Greg Puga couldn’t afford to travel to elite amateur tournaments during 2001. He believes it kept him from representing his country.
Puga, a caddie at Bel-Air Country Club in Los Angeles, won the 2000 U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship and made the quarterfinals of the U.S. Public Links the following summer, but was left off the 2001 U.S. Walker Cup team. His looper’s wage allowed him to play only three top amateur tournaments that summer.
“I was first alternate,” Puga said, “because I couldn’t play in all those events that counted for the Walker Cup.”
A new U.S. Golf Association rule that took effect Jan. 1 allows amateurs to accept tournament expenses. Like past liberalization of amateur status rules, the impact of the rule change may not be as large as advertised. Still, had it been in place a few years ago, Puga (who since has turned pro) might have been able to play an enhanced amateur schedule by accepting financial assistance from some of Bel-Air’s well-off members.
The rule states that amateurs can accept expenses of less than $300 directly; amounts larger than that must be filtered through a state or regional golf association, which then can pass the money to the player. (According to the USGA, juniors can receive any amount directly to compete in junior tournaments, although reimbursement cannot exceed expenses incurred.)
“The USGA, and other golf associations, are spending a great deal of money . . . to bring golf to a different segment, (from) entry level to disadvantaged minorities,” said Tony Zirpoli, the USGA’s senior director of regional affairs and amateur status, referring to programs such as The First Tee. “We felt it was the right thing to do, to allow players who maybe didn’t come from a wealthy family, or have a lot of money,
to go play.”
Most agree the rules change will not alter the amateur golf landscape drastically, at least this year. One reason is because the new USGA rule differs with NCAA guidelines. The NCAA’s amateurism rules do not allow student-athletes or potential student-athletes to accept direct payments or money earmarked for a specific person. This means the rule’s greatest impact likely will be on mid-amateurs (ages 25 and over) – many of whom do not need assistance – and young foreign players who do not plan on playing collegiately
in the U.S.
This year’s Masters was a perfect illustration.
The Italian Golf Federation picked up the tab for 2005 U.S. Amateur champion Edoardo Molinari’s trip to Augusta, Ga., though there’s no doubt he would’ve made the trip on his own dime.
The man Molinari beat at Merion Golf Club, Northwestern University’s Dillon Dougherty, was unable to accept any money for his Masters trip, handcuffed by the differences between the NCAA and USGA. Kevin Marsh, the 2005 U.S. Mid-Am champion and a commercial real estate developer, didn’t need any financial assistance to get to the Masters.
Many golf associations don’t expect a “mad rush” of people taking advantage of the rule. Oregon Golf Association executive director Jim Gibbons estimates his association will process about 10 donations because many people still are unaware of the change.
Most donations probably will fall under the $300 threshold, helping golfers cover entry fees or travel to tournaments close to home, Gibbons said.
Golf associations were given the responsibility to handle donations greater than $300 because they more easily can catch infractions, such as donations from an agent, because they’re closer to the involved parties, Zirpoli said.
The USGA’s Intercollegiate Relations Committee has met several times with the NCAA, including what Zirpoli said was a “very, very positive” December 2005 meeting in California. The two organizations also have had numerous phone conversations during the year. USGA representatives attended two college coaches conventions to discuss this issue.
“As long as reasonable people are talking, then there’s the possibility of reasonable solutions,” said Tom Drennan, president of the Golf Coaches Association of America and men’s coach at the University of Rhode Island. “Having said that, there are some fundamental differences in what the two organizations see as their responsibility with regards to amateur golf.”
Though the NCAA has moved toward more sport-specific rules in recent years, GCAA executive director Gregg Grost said an NCAA official told him amateurism rules will not change because they are “embedded in the philosophy of the association.”
Under NCAA rules, golfers can accept money from outside amateur teams or organizations, event sponsors, parents or legal guardians and the sport’s national governing body. All money must come from a general fund, though.
Such funds are hard to find. The USGA and leaders of several state golf associations said though the rule change allows it, they do not believe their organizations should subsidize golfers.
NCAA associate director of championships Tina Krah said the NCAA Golf Committee’s goal isn’t to bring the two associations in line, but to educate its members about the rules differences.
College coaches are treading lightly, though, because there is still great confusion about what money student-athletes can accept. Long Beach State women’s coach Sue Ewart, a member of the USGA Rules of Golf Committee, said she’ll tell her players to treat all money as if it’s an infraction. Drennan discusses any potential donations to his players with his school’s compliance officer.
American Junior Golf Association executive director Stephen Hamblin said he heard one speaker give incorrect information about the two sets of rules at the Golf Coaches Association of America convention in January. Hamblin said he’s still confused by the differences.
The golfers Hamblin’s organization serves – juniors – could be at the most risk because they don’t have the support systems available to college athletes. Prospective student-athletes’ past actions will be increasingly scrutinized when the NCAA Amateurism Clearinghouse opens in fall 2007, meaning some current juniors potentially could be declared ineligible for college competition by following only the USGA’s rules.
Ironically, mid-amateur golfers – who stand to benefit the most from the rule change because they don’t have to deal with the NCAA – also are the ones who usually need the least help.
“I think the majority of prominent mid-ams nowadays are there because, one, they have the game, (and) two, they can afford to play national amateur golf,” said Northern California Golf Association assistant executive director Matt Magers. “They take pride in the fact that they’ve done well in their lives and can now afford to do this. Maybe now we are going to see a few of them come up who have a good friend who’s willing to help them out.”
Jokingly, he added, “I’d find one of my buddies from school who became a doctor.”
Marsh, a reinstated amateur, once had to find sponsors as an aspiring pro, a process he detested. He’s thankful his job as a commercial real estate developer allows him to pay his own way to events.
Playing the summer “circuit” can get expensive.
At the Masters, Marsh said the cost of playing a full schedule of national championships and invitationals easily can approach $40,000-$50,000.
Virginia Derby Grimes, the 1998 U.S. Women’s Mid-Am champion, spent roughly $10,000 playing in nine events last year, but said she thinks friends will help her with some expenses.
Australia’s Nick Flanagan estimated he spent approximately $7,600 traveling the U.S. in summer 2003, a trip that ended with Flanagan winning the U.S. Amateur title. He and several countrymen sometimes crammed five people into a small hotel room to keep expenses down. Flanagan’s working-class parents took out a loan and used money from the sale of a family beach house to fund his summer abroad.
Now, many Aussies and other players from around the world don’t have to make such sacrifices to play in the United States. Their golf unions now can pay travel expenses for members of their national teams to come to this country – if the players have time.
“I don’t think you’re going to see a flood of Kiwis at JFK (airport),” said Graeme Scott, New Zealand Golf’s manager of sport development, citing not only scheduling concerns but financial ones as well.
Most players already have a full schedule of tournaments closer to home. East Tennessee State’s Rhys Davies of Wales, a member of the 2005 Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team, would like to play in this country, but doesn’t see an opening until at least mid-July. Oklahoma State women’s coach Laura Matthews, a member of Canada’s national team, will miss the U.S. Women’s Amateur in August because it conflicts with the Canadian Women’s Open.
Representatives from several golf unions expressed interest in early-season tournaments such as the Jones Cup Invitational, played the February of Walker Cup years.
English Golf Union director of coaching Peter Mattsson said his country’s elite team schedule is set for this season, but he’ll look into sending some of his top players to the U.S. in the future.
“At least the opportunity is there now,” Mattsson said, “so we can send players if we want.”
The U.S. Amateur is the main attraction. Davies and the rest of the Great Britain & Ireland Walker Cup team are exempt into the tournament, and their home unions can cover expenses.
The journey is difficult for nonexempt players, though. Qualifying is staged about three weeks before the tournament. Foreign associations would have to either pay for two round-trip tickets to the States or an extended stay in America, during which players could play in additional events. The European Amateur usually falls during that time of year, too. This year it’s being held the same week as the U.S. Amateur at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn.
International golf federations must send a letter to the USGA detailing events for which they plan to cover expenses. The USGA received its first piece of such mail in early March, when the Italian Golf Federation sent correspondence stating it would pay for Molinari’s trip to the Masters, U.S. Open and PGA Tour’s Verizon Heritage and Memorial.
Tournament directors from several of the country’s largest amateur events said they haven’t seen an increase in international applicants. The rule change may not have a visible impact this year, but assistance is now available if needed, whether for one of Europe’s finest or a caddie from Los Angeles.
“Now it’s not going to come down to money,” Magers said. “It’s going to come down to, ‘Can you shoot the scores?’ ”