Wunderkind Lucy Li burst onto the world’s golf stage as the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Amateur in 2013 at age 10. The next year, she became the youngest qualifier for the U.S. Women’s Open, at age 11.
Li continued to impress in 2018, playing on the Americans’ dominant Curtis Cup team, co-medaling at the U.S. Women’s Amateur and making the cut at the U.S. Women’s Open. It was a banner year.
Now, 2019 could be a momentous year of another kind for Li, 16, of Redwood Shores, Calif. She might lose her amateur status after appearing in a TV ad for the Apple Watch (“In the news,” Jan. 7). The USGA’s rules of amateur status clearly state that amateurs of recognized golfing skill – Li certainly meets the test – may not use that skill to obtain any personal benefit by appearing in an advertisement, with or without compensation.
Li’s family asserts that she received no compensation for the ad, but that makes no difference. The USGA is aware of Li’s Apple commercial and is reviewing the situation. Li could lose her amateur status. And then what?
Looking to the early days of women’s golf in America, there is another case very similar to Li’s which might provide a precedent: that of the late Kate Brophy.
Catherine Mary Cassidy was born in County Mayo, Ireland, in 1886, and came to the U.S. in 1900 to serve as a nursemaid with a Cincinnati family. She married Ed Brophy, also of Irish lineage, in 1916, a few years after Ed started as the golf professional at the new Western Hills Country Club outside Cincinnati.
To Kate Brophy, golf was new, but Ed and his family were deeply involved with the game. His two brothers, Jim and John, also worked as golf professionals in Cincinnati. Ed was a highly regarded teacher of the game and decided to instruct Kate to play golf. She became his best student. Within a year, she was playing in tournaments, and became the woman to beat in local events.
Brophy won the Cincinnati women’s title in 1927, 1928 and 1929. She accompanied her husband to Florida, where he held professional positions during the winter, and established herself there, winning city championships in Miami Beach, Coral Gables and Hialeah, and the Florida East Coast Championship. Brophy became known for wearing a large broad-brim hat with a display of flowers around the headband on the course, which became her trademark. It was said that she added a flower to her hat for every tournament victory.
Ed bought Kate a membership at Western Hills Country Club, which was unusual because he was a club employee. Membership in a club was required to play in tournaments such as the U.S. Women’s Amateur, and Kate wanted to play in bigger events.
Tournament play was in Brophy’s blood, but it was all to end abruptly in 1929, just weeks after her third victory in the city championship.
Brophy headed to Akron, Ohio, to play in the women’s state championship. She wasn’t listed in the Saturday practice-round pairings and assumed she would be in the Sunday pairings. She wasn’t. Brophy sought an explanation and was told that she was no longer an amateur. The USGA had stripped her of her amateur status because she had appeared in an ad for a clothing store at Christmastime in 1928.
Brophy had received no money for the ad and had participated at the request of the store owner, who was a friend. The store owner confirmed the background via a telegram to the Ohio State Women’s Golf Association.
Brophy was then told that she couldn’t play because wives of professionals weren’t eligible, but that was countered with the fact that a winner of the Women’s Western Amateur Championship was the wife of a California professional.
The secretary of the Ohio State Women’s Golf Association, Lenora Kent, also of Cincinnati, led the charge against Brophy. Brophy pointed out that no objection had been made when she played in, and won, the Cincinnati city championship just two weeks earlier. Kent wouldn’t budge.
Brophy asked to play “under protest,” but her request was denied. The USGA said she was a professional, or at least not an amateur, and that was that. A subsequent appeal to the Western Golf Association also failed.
The Cincinnati press jumped to Brophy’s defense. The Cincinnati Enquirer alleged that the dispute was based on social divisions. If the ad appeared at Christmastime in 1928, and there had been a possible infraction, why, the paper asked, hadn’t there been a hearing before the women’s city championship, which was held in June? Why did Kent, a fellow Cincinnatian, wait until Brophy got to Akron to tell her that she couldn’t play there? Why was the allegation made on the Sunday before tournament play began Monday, and resolved negatively in 24 hours? Why was Brophy singled out?
The Cincinnati Post took a similar stance, featuring a headline in extra-large type, “Mrs. Kent Bars Mrs. Brophy.”
Enquirer columnist Lou Smith, himself a fine golfer, observed that Bobby Jones, Chick Evans, Francis Ouimet and Jess Sweetser wrote articles for magazines and published books on golf for which they were well compensated, and somehow those activities didn’t constitute trading on their golfing abilities or affect amateur status in the eyes of the USGA. The best that the USGA could offer to Brophy was a chance at reinstatement as an amateur in a few years.
“With Mrs. Brophy out of the amateur spotlight, women’s golf in this area is just about dead as a door nail,” Smith wrote. “At the present writing there isn’t a woman in Greater Cincinnati that has a ghost of a chance with Mrs. Brophy in medal or match play. Many seem to be of the opinion that this is the principal reason why she was barred. In other words, petty jealousy was the cause of it.”
Brophy seemed to agree, saying in a Miami News interview in 1930, “I am not a professional by choice; it was thrust upon me. It was the work of [Kent] who was jealous of me because I won the Cincinnati district championship three successive years. I allowed my picture to be used in an advertisement of one of the leading department stores of Cincinnati in December 1928…. This jealous party clipped the advertisement and sent it to the USGA, and I was ruled as a professional for endorsing sporting goods. I did not receive a cent for the use of my photograph and have never received a cent for playing in amateur tournaments, paying all of my entry fees in all of the tournaments, something that is seldom asked of any of the good players.”
Brophy seemingly was cut off from golf. There were no tournaments open to female professional golfers. The U.S. Women’s Open didn’t start until 1946, and the PGA of America didn’t accept female members. The LPGA wasn’t founded until 1950.
“[S]ince I was barred from amateur competitions,” Brophy said, “I decided I might as well be a professional in the true sense of the word and began to teach at Wynburne Park, Cincinnati. I gave group lessons to beginners, private lessons and playing lessons, just like the male pro does. My classes were not restricted to women, for I had 22 men in my classes during the summer and fall months. I must have been a success, for my classes grew.”
When her husband went to Florida for a job as a professional during the winter, Brophy went with him. Her fame from winning amateur tournaments in Florida during previous winters served her well as she began giving her lessons in Miami.
Brophy wasn’t the first female professional – that honor goes to Georgina Stewart Campbell, who took over as head professional at Boston’s Franklin Park in 1900 when her husband, Willie Campbell, died. Several other women became professional golfers before 1929, most working in golf shops and deemed “professional” by the USGA, but Brophy was the first with a high degree of playing ability. She held several course records in Cincinnati and southern Florida and set a course record for women at Western Hills Country Club with a 76 in 1928 – from the men’s tees. She could beat most men with her straight tee shots and a deadly short game.
Brophy would become an assistant pro working with her husband at Western Hills, probably the only husband-and-wife professional team. She also assumed the duties of caddie master at Western Hills and could mold a group of boys into accomplished caddies, many of whom would return to see her after their caddie days were over.
Looking back at her designation as a professional in 1929, Brophy said it gave her a lifetime job in golf, one that she cherished. After 25 years as a professional at Western Hills, she retired with her husband to Sarasota, Fla. She was still playing good golf at the time, scoring in the low 80s, and now she could play simply for the fun of it.
In a twist of irony, the Greater Cincinnati Women’s Golf Association conducts the Kent Memorial Tournament, named after the woman who had forced Brophy from the amateur ranks, and also awards the Kate Brophy Trophy for the association’s team event.
There’s a lesson here for Lucy Li. Even an unintended act might have dire consequences for a 16-year-old golfer. If she were to lose her amateur status, unlike Kate Brophy, Li would have a place to land: the LPGA tour. However, there’s a lot at stake for Li. She could lose the chance at collegiate golf and a free college education, which might be more valuable in the long run than a tour card.
John Fischer, a retired attorney in Cincinnati, is a golf historian who is a past president of the Golf Collectors Society and a longtime member of the USGA’s Museum and Library Committee. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org