Jim Holtgrieve, a career amateur, won the inaugural U.S. Mid-Amateur in 1981 at Bellerive Country Club in his hometown of St. Louis. Holtgrieve, then 33, was one of the driving forces for creating the Mid-Am, which was designed as a USGA championship for career amateurs 25 and older.
The idea was to give working-class amateurs a national championship without having to compete against college kids who, for all practical purposes, play golf full-time. The intent was noble.
However, the truth of the matter is that the U.S. Mid-Am is now a championship for former professionals. In this year’s Mid-Am, being contested this week at the Capital City Club in Atlanta, 114 of the stroke-play field of 264 players are reinstated amateurs, according to a story on the USGA website. That’s 43 percent.
So much for career amateurs.
The USGA has been giving back professional golfers their amateur status for decades. And it turns out one of the people whom it reinstated was Holtgrieve, who was a semifinalist in the 1980 U.S. Amateur and a finalist in the 1983 British Amateur. He played on three Walker Cup teams.
In 1998, Holtgrieve turned professional so he could play on the Champions Tour. He played 133 events on that tour from 1998 to 2005 and made $1.375 million. In 2005, he applied for reinstatement and, in 2007, Holtgrieve was an amateur again.
Four years later he was named captain of the 2011 Walker Cup team – the most prestigious event in amateur golf – and reprised that role in 2013.
Not only should the USGA be ashamed of itself for naming a reinstated amateur as Walker Cup captain – twice – it should be doubly ashamed for reinstating him in the first place. Anyone who is good enough to win that much money as a professional should be a professional for the rest of his golf life.
Anyone who has had any kind of career as a professional golfer possesses skills that most ordinary amateurs lack. More importantly, they hold experience playing under the most grueling pressure that only pros experience. You can’t take away their skill, and you can’t take away their ability to perform when it’s most crucial. They enjoy an advantage over most amateurs against whom they compete.
The USGA accepted more than 3,300 applications for reinstatement from 2010 to 2014. Only a few were turned down. Depending on a player’s professional experience, applicants have to wait between one and five years from the time of their application to become amateurs again.
The USGA believes – mistakenly – that the waiting period will sufficiently erode the players’ skills so that they have no advantage when they return to amateur competition.
“It’s funny because I am playing such better golf now than even when I was in college,” Raymond Floyd Jr., who is a former professional playing in his seventh Mid-Am, told the USGA.
The USGA says it will not reinstate players who have achieved “national prominence” as professionals. That’s such a subjective and nebulous term that it defies logic.
Dillard Pruitt played the PGA Tour for eight years and won the 1991 Chattanooga Classic. He quit playing the Tour in 1996 and applied for reinstatement in 1998. His application was reviewed by committees, including Fred Ridley, a former USGA president and now the chairman of Augusta National.
The USGA decided that Pruitt didn’t achieve national prominence by winning a PGA Tour event. Three years later, he was an amateur again. In the summer of 2002, he won the Sunnehanna Amateur, one of the nation’s premier amateur events, and was briefly considered for the Walker Cup team. Today he is a rules official on the PGA Tour. And he’s still an amateur.
No one wants to prevent young players from chasing their dream of professional golf. But a line has to be drawn somewhere. If a player tries the mini-tours and decides the life is not for him, no one will object that he becomes an amateur again. But if he makes a living playing golf, he should be a professional for life.
So, let’s establish a threshold. If a player makes $100,000 or more in a year playing golf, he shouldn’t ever be reinstated. Why $100,000? For most working people, a $100,000 yearly salary is a pretty darned good job.
Holtgrieve made more than $375,000 in his best year on the Champions Tour. For him to earn that much in the real world, he’d need a great job or a successful company. In either instance, he’d have to devote so much time to his job that he’d probably have little time for golf.
If $100,000 is the limit, more players would think twice before turning pro. But if there’s a clear and relatively unobstructed path back to amateur status without much penalty, then why not try professional golf?
Golf is the only sport where players can have their amateur status restored. Suppose LeBron James at the end of his career wanted to go to college and play basketball while getting his education. Do you think the NCAA would allow him to play as an amateur?
Of course not. Which is why the USGA should drastically rethink its policy on amateur status. The carrot of professional golf should also come with a stick for those who want to become amateurs again.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf