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Randall's Rant: USGA's warning to Li not nearly enough

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In her apology for appearing in an Apple Watch commercial, Lucy Li says the USGA is like family to her.

If that’s the case, we’re left wondering today whether she is a coddled favorite daughter. We’re left thinking permissive parental figures within the governing body failed to hold her accountable.

Li got off with a one-time warning.

That isn’t even a slap on the wrist.

It’s nothing. Zero. Nada.

The USGA basically absolved Li and her family.

If the USGA wanted to make a strong statement about protecting the amateur principle and all it stands for, Li should have been grounded and sent to her room for three months, or at least long enough to miss something of consequence, like the Augusta National Women’s Amateur.

But, instead, there are no consequences to Li’s actions.

None. Zero. Nada.

That’s the failure in a warning.

Li’s breach of the Rules of Amateur Status is being attributed to an innocent mistake in the convoluted filming of the ad, with ignorance blamed for Li’s family not following the rules. But that sounds like a speeder blowing 100 mph through a residential zone and telling the cop she didn’t know the speed limit was 25.

How do you fail to know there might be a problem endorsing an Apple Watch?

Li receives warning from USGA after violation

The USGA announced Thursday that Lucy Li violated the Rules of Amateur Status, but that the 16-year-old will retain her amateur status after receiving a "one-time warning."

Li may be 16, but she is the top-ranked junior in the world, with a lot of experience at the game’s highest levels, including multiple major championships. She’s closely managed by two parents and an aunt, but she stepped into an Apple Watch commercial as a golfer in scripted Nike clothing to endorse a product. I don’t care about the “modeling” she thought she was doing in a larger sense, with other non-golf scenes edited out. She’s guilty of one of the more brazen amateur violations in the modern era being in an advertisement of that scale.

This isn’t the thinking of an angry man shaking his fist at the kids on his lawn.

It’s what a lot of reasonable people in the amateur ranks are thinking today. They believe USGA officials did more than blow an opportunity to send a difference-making message to every one of its amateurs. They blew an opportunity to send a message to those corporate entities who seek to ignore or circumvent amateur rules.

The USGA warning is a dismal message that it’s “business as usual” in the amateur game.

The governing body sent a message that it’s OK for corporate entities to keep pushing amateurism’s limits, because, hey, we’ll give you a warning before you damage a young star’s amateur status.

Warnings widen gray areas, giving ambitious corporate entities more room to be creative in their early recruitment of amateur talent.

The USGA cited precedent for issuing Li a warning. Its amateur status committee determined that a warning is “consistent with the committee’s general practice” when a player unknowingly breaches the rule defining amateurism (6-2) and then takes corrective measures. The USGA declined a GolfChannel.com request for specific examples in the history of warnings, citing player privacy and confidentiality, but explaining there are decades of documented cases.

That’s fine, but you can argue Li’s violation is proof that those warnings don’t work.

The fact that that the family didn’t have an inkling that endorsing a product in a commercial might be a violation says a lot about the withering regard for amateurism principles.

You can also argue that there isn’t really a modern precedent for Li’s violation, not on the scale of an Apple commercial.

Revoking Li’s amateur status for at least one major event would have sent a powerful message through the amateur and junior ranks. It also would have rattled the ranks of those who recruit prodigies with little regard for the rules.

The USGA accepted the Li family and Apple’s pledge that there was no financial compensation, but even if that’s true, there’s real value beyond compensation in the experience. That’s why Rule 6-2 specifically states there’s a violation “even if no payment or compensation is received.” There is value in exposure to an Apple audience outside golf’s niche, a bump in Q-ratings and increased marketability that can help land future deals. 

There are LPGA pros who would pay to get that kind of exposure for their brand.

The USGA’s decision not to penalize Li resonates beyond the amateur ranks. For the organization’s critics, it’s another failure to protect the game’s fundamental values. It ranks along the same line as the USGA’s failure to control distance.

Of course, the Li violation put the USGA in another impossible position. No matter what the committee decided, there was going to be a backlash. Li is a popular teen star who has won a lot of hearts rising in the amateur ranks.

“When people say this was an obvious breach, we all agree,” Thomas Pagel, the USGA’s senior managing director of governance, told GolfChannel.com. “But she was able to remedy the situation, having the advertisement withdrawn. She received no compensation or benefit as a result. Therefore, we feel the principles of the Rules of Amateur Status have very much been upheld.”

The USGA concluded its summary of the investigative finding by stating “this matter is now closed,” but that may not be true. If Li didn’t spark new conversation about amateurism in the USGA ranks, she helped speed it along. Philosophical changes may be in the wind.

“Do we need to step back and look at the Rules of Amateur Status?” Pagel told GolfChannel.com. “Absolutely. We have started that process, just as we did with the Rules [of Golf]. 

“We want to make sure the Rules of Amateur Status apply to the way the game is played in the world we live in today.”

In that respect, Li may be more than the USGA’s favorite daughter. She might be one of its agents of change.