Sneak Peek: This story will appear in the Feb. 18 edition of Global Golf Post.
It took far longer than most who followed the matter thought it should. Painfully longer according to critics on both sides. During that time, rumors ran rampant. But the USGA – after thoroughly examining the evidence, speaking with all parties involved and gathering as much information as it could – chose not to rescind Lucy Li’s amateur status, giving the 16-year-old Californian the best Valentine’s Day gift anyone could want.
At noon on Thursday, the USGA Amateur Status Committee held a vote to make it official. While everyone agreed that Li violated the Rules of Amateur Status by appearing in an advertisement for Apple, according to Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior managing director of governance, who spoke to GGP on the matter, the Amateur Status committee voted “to issue a warning as opposed to forfeiture of amateur status.”
The background is simple: Sometime last year, Li starred in the production of an ad for the Apple Watch as part of the company’s “Close Your Rings” campaign. One of the new features on the watch is a color-coded ring system that monitors the wearer’s movements. As you stand, move, or move a lot (exercise) throughout the day, the rings close.
It is Apple’s way of promoting an active lifestyle. The ad campaign featured a yoga instructor from Tokyo, an orchestra conductor who bikes to work and two athletes of some note: Olympic swimmer Haley Anderson and Li.
That was the problem. Rule 6-2 of the USGA’s Rules of Amateur Status reads: “An amateur golfer of golf skill or reputation must not use that skill or reputation to obtain payment, compensation, personal benefit or any financial gain, directly or indirectly, for (i) promoting, advertising or selling anything, or (ii) allowing his name or likeness to be used by a third party for the promotion, advertisement or sale of anything.
“In the context of this rule, even if no payment or compensation is received, an amateur golfer is deemed to receive a personal benefit by promoting, advertising or selling anything, or allowing his name or likeness to be used by a third party for the promotion, advertisement or sale of anything.”
Li came to prominence in 2014, when – as an 11-year-old – she qualified for the U.S. Women’s Open. Last June she represented the United States in the Curtis Cup.
According to Pagel, “As you know, on Jan. 2, the video of Lucy in this advertisement showed up. We (at the USGA) were made aware of it immediately. We immediately reached out to Lucy and told her that we had an issue from an amateur status perspective.
“That was the first time that she knew that there might be a concern from an amateur status perspective. She then reached out to Apple and asked that the advertisement be pulled down. It took them a number of days for that to happen. But, ultimately, on Jan. 7, the ad was pulled.
“Since that Jan. 2 time frame, we’ve been in constant communication with Lucy and her family, as well as with representatives from Apple, to work through the situation and understand all the facts. Early on, on Jan. 11, we did communicate with Lucy that her actions were a breach of the Rules of Amateur Status. That is something that we remain steadfast on. Her actions were a breach. The questions that we’ve tried to determine since that point revolve around what the penalty should be.”
During that same time frame, many amateurs of skill have reached out to GGP and made their thoughts on the matter clear: A breach is a breach. Li, having violated golf’s rules of amateurism, should no longer be an amateur. However, GGP also has received a number of responses in support of Li, many vehemently stating that, to paraphrase, “golf’s old fuddy-duddies shouldn’t pick on a little girl.”
The USGA fell somewhere in between.
“We looked at the facts of this case,” Pagel said. “And we looked back at decades of previous cases where there have been players of skill or reputation who have appeared in advertisements. And in all of those cases, as long as those players didn’t receive compensation, they were allowed to remedy the situation by having the advertisement pulled down, confirming that there was no compensation received, confirming that there was no contract for future compensation, and that, most importantly, acknowledging that their breach was a mistake. In other words, they state that they didn’t know they were in breach at that time.
“We have reached that same place with Lucy. After weeks of conversations with Lucy and Apple, we are very comfortable with the facts of the case. Therefore, a warning will be issued and she will not forfeit her amateur status.”
The issue was the time between the ad appearing and this decision coming down. It was a six-week process for a violation that everyone recognized in five minutes. That lag led to speculation that the Li family was slow-walking information because it felt it was winning a public-relations battle. It also fueled rumors that the family and, perhaps, Apple were threatening legal action.
“Look, in that five-minute period (after the ad aired), it became obvious to everyone that we were dealing with a breach,” Pagel said. “But then we had to go through a thoughtful process to make sure that we totally understood the facts. I wish we could have turned this around in two weeks. I wish we could have had an answer two days after it happened. I’m sure you can appreciate that these cases can get complicated. When you’re dealing with a high-profile amateur and you’re dealing with one of the world’s largest companies, these things get complicated and they can take time to coordinate schedules and conversations.
“Our staff has worked tirelessly to get this to a conclusion, going so far as to get on airplanes to have face-to-face conversations with Lucy and her family on a moment’s notice. We’ve done everything we can to bring this to a conclusion. But I think, ultimately, it’s important that we reach the right conclusion, not just for Lucy, but for the amateur game. In order to reach that right conclusion, you have to take time. With this case, as with all cases, I’d rather reach the right outcome than a quick outcome.”
So, the USGA has, in essence, wagged its finger at Li and said “Don’t do this again.” Many amateurs, who have gone out of their way for years to follow the rules to the letter, won’t be happy. And many who saw this as stodgy, old rulemakers picking on a 16-year-old Asian-American girl will cheer a just outcome. Either way, Li – who is in the field for the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur in early April, but who also withdrew from two American Junior Golf Association events while her status was in limbo – is, indeed, an amateur.
“She does remain an amateur,” Pagel said. “I truly believe, and we all truly believe this after conversation with Lucy and her family, that this was an honest mistake.
“I believe that when she was contacted by a talent agent and went and did a video shoot – three of the days of which she appeared doing activities that other teenage girls do all the time, whether it be swimming in a pool with their friends or attending a birthday parties – she wasn’t fully aware that they were going to rely on her name, likeness and golf skill in doing this.
“I do believe that when this first appeared on Jan. 2, that she had a concern. I don’t think Lucy ever wanted her amateur status to come into question. She loves the amateur game, wants to continue playing the amateur game and doesn’t want to do anything to jeopardize that.
“Consistent with other past cases where a player made an honest mistake, we’ve issued a warning.”
So, the Lucy Li situation has reached a conclusion. Li publicly thanked the USGA on social media Thursday when the announcement was made.
The aftermath, if there is any, will remain open for quite some time.
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