Should Amateur Golfers Earn Paychecks in Professional Events?

High-level competitive golf is a unique sport. It’s one of the only sports where professionals regularly compete on the same stage as amateurs. We saw this just this last weekend at the U.S. Open, when guys like Viktor Hovland, Brandon Wu, Chandler Eaton, and Michael Thorbjornsen all made the cut. That’s quite the feat, especially considering the fact that Justin Thomas, Bubba Watson, Alex Noren, Tony Finau, and more top pros failed to do so.

The fact that young guys, some of whom are probably still on their parent’s payroll, can tee it up with the richest, most talented athletes in the world is always an interesting storyline to watch.

Golf has a long history of these “David and Goliath” matches, but they haven’t always been viewed the way they are today. In fact, it was once viewed as more honorable to remain an amateur instead of making golf your career. Not only that, but the money didn’t allow that career choice to be as appealing as it is today. Some of the game’s greatest legends, like Bobby Jones and Francis Ouimet, never actually turned professional even though they were the best in the world.

The game has changed a bit since then; money in competitive golf is a good thing. It allows players to devote more time to perfecting their craft and we’ve all benefitted from watching what they can do with those skills.

Golf is also unique in that players only make money if they play well. That’s not meant to say it’s better or worse than sports like baseball or football, it’s just a fact. If a golfer doesn’t play well, it doesn’t matter what he’s done in the past, he doesn’t take home a check. If you’re a fan of other major sports, you’ve probably experienced your team sign a stud who fails to produce results. Guaranteed money changes how athletes perform. Professional golf is a beautiful thing because the pressure raises the quality of play.

THE NCAA

There’s this organization in the United States that I’m sure you’re familiar with; the NCAA. It often gets a bad rap for the way it treats athletes; elevating amateur status to that of inerrant dogma. For the record, the intent of this article isn’t to wade into the waters of paying college athletes. Instead, I want to recognize an interesting middle ground that exists between an amateur under the thumb of the NCAA and a PGA Tour professional. Let me explain…

Last weekend, Viktor Hovland played in the U.S. Open. He earned a spot in the tournament by winning the U.S. Amateur last August. He’s been playing his college golf at Oklahoma State University (I actually interviewed his coach and caddie, Alan Bratton, on my podcast) and has made the decision to turn pro, which he’ll officially do this week (not last week, which is significant). This decision means he will not be able to play in the British Open, an exemption he earned with his U.S. Amateur win.

You may have also heard that he broke Jack Nicklaus’ scoring record for lowest amateur in a U.S. Open; a record that’s remained unbroken for almost 60 years. That score put Hovland in a tie for 12th place, alongside Matthew Fitzpatrick, Matt Wallace, and Danny Willett. Guess how much money each of those three guys took home? Answer: $226,609.

Care to guess how much money Viktor Hovland cashed? Big, fat $0. Brandon Wu, who finished his college career as well, also won nothing and finished tied for 35th; worth about $57,853.

Like I said though, Hovland left the OSU Cowboys golf team a couple weeks ago. He doesn’t need to keep his amateur status like other amateurs like Michael Thorbjornsen, a 17-year old high schooler has committed to play at Stanford for the next few years.

Nope, Hovland has broken free of college athletic’s governing body, so why remain an amateur for the U.S. Open? The answer, because the exemption he won at the U.S. Amateur would become void if he turned pro and he wouldn’t have been able to compete in the tournament at all. His choices were, basically, compete in the U.S. Open with no chance of winning any money or not play at all.

I’m not at all questioning his decision to play, I’m questioning why those needed to be his only two options. Again, golf is different from other major sports in that if you don’t perform, you don’t eat. Think about how nearly a quarter-million dollar paycheck would help jump start this kid’s career in the pro game right from the start. There’s no doubt in my mind that there are some really great players we’ve never heard of simply because they struggled to get off the ground with the initial investment it takes to make it in pro golf.

I believe that Hovland will be a great pro. He’s got incredible skill and my prediction is that we’ll be seeing a lot more of him in the coming years, but his situation isn’t all that unique. Just last year Joaquín Niemann won an exemption into the 2018 Masters as an amateur and then turned pro immediately after the event as well. He didn’t make the cut, but the point is that it’s not uncommon.

THE RULES

The USGA, one of golf’s governing bodies, has rules around the topic of amateurism. They claim that the purpose of these rules are to…

“…maintain the distinction between amateur and professional golf and to ensure that amateur golf, which is largely self-regulating with regard to the Rules of Golf and handicapping, is free from the pressures that may follow from uncontrolled sponsorship and financial incentives…the Rules are also intended to encourage amateur golfers to focus on the game’s challenges and inherent rewards, rather than any financial gain.”

It’s almost as if the USGA took this page directly out of the NCAA rule book. There seems to be this antiquated belief that remaining an amateur shelters a player from the “evils” of professional golf; believing the game is more pure and holy when money isn’t involved. The truth is, making money is part of life and just because golf is fun, doesn’t mean it’s not also work.

The USGA views the U.S. Amateur as a championship and a “qualifier,” of sorts, for the U.S. Open. So, anyone who earns an exemption for the U.S. Open through the avenue of the U.S. Amateur keeps their initial status throughout subsequent events that come as a result. Makes sense, but it doesn’t have to be that way.

THE QUESTION

Do golf’s governing bodies really want to be as rigid on amateur status as the NCAA? Golf is the greatest sport on earth because anyone can compete. Shouldn’t all players be able to accept pay for the work they’ve put in?

Golf has evolved quite a bit since the days of Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones. Maybe it’s time for another change where we can recognize exemptions and invites won as an amateur, even if the player decides to turn pro and start pursuing his dreams, providing for himself, and earning what he deserved.