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How College Golfers Have Been Left Behind in the NIL Marketplace

Updated: Mar 6, 2023

Despite the widespread adoption of name, image, and likeness (“NIL”) and the multitude of activations being enjoyed by college athletes and brands around the country, young golfers have been largely left behind. Although the NCAA has lifted most restrictions for college golfers, they must still comply with United States Golf Association (“USGA”) rules to ensure they maintain their amateur status. For golfers with dreams of making a professional tour, it is critical that these rules are followed.

For its part, the USGA has made an effort to update its rules to allow college golfers to take advantage of the new NIL landscape. In October 2021, the USGA and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews published modernized Rules of Amateur Status. Under the new rules, amateur golfers can receive money from social media sponsorships, personal appearances, and autograph signings. The new rules also increase the cash prize that an amateur can receive for playing in traditional stroke-play events from $750 to $1,000, although they can receive more for skills competitions like long drive contests.

There are three avenues of compensation that the USGA expressly forbids. Golfers may not (i) play as a professional; (ii) accept employment as a club pro; or (iii) accept payment for giving instruction, with limited exceptions for coaching at educational institutions. The third restriction – accepting payment for instruction – is a major handicap for college golfers. In an attempt to soften that blow, the USGA stated that amateurs will be allowed to receive compensation for providing instruction on social media provided that the instruction is “one-way”, meaning simply posting videos demonstrating how to perform a certain golf shot. Reading between the lines, this statement is simply reiterating that golfers may not get paid for instruction using “two-way communication” to a specific individual or group. In other words, amateur golfers cannot give lessons.

In no other sport would instruction be more profitable and important for athletes than golf. It also happens to be the only one where instruction is not permitted. Athletes in all other sports, including football and basketball, are permitted to give private or group instruction in exchange for payment. However, the majority of NIL money for those athletes, whether it be big money or small money, comes from endorsement deals. In fact, according to Opendorse data, both golf accounts for just 0.7% of NIL compensation. This makes sense because although you might occasionally play pickup basketball or flag football for the exercise, you are probably not going to shell out hundreds of dollars to learn how to shoot a free throw anytime soon.

In contrast, there are millions of people who play golf every week and spend thousands per year trying to improve. They get fitted for clubs, take lessons, and watch hours of YouTube videos about how to fix their slice only to forget it all the minute they step on the first tee box. This activity has skyrocketed since COVID when golf courses were one of the only recreational activities available to people for several months. The USGA rules and restrictions are clearly designed to avoid a situation where an amateur is essentially acting as a professional by playing as a pro, accepting prize money, or being employed as a club pro. However, the USGA does not have to take an all-or-nothing approach with its rules.

Permitting college golfers to get paid for instruction through private lessons to a group of kids or to a group of adults while home on a summer break will not blur the lines between amateur and professional golf. In a perfect world, the USGA would lift this restriction entirely. However, rather than a blanket ban, the USGA should at least allow amateurs to offer instruction for a limited number of events or set a maximum dollar amount (a high one) that a college golfer can earn from instruction per year. They could also include a notice requirement to regulate and ensure compliance with these maximums.

The USGA, however, is not the only barrier for college golfers. Although most student-athletes can profit off NIL, there is still a restriction on international students with F-1 visas. This restriction also disproportionately affects college golfers, as a massive 32% of Division I Women's golfers and 19% of Division I Men's golfers are international students.

Given the unique ability of college golfers to earn money from instruction when compared to their counterparts in other sports, the USGA should be flexible in allowing them to do so. Travel to and from amateur tournaments is a major expense that often falls on parents trying to help their kid achieve their dream of playing professional golf. Earning money from an instructional camp or two over the summer or in the offseason would go a long way to help, and there are already real-life examples of this. For instance, Transcend Capital Advisors, a New Jersey-based wealth management advisor, signed an NIL deal with Caleb Surratt, a college golfer at the University of Tennessee. After Surratt finished runner-up at the U.S. Junior Amateur, he sent a thank you note to Transcend which stated that “the fact that I can just go out and play and not worry about the money has freed me up to play my best golf.”

With nearly one-third of college golfers ineligible for NIL due to their visa status and the remaining barred by USGA rules, college golfers are at a significant disadvantage compared to other student-athletes. If, as their website says, one of the USGA’s primary goals is to “strengthen the game’s foundation”, the best way to do so is to equip young golfers with the tools and opportunities necessary to focus on their careers.

John Nucci is a Corporate Associate Attorney and Chief Golf Law Correspondent for Conduct Detrimental. He can be reached via email at [email protected] or on Twitter @JNucci23.

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