This week, the USGA and R&A debuted a new set of Rules of Amateur Status. The result: a nicely modernized, radically simplified and drastically less intrusive set of regulations that affect not just highly competitive players but rank-and-file golfers as well. If you have ever played in any sort of competitive golf event, from the U.S. Open on down to a handicapped competition at your local course, this latest round of revisions will affect you once it goes into effect on January 1, 2022.
New Rules of Amateur Status: Most significant changes
The most digestible of the new Rules: an update to the maximum value an amateur golfer can win in an event while still retaining his or her amateur status. For the first time in 17 years, the USGA raised the limit from $750 to $1,000. It's a modest bump, overall, as $750 in 2004, when the previous bump happened, is roughly equivalent to $1,089 today.
Even more significant than the prize limits, at least for competitive golfers, is the fact that "scratch competitions," defined by the USGA and R&A, may award prizes in cash, rather than pro shop credit or other non-cash vouchers, up to $1,000. However, the parameters on what sorts of events constitute "scratch competitions" are fairly strict. Essentially, no handicapped elements are allowed in scratch competitions. Handicaps can only be used to determine who is able to enter such a tournament, but the tournament itself must be played with no handicapped elements - no separate net and gross winners, for example - or even mid-event flighting by scratch score to give the middle of the pack the opportunity to "win" an ad hoc tournament-within-the-tournament. Some fairly high-level amateur events may opt to do away with this practice in order to secure the best players with the temptation of winning cash, rather than shop credit.
Another big change to the new Rules of Amateur Status is philosophical in nature. The new Rules are noticeably slimmed-down relative to their predecessor, which is an acknowledgment by the USGA and R&A that there have been several large grey areas in the past that have been difficult to adjudicate equitably.
For instance, the Rules of Amateur Status prize rules no longer apply to golf-related competitions other than "tee-to-hole competitions." That means that events like long-drive or putting competitions are not subject to the Rules any longer. This follows from a 2020 amendment to the previous Rules that removed prize limits on hole-in-one competitions taking place outside of an otherwise normal tee-to-hole competition. Call this one the Jason Bohn Rule.
Another way in which the USGA and R&A radically pared back their oversight into amateurism in golf has to do with the financial support of amateur golfers by companies and brands. As amateur - college in particular - athletes in other sports begin to benefit from NIL ("name, image and likeness) endorsement opportunities, golf's two main governing bodies have elected not to interfere with amateurs receiving sponsorships, as well as travel and tournament entry expense assistance.
Critics have already begun questioning the effect of this relaxing of endorsement-related rules on the integrity of golf. A measure of skepticism is healthy, but in many cases, it will bring activity that was previously hush-hush or confusing into the light in a way that should make for more equitable opportunity. Accomplished amateur golfers have long received free or extremely discounted equipment from companies and expenses for travel and tournament participation have long been funneled in ways that have circumvented previous iterations of the rules. Many implicit deals have come from these relationships, where a great junior and college golfer will receive equipment from Brand X for several years and then agree to a sponsorship deal with Brand X upon turning pro. Now, Brand X and elite players no longer need those murky, years-long wink-and-nod deals.
In early 2019, then-amateur golf phenom Lucy Li appeared in an Apple Watch television ad, raising concerns about the effect on her amateur status. She was ultimately found not to be in breach of the Rules and turned pro later that year. This latest revision would remove any doubt and confusion surrounding that appearance.
The rise and omnipresence of social media has had a great deal to do with the USGA and R&A's relaxing attitudes toward amateurism outside the confines of tournaments. Golf has an expansive class of influencers on apps like Instagram and, increasingly, TikTok, including accomplished players who can now accept sponsorships more freely if their accounts achieve the type of visibility that makes them enticing to brands. The accompanying pitfalls of fame still exist, but golf's governing bodies are no longer inclined to step into that particular fray.
One final notable change deals with a sometimes-controversial topic in niche circles of the competitive game: amateur reinstatement. Previously, the minimum waiting period before a former pro could return to amateur competition was a year. The new Rules of Amateur Status shorten that minimum time to six months, though governing bodies (including state and regional golf associations) retain the ability to impose longer waiting periods on golfers seeking reinstatement who have won considerable prize money in the professional stages of their careers.
Why the USGA and R&A revised the Rules of Amateur Status
Both USGA and R&A officials acknowledged the need for modern updates to the Rules of Amateur Status, especially in light of a months-long feedback period that preceded the official changes.
"We believe these updates will help simplify these Rules and ensure the long-term health of the amateur game," said Craig Winter, who is the USGA's senior director overseeing the Rules of Golf and of Amateur Status, "not only to those who compete at the highest level of amateur golf, but for the millions of golfers at every age and skill level who enjoy competitive events at their home courses.”
Grant Moir, Winter's counterpart within the R&A, said, "This is particularly important for modern elite amateur golf, where many of the players need financial support to compete and develop to their full potential. The new Rules give them this opportunity and will help to make the game even more inclusive.”
To read the full new Rules of Amateur Status complete with accompanying clarifying "guidance notes," click here.