2002: Perspective - Glamour of amateur golf unfortunately gone

I love amateur golf, but I am prejudiced. Professional athletes, including most professional golfers, leave me cold. They are monarchs of the me-first mentality. When was the last time you heard a prominent pro in any sport talk about anything other than himself?

I am the guy who thinks professional golfers are drastically overpaid. So call me old-fashioned.

I am the guy who thinks professional basketball players should be barred from the Olympics. So sue me.

I am the guy who wouldn’t bother to watch professional golfers in those same Olympics. So lock me up.

I realize this is an unrealistic perspective. Amateurism is a concept whose time has come and gone. Amateurs are disappearing faster than balata golf balls. Bobby Jones, the legendary amateur golfer, was born 100 years ago. If Jones were a young man today, he would turn pro. The lure of money and glamour is omnipresent. In all sports, young athletes want to be pros. In all sports, television is the hand maiden of the pros.

Tiger Woods doesn’t talk about surpassing Jones the amateur; he is chasing Jack Nicklaus the professional. Though Nicklaus won two U.S. Amateur titles along with his 18 professional majors, nobody includes those two national amateurs in his total. The single-minded Woods wants to win 19 majors as a pro. His total is seven; his three U.S. Amateur crowns don’t count, either.

The decline of amateur sports is costly in many respects. In golf, the emphasis on the pro game diminishes the sport that is played by the rest of us. Too many courses are designed explicitly to withstand the challenge of the top pros. Too many golfers end up comparing their games, their swings or their scores to those of touring pros.

In addition, most equipment rules are made to harness the ability of these pros. Ely Callaway was right. Golf needs two sets of equipment rules, one for pros (or for so-called “elite competition”) and one for amateurs. What Callaway didn’t say, however, was that a ruling body needs to establish both sets of rules. If all equipment limitations were abolished for amateurs, we would soon witness a cockeyed invasion of extraordinarily long golf balls.

Pro or no? I say no. In the little farmtown where I grew up, a lifelong resident, Jim Frisina, won five Illinois State Amateur titles. I didn’t want to be Arnold Palmer; I wanted to be Jim Frisina. Today, skilled players don’t remain amateur long enough to win five state titles. The pro life is beguiling. For those who fall on their butts, amateur reinstatement is a simple application away. This is a huge change from days past, when reinstatement was a gauntlet more than a formality. Another metamorphosis: More and more teen-agers will try to qualify for the PGA Tour. I worry about any youngster in any sport skipping college for the pros, but this runaway train isn’t slowing down.

I think of the words of Nick Price at the Masters. “I’m quite happy I’m 45,” said Price, adding that he wouldn’t want to be a young golfer facing the prospect of playing 8,000-yard courses.

It is possible to add other interpretations to these words. Amateur golf in an earlier era had less to do with winning or beating somebody. Forget the future, forget turning pro, there was an innocence that made playing golf seem magical. Now, to my ears at least, some 14-year-old golfers sound 24.

Meeting Mary Budke, the 2002 U.S. Curtis Cup captain, reminded me of some things I like about golf – nine-hole courses, the smell of freshly cut grass, the friendliness of golfers at small clubs, the individuality of amateur golfers. Budke learned to play golf at Riverwood Golf Course, a nine-hole layout in Dundee, Ore., where a club pro named Guy Hupe continually encouraged her. The summer she won the U.S. Women’s Amateur, he raised the height of the rough on his little course. “Just for me,” Budke said in wonderment.

After winning the U.S. Amateur and the national college championship, Budke faced a decision about her future. She chose medicine and today is an emergency room doctor in Eugene, Ore. Ask her a question, any question, and the answer may not focus on golf. What is her passion? “There is so much we can do to help each other,” she answered. “So much we should do.”

Indeed, amateur golf has many personalities and many voices.

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