2001: Amateur status rule changes draw mixed reactions

The U.S. Golf Association announced July 2 that it is changing two key rules involving amateur status.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2002, when the USGA releases its newest edition of “The Rules of Golf,” amateurs will be allowed to participate in professional tour qualifying schools and be able retain their amateur status afterward if they so choose; also, in a move to level the playing field with international players, U.S. amateurs will be able to receive free equipment from manufacturers.

“We thought we’d get on the same page as the R&A (Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews) and would rewrite, reformat our code with these new, specific definitions,” said Tony Zirpoli, USGA senior director for regional affairs and amateur status. “The R&A changed its (amateur) code four or five years ago, and it was a question of getting with the R&A and trying to level the playing field.”

Currently, a player applying to, say, the PGA Tour’s Qualifying School would forfeit his amateur status under Rule 1-b of the Rules of Amateur Status (“Taking any action for the purpose of becoming a professional golfer”). Amateurs now will be able to compete at the first and second stages of Qualifying School in 2002 without penalty, and at the final stage would have to waive their right to any prize money to remain an amateur.

The USGA also said that any player whose only previous violation of the amateur status code was to try qualifying would be reinstated as an amateur on Jan. 1.

“I think the rationale is that a lot of players – collegiate players and seniors – want to test themselves and see how good they really are,” Zirpoli said.

R&A rules for professional qualifying are slightly different. Players are allowed to participate in the first two stages of qualifying without penalty, but must forfeit their amateur status once they reach the final stage.

For more than 20 years, international amateurs have been allowed to accept free equipment and training. For the most part, college players in the United States can accept equipment from their respective universities, but now all amateurs, including juniors, will be allowed to accept equipment direct from manufacturers.

The current rule of the amateur code (1-8) prohibits players “because of golf skill or golf reputation, (from) accepting golf balls, clubs, golf merchandise, golf clothing or golf shoes, directly or indirectly, from anyone manufacturing such merchandise without payment of current market price.”

“We will delete the equipment rule, and economics will control everything that is given away, so I imagine this is just going to involve the better players,” Zirpoli said. “But one thing we ask not occur is any form of advertising with that player (and the manufacturer).

“We’re making these moves in an effort to make golf more affordable and accessible for people. I think we’re liberalizing. College players get free equipment, so why shouldn’t other amateurs? In my 22 years (with the USGA), these changes are the most significant changes I’ve been involved with.”

The USGA’s decision elicited wide-ranging reaction from equipment company officials. Some said the new ruling would help them market their products. Some complained that they would be besieged by freebie seekers. And others expected the rule would have little impact.

“As far as getting clubs into the hands of top college players, we’ve already been doing that indirectly by giving clubs to their coaches and schools,” said Greg Hopkins, president of Cleveland Golf. “What we’ve been doing, effectively, is club laundering. This (the new rule) just legitimizes everything.”

Hopkins also didn’t expect equipment companies to rush to give away their products, especially to skilled amateur golfers who likely have been their top paying customers.

“I think only a couple of the really, really big companies could afford to do that,” he said. “At some point, you have to sell something.”

Likewise, TaylorMade-Adidas Golf’s president Mark King said his company would be selective in its giveaways.

“I realize some people will get upset because I won’t give them free equipment, but I can’t make the world perfect,” King said. “Overall, I think it’s an opportunity to get clubs into the hands of key influencers and have them support your brand.”

Ping officials said they were uncertain what impact giveaways would have on their business, but expressed concern that they might be pressured to do it more than they desire.

“One company may jump on the bandwagon and another could follow,” said John Solheim, Ping’s CEO. “It used to be easy to put the onus on the USGA, but now they’re making us the bad guy.”

Regarding manufacturers’ fears that they’ll be inundated with requests for equipment, USGA executive director David Fay had this response: “It’s very simple. Just say no.”

Fay said he expects the offering of equipment to be a “free-market exercise.” He said application of the revised rule will evolve in Darwinian terms, with only the elite players or those with special needs being offered products.

“I don’t think the golf landscape will be replete with players given free equipment,” Fay said. “That’s going to be up to the manufacturers. . . . We know what’s going to happen; it’s going to be a marketplace situation.”

Fay said the USGA’s Amateur Status and Conduct Committee, chaired by Peter James, has focused on the revision for a year. Final wording was approved during meetings at the U.S. Open last month in Tulsa, Okla.

Fay said equipment manufacturers were aware of the USGA’s plan to liberalize the equipment rule, but were not directly consulted. He said there were discussions with the NCAA, and “there are no issues as far as I know.”

NCAA rules regarding equipment will remain unchanged, said Brad Bertani, NCAA membership services representative.

“All equipment still must go through the institution as per bylaw 16.12.2.6. That rule has not changed,” Bertani said.

NCAA bylaw 16.12.2.6 (Athletics Equipment) reads: “A student-athlete may not accept athletics equipment, supplies, or clothing (e.g. tennis racquets, golf clubs, hockey sticks, balls, shirts) from a manufacturer or commercial enterprise. Such items may be provided to the student-athlete’s institution, to be utilized by the institution’s team in accordance with accepted practices for issuance and retrieval of athletics equipment.”

College coaches expressed more concern over the liberalization of professional qualifying attempts than the equipment rule change.

“For us as coaches, the equipment issue is not that big a deal,” said Georgia Tech’s Bruce Heppler. “The NCAA rule still stands and manufactures still will have to work through the institution and coaches.

“Because it’s done elsewhere around the world (free equipment), I do think it will help level the playing field a little in the junior ranks.”

Regarding Q-school attempts, Heppler said: “I have mixed emotions. On one side, I think it’s great that a player can give it a try and if he doesn’t make it, he does not have to wait a year or two to regain his amateur status. For players graduating and unsure what they want to do, they can try it and see. If it doesn’t work out, they can look to something else and still be an amateur golfer.

“On the other side, I can see where it could hurt college golf. You (coaches) spend two or three years recruiting a kid and then you could lose him before his four years are finished. If he gets to the finals he’s going to miss at least three weeks of school and most of your fall season. Then if he gets his (PGA Tour or Buy.com Tour) card, you’re probably going to lose him for good. And there’s a scholarship that could have gone to someone else that year.”

Arizona State coach Randy Lein had a similar take.

“My biggest concern if I had a player who wanted to do it would be the school being missed,” Lein said. “Will it have a big impact on college golf? I don’t know. I think we just have to take a wait-and-see attitude and see how many players try it. I don’t think you’ll see as many as you might expect, especially since they have to come up with around $4,000 to enter. Also, there are a lot of really good players out there who try and don’t make it. And, not many first-timers make it.”

The offering of free equipment is a concern to Stephen Hamblin, executive director of the American Junior Golf Association. The AJGA is a proving ground for players ages 13 to 18.

“It depends on how it’s structured, what parameters are established,” said Hamblin. “Without parameters, it’s a very scary proposition. With specific parameters and guidelines, I think it can be very positive.”

Neither the USGA nor the R&A has specific guidelines regarding the amount of equipment an individual can accept.

David Rickman, rules secretary of the R&A, said the home golfing unions in the United Kingdom have a voluntary code that addresses freebies, but it has “become somewhat irrelevant as the marketplace has dictated behavior.”

“People will quickly realize they have to be an exceptional talent before the manufacturers will consider them for free equipment,” Rickman said.

Hamblin said parental exuberance over the prospect of their children receiving free equipment likely will be short-lived because the golf companies will be reluctant to flood the junior ranks with free clubs, shoes and balls.

“You look at what junior golfers are purchasing, and I don’t see any manufacturers giving it away,” he said.

In other rule changes, the USGA said any amateur who unsuccessfully applies for an assistant professional position will retain his or her status, and prizes worth up to $500 in merchandise or gift certificates for holes-in-one, in addition to a normal tournament prize, will be acceptable.

Jeff Babineau, Gene Yasuda and Dave Seanor contributed to this report

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