying school) in 1996, I made the decision not to play (professionally) anymore.”

When Pruitt sent his reinstatement application into the USGA, he was told he would have to resign his membership on the Tour and in the PGA of America. He did so, then cooled his heels for three years.

“I’m grateful to the USGA,” Pruitt said. “I do love the game of golf and I do love to compete. I knew I didn’t want to play professionally anymore so if I didn’t get my status back, I would have been stuck in limbo. Because of my job I don’t get to compete that much, maybe five or six events a year, but when I do, I enjoy playing at the highest level of amateur golf with these great amateur players, especially the college guys.”

Nevertheless, the mere fact that a player with Pruitt’s record was able to regain his amateur status in such a short time – if at all – has implications.

Pruitt’s pro career ended as the Tiger Woods era was beginning. Meanwhile, the value of PGA Tour membership has skyrocketed. Since 1997, Woods’ first full season, Tour purses have risen nearly 300 percent, from $80.55 million to $240 million in 2004. Media coverage of professional golf has increased dramatically (there was no Golf Channel when Pruitt was on Tour), thus skewing the notion of “national prominence.” And even nonwinners on Tour, if they are able to sustain middle-of-the-pack careers for several years, will be beneficiaries of a lucrative, Tour-funded retirement plan that’s based on performance. (Each time a qualified player makes a cut, his retirement account grows by $3,600. Players are vested in the plan after playing in at least 15 official events annually for five years.)

Pruitt is not fully vested in the retirement plan, but the money he is accumulating is something he believes was earned prior to his reinstatement and should have no bearing on his amateur status.

Pruitt, of course, is an anomaly. His reinstatement was the first granted to a PGA Tour player of note since the late 1970s, when Bert Greene regained his amateur status after playing professionally for eight years. Greene, too, had a Tour victory, the 1973 Liggett-Myers Open. He also was runner-up in the Magnolia State Classic that season. In 1969, he finished third at the PGA Championship and second at the Westchester Classic.

Greene did not compete on any level for 15 years after regaining his amateur status, then turned professional again in 1994, when he made an unsuccessful bid to qualify for the Senior PGA Tour.

Should the situation recur, how will the USGA react? Will it follow the precedents set by Greene and Pruitt in two distinctly different eras?

Can a PGA Tour winner be deemed anything but “nationally prominent” in the age of the Internet and The Golf Channel? Will the USGA take into consideration that a player with a record similar to Pruitt’s, but built during the “Tiger Era,” likely has $500,000 or more in his retirement account – a figure that will grow exponentially with each passing year?

If that player were to quit professional golf and apply for amateur reinstatement, as did Pruitt, the interest gained on his retirement fund during the three-year waiting period alone could add up to $40,000 or more. How that squares with the definition of an “Amateur Golfer” as one who “does not receive remuneration . . . because of golf skill or reputation” would be yet another matter for interpretation by the USGA.

Morrissett said retirement benefits haven’t been given much, if any, consideration by the Amateur Status and Conduct Committee to date.

“It is an interesting point,” he said. “The committee hasn’t focused on the (retirement) plan.”

Morrissett, however, did question if there was a difference between a player vested in the Tour’s retirement program and one who invested his winnings in such a manner as to gain a financial windfall years later. “You can’t hold that over his head forever,” Morrissett said.

Many top amateurs say the USGA needs to spell out specific guidelines regarding amateur status, rather than relying on vague definitions of “national prominence.”

“I never really thought about it much until Dillard won Sunnehanna,” said career amateur Danny Green, winner of the 1999 U.S. Mid-Amateur and member of the 2001 U.S. Walker Cup team. “I don’t fault him, because he did everything by the rules.

“But I think there has to be a line in the sand somewhere, a point of no return. I don’t know where that is and I’m not the one to make that decision. That’s up to the USGA. I do feel there needs to be a hard line and some exact language defining that line. I think once you reach the top of your profession (in golf), you shouldn’t be able to go back.”

Trip Kuehne, a career amateur who was runner-up at the 1994 U.S. Amateur and has played in two Walker Cup Matches (1995, 2003), doesn’t beat around the bush.

“If you have had your PGA Tour playing card, you shouldn’t be able to get your amateur status back. Period. End of quote,” Kuehne said. “I think even more so now than before since someone can go through Q-school, and if he doesn’t make it, can retain his amateur status.”

Although Pruitt’s victory at Sunnehanna ignited a flame, he’s not the first reinstated amateur to excel at the national level.

Buddy Alexander won the U.S. Amateur in 1986 after trying his hand in the pro ranks. Mitch Voges did the same in ’91, as did John Harris in ’93. Five reinstated amateurs have won the U.S. Mid-Amateur: Mike Podolak (’84), Bill Loeffler (’86), David Eger (’88), Jim Stuart (’90 and ‘91) and John “Spider” Miller (’96 and ‘98).

Jeff Wilson, who played a year on the PGA Tour and two years on the Ben Hogan (now Nationwide) Tour, was co-medalist at the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Am in 1991, made it to the semifinals of two U.S. Mid-Ams and was low amateur at the 2000 U.S. Open. And two-time U.S. Walker Cup captain Bob Lewis, a two-time U.S. Mid-Am runner-up, played professionally before regaining his amateur status in 1978.

At the 2003 U.S. Amateur at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, the starting field of 312 contained 27 reinstated amateurs. At last year’s U.S. Mid-Amateur, the number was even more striking, with 80 former pros in the field of 264.

None, however, were PGA Tour winners.

“I have no problem with guys who play the mini-tours,” said Kuehne. “They gave it a try and it didn’t work out. But they never reached the pinnacle of the PGA Tour. Once you have reached that level, there should be no turning back. I definitely think the USGA needs to take a long, hard look at its current policy.”

Two-time U.S. Mid-Amateur champion Tim Jackson agrees.

“I feel if you have played the PGA Tour or PGA European Tour, you shouldn’t be able to get your (amateur) status back,” said Jackson, a career amateur. “I’m not against guys getting their amateur status back, but I do think the USGA needs to . . . come up with something more definitive.”

Until then, the debate will continue and – fair or not – Dillard Pruitt will be at its heart.

“If you don’t allow former pros to come back (to the amateur ranks), then I think you’re going to lose a lot of great ambassadors for the game of golf,” said Terrence Miskell, who never made it to the PGA Tour, but did play the Hogan/Nike Tour, the Asian Tour and the Hooters Tour before being reinstated in 2000.

“That being said, should there be a line drawn between playing the (PGA) Tour and winning out there? Maybe. I’m not the one to say. But in the case of Dillard, he did what he did within the rules.”

– Dave Seanor contributed to this story.

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