News & Opinion

Fair Pay to Play won’t close book on college golf

California's groundbreaking law targets athletes from revenue-producing sports such as football and basketball

Perhaps the day is coming when college student-athletes become student-contractors, when they get compensated for their athletic contributions beyond the hefty value of an academic freebie.

If so, it would be an awkward fit for golf.

The topic bears consideration on the heels of California Senate Bill 206 being signed into law recently. The legislation, known as the Fair Pay to Play Act, allows student-athletes to earn compensation for their image and likeness. The NCAA considers such talk blasphemous, of course, unconstitutional Kryptonite.

And admittedly, it’s a bit hard to take the situation seriously, given that California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the “groundbreaking” statute – which does not kick in until 2023 – while sitting in a barber-shop chair on LeBron James’ HBO show. If only Jim Gray had been there to ask questions …

Where things go from here, nobody knows. But we do know this: comparing golf with the revenue-generating college sports of football and men’s basketball is like comparing apples to apple chutney.

To begin, one is an individual sport and the other is a team sport. The difference is massive.

No amateur draft awaits college golfers. No rookie contracts will turn them into multimillionaires before they break a professional sweat. There is no SEC on CBS, Bowl Championship Series, NCAA Tournament … or no prestigious places to advance their reputation, no national spotlight.

Mel Kiper does not spend time ranking college golfers or predicting where they might go. The NCAA conducts a college golf championship, but the casual sports fan might not even know it.

In short, golf carries no guarantees, not for anyone. No professional teams are out there, believing your skill set can make them money and make a difference in their competitive world. With rare exceptions, no agents, sponsors or pilot fish are eager to tie on.

Professional golf is completely indifferent to your skill set. It responds to one bottom line: the numbers on your scorecard, on that day, for that event. If it’s the right number, you get paid. If not, you get squat.

Akshay Bhatia, The Amateur Championship 2019
A player with the talent of American Akshay Bhatia, who turned pro this year at age 17, likely wouldn't be swayed to remain amateur, with or without the ability to make money from his image as a collegian.

Should you tear a rotator cuff, pull a hammie or get a finger blister, you don’t collect a lucrative check while you sit out. You collect squat.

That competitive world of professional golf already is open to amateurs practically any time they care to pursue it. Akshay Bhatia recently turned pro at 17; Rory McIlroy was a pro at 16; Ryo Ishikawa won a Japan Golf Tour event at the age of 15 … and so on.

Moreover, for those who possess unique qualities to attract agents or sponsors, the professional and academic worlds are not incompatible. Exceptional players such as Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth might take a year or two to experience college life, then get on with their professional lives.

Michelle Wie turned pro as a junior in high school, immediately signing $10 million worth of endorsements with Nike and Sony. She also attended Stanford and completed her B.A. in communications in 4½ years. She never put a ball into the air for Stanford; she was busy playing in major championships.

Truth is, few would attract agents or endorsements. The bang for the buck doesn’t exist in college golf, where exposure is minimal. And a payoff at the back end is too speculative. The sport’s Dry Gulch is littered with amateur stars and college sticks. They bounce on and off the PGA Tour, circle the satellite tours, and do so for many years. Their amateur credentials and $30 buys a tank of gas and gets them to next Monday’s qualifier.

Without doing extensive research, it seems safe to say that most college golf athletes come from more privileged places than some of their basketball and football classmates. Romantic programs and initiatives notwithstanding, golf remains most accessible to deeper pockets. Not many golf scholarships are being handed out in East St. Louis, Ill.; Camden, N.J.; or Compton, Calif. The vast majority of college golfers can afford a meal out or a flight home, if not the tuition.

Likewise, it seems unlikely that Fair Pay to Play would rock the USGA’s world. The governing body already allows amateur competitors to accept some forms of financial help. Again, those who are good enough to pursue the profession do so, which is why the Walker Cup rosters have such turnover. The U.S. Amateur has not had a repeat winner since Woods in 1996. The fate of the USGA’s oldest championship would not rest on the eligibility of a few college players.

Then there is the question of whether paying players would give California schools a recruiting advantage over other schools. It certainly wouldn’t if the NCAA casts out those schools, at which point they don’t have much of a schedule. If a kid isn’t hurting for money, why would he pass on a more prestigious golf school to accept a Fair Pay to Play alternative?

Perhaps the day is coming when college athletes are compensated, and perhaps it will have some impact for golf.

Then again, perhaps Newsom would have been better served getting a haircut while he was in the chair.

Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, and The Memorial magazine. Email:; Twitter: @WWDOD