News & Opinion

For pros in waiting, it’s a different game

ORLANDO, Fla. – The Arnold Palmer Cup teams were announced late Wednesday, and the most revealing thing was who won't be playing in the international Ryder Cup-style collegiate event. It wasn't so much who got snubbed but rather who snubbed the annual matches.

Neither of the top two male and female players in the World Amateur Golf Ranking – USC's Justin Suh and Cal's Collin Morikawa and Wake Forest's Jennifer Kupcho and Stanford's Andrea Lee, respectively – elected to play in the June 7-9 event at the Alotian Club in Roland, Ark. Nor did Oklahoma State stars Viktor Hovland, the reigning U.S. Amateur champion, and Matthew Wolff, Nos. 3 and 4, respectively. All signs point to them making a quick getaway to the play-for-pay world of golf as soon as their pursuit of team and individual glory runs out at the NCAA Championships – May 16-22 for women and May 23-29 for the men.

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Justin Suh, shown during last year’s World Amateur Team Championship, won’t be long for the amateur game.

Suh, 21, is competing in the Arnold Palmer Invitational this week as an amateur after being selected to receive the Arnold Palmer Cup exemption by both teams. After firing an even-par 72 at Bay Hill (scores), he left no doubt about his plans.

"I've already made my decision to turn pro and to do so soon after nationals," he said. "I think I'm prepared. I've done four years of college. I've learned everything I've had to learn, and I feel ready."

The model of the career amateur golfer championed by Bobby Jones in the first half of the 20th century had become a quaint relic of the past. Just how much has the decision to turn pro changed? Nearly 60 years ago, on Nov. 7, 1961, Jack Nicklaus, the then-reigning U.S. Amateur champion, announced his intention to turn pro in a letter that he drafted to USGA executive director Joe Dey.

"In those days, if you were an amateur and you said, 'I think I am going to turn pro one of these days,' you were automatically a pro. That’s the way it worked," Nicklaus said. "The rules forced you into a situation where you often had to withhold the truth."

Don January, who won the PGA Championship among his 10 PGA Tour titles, still holds a grudge against the USGA for revoking his amateur status when he attended North Texas State.

"The Mexican Golf Association used to pay the team’s expenses to play in the Mexican Open,” January said. “They put us up in rooms at the club. The USGA said, 'That makes you a pro,' even though we never got any money.”

The only problem was that January didn’t play in the tournament. He competed in an exhibition with Byron Nelson in Louisiana instead.

"I figured I could learn more from Byron playing in the tournament. Byron got behind me and told the USGA, hell, Don wasn’t even there and they’d better investigate a little better. It took a couple of months and they gave me my amateur status back. I got a 2-3-page typed letter from Joe Dey. It never once said they made a mistake. It never once said they were wrong. It never once said they were sorry.

"I haven’t played with them since 1975. That’s personal. I never entered the U.S. Senior Open. Not one time."

It didn't take 16-year-old golfer Lucy Li getting just a slap on the wrist from the USGA for appearing in an Apple Watch ad to demonstrate how much the landscape has changed. Equipment companies are allowed to furnish equipment to amateur golfers, and colleges have begun offering scholarships to prepubescent prodigies. And if the pro career doesn't work out, it's a piece of cake to regain one's amateur status and start kicking butt again. It's made the game a business before some of these kids can even shave.

Of course, money and opportunity usually are the driving factors in the decision to turn pro. Agents always have courted amateurs, and the focus on money often has distracted promising players. In 2012, the USGA and R&A made a radical concession to the growth of big money in golf by permitting amateurs 18 and older to enter into contracts with agents or sponsors regarding their future as professionals – as long as they don't enjoy financial gain as amateurs – and allow national golf unions and associations to pay amateurs subsistence expenses for general living costs. It marked the latest in a long list of examples in athletics of the blurring line between professionals and amateurs. Call them pros in waiting.

Such rules are a reflection that amateurs are having more success at a younger age than ever before, and in some cases bypassing college altogether.

In two weeks, 17-year-old wunderkind Akshay Bhatia, the AJGA Player of the Year, will make his PGA Tour debut at the Valspar Championship via a sponsor exemption. He also earned a berth in the RSM Classic later this year by winning the Jones Cup in January. He, too, is a pro-in-waiting and has made it clear that he will skip college and turn pro early next year, after he turns 18 on Jan. 31.

Bhatia is one of a growing number of home-schooled stars – along with Li and Alexa Pano, who is playing this week at the Symetra Tour's Skyigolf Championship – who already are competing on the AJGA and amateur circuit. Bhatia owns a TrackMan and an indoor putting studio and has been traveling the country to try to qualify into PGA Tour events. His summer calendar includes the British Amateur and European Amateur, to learn links golf in preparation for the Walker Cup.

Bhatia's chances of making the team will improve as Suh and other collegiate stars decide to bypass waiting to turn pro until after the biennial event against a team from Great Britain and Ireland is held at Royal Liverpool in September.

The PGA Tour has done the amateur game no favors with its condensed schedule, which shortens the opportunity to earn enough money during a maximum of seven sponsorship invites. Suh said he expects to be granted a number of sponsor invites based on his status as the No. 1-ranked amateur, but he'll have only tournaments held in June and July before the FedEx Cup playoffs to earn enough money to be awarded a PGA Tour card or qualify for the Web.com Tour Finals.

"I feel it's the right time," he said of turning pro after the NCAAs and before the Arnold Palmer Cup, several months ahead of the Walker Cup. "Giving up a full summer of events, it would have been tough. To stay in amateur golf, I feel like I've done it already and I've kind of passed it by now."

It's hard to argue with Suh's assessment. He remained at USC for four years and has won seven of his past 16 college tournaments. We'll soon find out if he's as ready as he thinks he is.

Braden Thornberry, who received a sponsor's invite to the API, and Davis Riley couldn't wait to be pros any longer. Both skipped the spring semester to get a head start on cashing in on their amateur credentials and are pros-in-waiting no more.

Several years ago, Tom Watson coined an even better name for these elite amateur golfers.

“They’re AmNOs," Watson said, "amateur in name only.”

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf.com and The New York Times. He is the winner of the National Sports Media Association's "Golf Article of 2017," and the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak