Attention NCAA: Leave Golf To Those Who Know It Best

So now we have three governing bodies in golf — the USGA in America and Mexico, the R&A for the rest of the world, and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) for elite amateurs and junior golfers who want to play college golf in America.

I find this to be a frightening development. Having the NCAA, labeled a cartel recently by The New York Times, regulate anything is a scary scenario. They cannot even regulate the schools, coaches, and players for whom they are primarily responsible. Here’s how this sorry situation came to pass.


Some of the smartest minds in golf from the USGA and R&A labored for several years over the rules changes that were announced late last year. As it relates to amateur status, the goal was to level the playing field, to have a single rules book that addresses some of the imbalances relating to amateur status around the world. Among the changes were the following:

•An amateur golfer may now enter into a contract and/or agreement with his national golf union or association, provided the player does not obtain any financial gain, directly or indirectly, while still an amateur golfer. •An amateur golfer who is at least 18 years of age may enter into a contract and/or agreement with a third party solely in relation to the golfer’s future as a professional golfer, provided the player does not obtain any financial gain.

•An amateur golfer may receive reasonable subsistence expenses, not exceeding actual costs, to assist with general living costs, provided the expenses are approved by and paid through the player’s national golf union or association.

“Those who will notice the biggest changes to the Rules of Amateur Status are the elite players who are preparing to turn professional,” said Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior director of the Rules of Golf, when the new rules were introduced last fall. “We feel the changes we have made to the Rules will clarify and smooth the sometimes difficult transition these players undergo as they move from the amateur to professional ranks.”

So how did the NCAA, a consulting member to the USGA Amateur Status Committee, respond? They said no. No to subsistence expenses, no to contracts of any kind, even if there is no financial gain involved. And so a thoughtful effort to create a single body of rules has been undone by a bunch of lawyers in Indianapolis who are generally clueless, and no more so than when it comes to the game of golf.

Consider the hypocrisy of this decision. In August, 2011, 55 schools approved a plan to pay college athletes $2,000 per school year, above and beyond what was provided by their scholarship. The NCAA bureaucrats can dress this up any way they want, but it is simply “pay for play.” Eventually, it dawned on some enlightened college presidents that: 1) Since the money wasn’t going to be split evenly by male and female athletes, it was probably illegal under Title IX standards and 2) Few athletic departments are financially capable of parceling out an additional $300,000 to scholarship athletes. The policy was sent back to Indianapolis for a rethink, a very rare occurrence in the world of NCAA hegemony.

But the fact remains that the NCAA was prepared to pay for play, to provide some athletes reasonable subsistence expenses, and it will likely get its way eventually, thereby punching a gaping hole in its traditional definition of amateur status. However, the college golfer is prohibited from signing an agreement that does not include cash, because that would violate his or her amateur standing. Only in the NCAA does this twisted logic make sense. As Joe Nocera wrote in The New York Times, “the hypocrisy that permeates big money college sports takes your breath away.”

By any measure, this has been a delicious year for those who are critical of the NCAA and its member schools. Conferences realigned in an unseemly pursuit of the almighty dollar, tossing aside long time rivalries and ignoring alumni concerns. Repeat offender University of Miami made its regularly scheduled date with probation, and even The Ohio State University, a relative saint among the NCAA cesspool of sinners, got flagged. Yale’s football coach couldn’t keep reality and fiction separate on his résumé and got booted, while assistant coaches at Syracuse and Penn State were charged with the unthinkable. And the BCS football system? I won’t even go there…

There are going to be repercussions from the decision to break from golf’s ruling bodies. Some international player, uninformed of the ways of the NCAA, is going to get tripped up by this and find out suddenly he is not eligible to play college golf in America. And more American kids are going to look at the madness of this situation, including the lack of a meaningful individual championship, and ask, “Why bother with college golf? Why not travel the world and play amateur golf, and then turn pro?”

Memo to the NCAA: Until you get your own house in order, leave golf to the people who know and care.

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