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Randall's Rant: Li's Apple ad opens a big can of worms for USGA

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Welcome to the professional ranks, Lucy Li.

If I’m an elite player, that’s what I’m thinking.

Barring the USGA’s discovery of some extenuating circumstance in its investigation of the teen phenom’s appearance in a new video at Apple.com, Li’s family might want to prepare for the possibility she will have to file for reinstatement of her amateur status.

They may need to do so to make sure she is eligible for the historic Augusta National Women’s Amateur event in three months.

Without some extraordinary USGA discovery, this looks like a black-and-white violation.

It’s even more than that, though. It’s a brazen insult upon the amateur principle, even if it comes with a plea of ignorance.

If you missed all the fuss, here’s the rewind: Li appears in Apple.com’s new “Close Your Rings” campaign, where she is featured using an Apple Watch to help her train.

It’s a promotional video designed to sell the watch.

She is identified as “Lucy L.” and is clearly endorsing the product as a golfer.

Any other interpretation of her participation in the campaign would require creative legal gymnastics.

Li’s family told Golf Digest there was no compensation for Lucy’s participation in the promotion, but that doesn’t matter.



The bad news for Li is that there isn’t much wiggle room in the USGA’s Rules of Amateur Status. The prohibition under Rule 6:2 states “even if no payment or compensation is received, an amateur golfer is deemed to receive a personal benefit by promoting, advertising or selling anything, or allowing his name or likeness to be used by a third party for the promotion, advertisement or sale of anything.”

The provision also states: “A person who acts contrary to the rules may forfeit his amateur status and as a result will be ineligible to play in amateur competitions.”

At 16, you can bet Li isn’t calling the shots in this. Adults who should know better are.

This might all be due to a big mistake, incredible naivete, or it might be marketing genius.

Li may not be paid for her appearance in Apple’s campaign, but her profile grows with it. Her Q-rating is affected. There can be an enormous benefit in that, with the possibility lucrative future compensation comes as a result. She’s connecting with Apple audiences beyond the golf niche, and there’s value in that.

And this promotional campaign is all about revenue generation.

Li may not be getting any, but Apple is a business seeking to build its bottom line.

If Apple’s trying to improve its position in the Asian market, where women’s golf is more popular than men’s golf, Li is an appealing vehicle. She’s the American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants.

The USGA is still gathering facts, so we don’t know all that may emerge to excuse or indict, but if I’m an elite amateur playing by the rules, I’m angry about what we know so far.

If I’m a high-profile amateur, I’m wondering if the USGA is going to show me why I shouldn’t do something like this, too, and then seek forgiveness later.

One way or another, the USGA will send a message with its response. It will create precedent.

Really, Li’s involvement exposes a larger issue in the amateur game. Namely, it exposes the immense gray area between the elite amateur and pro ranks. It exposes shadowy circumstances that make so many of us scratch our heads and wonder what’s really going on in the management and recruitment of gifted ams. It makes us wonder if the USGA really wants to know what’s happening.

None of this is going to be easy for the USGA.

Li is one of the darlings of the amateur game, with her No. 1 world ranking in junior golf. If her defense is a plea of ignorance, there will be sympathy. She was so adorable as a pig-tailed 11-year-old making history as the youngest player qualifying for the U.S. Women’s Open. A harsh ruling against her will make the blue coats look like ogres.

Still, a strong reaction is warranted, whether that’s a stern penalty or a revamping of the amateur rules regarding promotion and marketing.

Li’s participation in the Apple campaign is troublesome even if the family pleas ignorance. That defense just exposes how lax families are becoming in their respect for amateurism. There wasn’t even an attempt to seek prior USGA approval in this case.

Li’s response when first contacted by Golf Digest wasn’t helpful to her cause. She told the magazine she couldn’t talk about the video because she signed a non-disclosure agreement. There’s a hell of a lot of thought that goes into non-disclosure agreements. Whether it’s just proprietary protection at issue, there’s some sort of value implicit in such protective agreements.

Whatever the USGA rules, Li’s fate isn’t all that will be affected. The important amateur principle stands to get bolstered or bruised.

And so does the USGA.