The United States Golf Association has come to its senses on at least one topic.
While I’ve been waiting for years for a bit of gender equity (USGA Senior Women’s Open, anyone?) and I don’t agree with the anti-anchoring proposal, nor am I a supporter of rules bifurcation, I applaud the decision of the USGA to retire the Dwyer and Standish trophies. Awarded annually to (respectively) the champions of the United States Women’s and Men’s Amateur Public Links championships, the two trophies boasted a combined 110-plus years of heritage and were intended to provide a championship outlet for career amateurs without access to the high-rent district of private clubs. Unfortunately, they did not.
Over time, this notion turned from fact and fancy to fiction. The event began to be dominated by the collegiate players, especially when the Masters Tournament announced a restructuring of its amateur invitation paradigm. Gone were the places in the tournament for every member of the United States and Great Britain and Ireland Walker Cup sides. In their place were five invitations for five champions, one of which was the U.S. Amateur Public Links. Knowing that a coveted Masters invite would go to the champion made participation in the Public Links for men a tempting proposition.
The Public Links lacked support and respect from its own sponsoring association. Brandt Snedeker won the 2003 championship, yet was inconceivably passed over for selection to that year’s Walker Cup team.
The most nebulous aspect of the Men’s Public Links was the fine line between those eligible and those not. According to the entry requirements, players could only be members of clubs or courses open to public play.
Eligibility Rule: Entries are open to amateur golfers who since January 1 of the current year have been bona fide public course players with an up to date men’s Handicap Index not exceeding 4.4 under the “USGA Handicap System” and have not held privileges of any course which does not extend playing privileges to the general public.
Privileges at a private course include, but are not limited to: Access to the course and its facilities whether or not you are a member. Honorary Memberships. Summer access at a private course your school team uses. Access more than one day a week for caddies and employees. Access through a “Come on over any time” relationship.
Exceptions: A bona fide public player may hold incidental privileges of a course not open to the public when such privileges are provided by:
- An educational institution at which he is a student; this includes members of a golf team when privileges are awarded at private facilities to the entire team on an equal basis, and are only available during the traditional school year/competitive golf season (including post season play which may include Conference, State and National Championships). No summer access.
- A federal armed service of which he is a member or retired member; or
- An industry by which he is employed or from which he is retired and said private course is owned by the employer.
The third exception is interesting, no? On the surface, it contradicts the “access more than one day a week” caveat listed previously. Did you know that three of the top-20 courses in the U.S. (most recent Golf Digest ranking) are public-access courses? Three more of the next 20, as well. Six more from Nos. 40 to 60, and another six among the final forty courses. Of that top 100, only one is a municipal course: Bethpage Black. The rest are high-end resorts that technically qualify as public courses. That’s a little sticky, don’t you think?
Enrollment in a specific educational institution (which I read as member of the varsity team) would certainly receive access to elite private courses for 10 of the year’s 12 months. The other two are usually devoted to travel and tournaments, meaning access is less necessary. The summer amateur tour runs from the beginning of June through the end of August, with many Public Links contestants following the amateur sun from Lewiston to Sunnehanna. With precious little time at home, there was never any need to frequent a public layout.
The other glaring loophole was the guest invitation. Once a golfer achieves a minimal level of renown, invitations to play as a guest at exclusive clubs come in like rain during a storm. A golfer could easily register for a season pass at the local muni, keep a USGA handicap there, yet never play a round over the course’s 18 during the season. At no time did the USGA specify that a minimum number of rounds must be played at public-access courses (or a maximum at private-access courses) in addition to the public-course membership caveat. By demanding this little bit of accountability, more PubLinks victors would have been true public-course champions.
“Time it was and what a time it was, it was. A time of innocence, a time of confidences,” sang Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel. For the women and men of the Public Links, that time will end in 2014. Down the road, if we’re lucky, the USGA will revisit the topic and script it properly.