The message from Lucy Li’s case is clear. Take free stuff. Use your skill as a golfer to be a billboard. Just be famous and likable enough and the governing bodies of golf won’t revoke your status.
In a sad statement about the weakened state of amateur golf, Lucy Li gets to retain her status despite starring in an Apple Watch ad while wearing scripted Nike apparel. Following a six-week investigation, the USGA determined that Li unknowingly violated amateur status rules after an elaborately produced piece was filmed following a call from “a casting agent for an acting assignment to promote Apple Watch.”
The Li family and the USGA would like us to believe the ad happened without compensation, without guarantee it would ever run or without knowledge that such an appearance might not look so kosher.
At worst, it may be the most blatant violation of amateur status since Tony Romo’s Skechers Go Golf ad ran last weekend.
The USGA said in a statement that Romo is in the clear because “everyone knows him first as a professional football player and his fame and fortune is not derived from golf.” But he is adding to his fortune on the back of his likeness as a golfer who competes in U.S. Open qualifying as an excellent amateur.
Add it all up, and the look is terrible if you value amateurism.
The combination of amateur golfers wearing corporate logoed clothes, accepting loads of free stuff and now using their likenesses to push products has undermined the meaning of amateur status.
Unless, that is, if you are famous enough and likable enough to be deemed untouchable.
The excuse of Li’s status as a “minor” is an insult to the many families and notable golfers who have run possible amateur status situations by the governing bodies or who have been put through USGA investigations over matters like hole-in-one prizes or having a YouTube channel.
Both Li and Romo got away with violating the rules because they are high profile and likable. USGA CEO Mike Davis even talked up Li’s admittedly adorable national debut at Pinehurst in 2014 during the investigation.
And who doesn’t love seeing Romo attempt to become an elite amateur golfer after his NFL career as he also develops into football’s top analyst?
With amateur golf hanging by a thread and now serving as a warm-up circuit for the professional ranks, having Li and Romo at amateur events is ultimately more beneficial to the governing bodies than if they were forced to become professional golfers.
Li will be the headliner of the upcoming Augusta National Women’s Amateur, a possible boost to the women’s amateur game depleted by players turning pro in their teens.
Romo is a regular at USGA qualifiers and one of America’s most loved athletes who is undoubtedly a great ambassador of the game. But he’s also getting paid for his likeness as a good golfer to sell shoes.
While society has accepted the blurring of all lines between those who play to compete and those who play to be paid, caving in this situation will have repercussions in other rule-making areas.
In taking a soft stance on “amateurs” starring as pitch-people, the USGA and R&A have further weakened their place in the game. Already damaged by glitches in the new rules rollout, they undoubtedly believed taking a hard stance on Li would add even more disdain for their efforts.
Yet if the rulemakers can only hand out scoldings for blatant violations, their credibility eventually ceases to exist.
Furthermore, if different interpretations of rules apply to different people, at what point do they cease to have any authority at all?