GULLANE, SCOTLAND | A distant memory is the strict interpretation of the concept of “amateur,” first conceived in 1885 to determine entries for the inaugural Amateur Championship at Royal Liverpool Golf Club. When pursuit of goals for most in elite amateur golf was a compromise with the real world of education, full-time gainful employment and raising families, the Rules of Amateur Status gave little or no latitude where costs and expenses were concerned. Moreover, professional tournament golf provided a comfortable living for only a handful, and attracted few. Those who played international amateur golf tended to be either the off-spring or close relatives of wealthy patrons who could indulge passions indefinitely or talented students for whom competitive golf was a luxury end product and not pursued much beyond late 20s, save for a few able to juggle work, family and practice.
“I simply couldn’t afford the time off work to continue to play in major international amateur competitions,” lamented Allan Brodie, two-time GB&I Walker Cup player (1977 & 1979) and now a GB&I selector, in which capacity he was an interested observer this week at the scene of one his greatest triumphs – the sole singles win (vs. Marty West) on the second day of the 1979 Walker Cup match. ‘With professional golf, when only a few made a decent living, was never a realistic alternative, I gave up the elite amateur game when I was 31.”
Fast-forward to the modern era of elite amateur golf, now little more than a brief staging post for most on the way, rightly or mistakenly, to the professional tours where mediocrity can be sufficient to make a very good living. Such has been the pressure on the game’s governing authorities to recognize the need to embrace rather than ostracize the elite transient, the Rules of Amateur Status have been re-written several times, with the effect, some might suggest, of riding a coach and horses through the previously sacrosanct and clear division between the amateur and professional games.
Indeed, while prize money restrictions keeps the amateur game distinct, in one sense, the latitude allowed now with regard to payment and/or reimbursement of expenses for amateur players (see Rule 4 of Rules of Amateur Status) presents the opportunity for the most accomplished to be well provided for in the initial transition from talented junior to elite international amateur.
However, an important effect to note of broadening the expenses coverage has been to place financial obligations on individual national governing bodies to support their best players and ensure that they are able to compete in the key international events. On the one hand, there is a level playing field for all to take advantage of the generous rules on expenses, but on the other hand, due to funding limitations imposed on some, there exists a two-tier system.
“We (Golf Australia) cover all of the costs of our national players in team competitions, such as the World Amateur Team Championships, but none of them receive any support from us for participation in individual competitions, such as The Amateur Championship,” observed GA’s manager of championships, Therese Ritter, during a visit to Muirfield to watch a Golf Australia product, Jin Jeong. “We simply don’t have the available funds to do so.”
The Golfing Union of Ireland takes a different approach. Its “Panel” players, a small group of about six selected each year for special help and support, have all of their expenses (except caddie fees) covered for participation in a pre-determined list of key amateur events, with The Amateur Championship being one of them. The same applies to the leading English and Italian golfers. And the Scots who reached the advanced stages of The Amateur, they received a generous stipend to cover their accommodation, travel and subsistence costs for the week, but their caddie fees were also covered.
“It was a very expensive trip for us to make,” commented Li Juan Wang, mother of China’s leading amateur, Mu Hu, who had the added complication and costs of visas for herself, her husband and Mu. “But it was worth every dollar we spent because it was a wonderful experience for all of us. The China Golf Association gives us no support for Mu’s individual competition schedule, and we wouldn’t expect any, but they are generous for participation in team events, such as the Asian Games.”
Vijay Divecha, one of India’s national coaches, accompanied India’s leading amateur and only entrant, Rashid Khan, to Muirfield. “The Indian Golf Union was very keen that Rashid should play in The Amateur, when eligible, and all of his expenses, including caddie, and mine, have been covered by them,” Divecha said.
Whether or not the different approach to expenses leads to a dilution in quality of participation in future years, only time will tell. But when a single week at The Amateur Championship, excluding flights, can run north of $1,000 for the competitor alone, the less-accomplished “haves” might prevail over the more accomplished “have-nots.” And that could be further incentive for the least well-supported to move on more quickly than is advisable.