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Golf: R and A close the amateur loophole

Tim Glover finds big prizes could soon be things of the past
WHEN a three-iron shot turned into the drive of a lifetime, most people regarded it as a stroke of outrageous fortune. Not so the arbiters of taste at the Royal and Ancient, who believe it is the thin end of the wedge for the heritage of the game.

Derek Lawrenson's hole in one at the 15th hole at Mill Ride in Ascot, Berkshire last summer was not, perhaps, on a par with Gene Sarazen's albatross at the 15th at the Masters in 1935 - "the shot that was heard around the world" - but, for a number of reasons, it became one of the most celebrated aces since Douglas Bader took up the game.

Lawrenson, the golf correspondent of the Sunday Telegraph, wrote about his feat but then so did almost everybody else. Not only was the hole in one achieved in the company of the England football team - Glenn Hoddle, then manager, is a member at Mill Ride - but the reward was a Lamborghini worth pounds 185,000. As the prize limit for an amateur in a one-round event is pounds 200, Lawrenson's "dilemma" was whether or not to accept the prize and forfeit his amateur status: farewell amateur status, hello Italian sports car. It was subsequently sold to a Mill Ride member for in excess of pounds 100,000.

However, the R and A, the game's governing body, believe that such outlandish prizes are detrimental to the spirit of the amateur game and have arranged a meeting with Mill Ride to discuss the matter. "In the long-term the game could be damaged by this sort of thing," David Rickman, the rules secretary of the R and A, said. "In time there would be an erosion of the principles of amateur status which counts for 99.9 percent of all golfers. People play for fun and the challenge of playing their friends, not for any material benefit.

"We recognise that it's an attractive sport for business but if the fundamental principles that have seen golf flourish and grow are eaten away, we could lose that. Offering large prizes in the short-term may be attractive but the amateur status committee is charged with the long-term interests and integrity of the game."

Mill Ride, described by Golf Monthly as a "thoroughbred amongst thoroughbreds", hosted the golf day which was organised by the club manufacturers Taylor Made for the Football Association. It was a break from training for Hoddle and his men before leaving for the World Cup. The owners of the club are part owners of Lamborghini.

"We are client-based and we have to take a commercial decision," Gordon Irvine, the manager, said. "Almost every club runs corporate days and the R and A can't expect them to turn business away. Some events have $1m for a hole in one, it's just another marketing exercise. We were high profile because the car was actually won but it raises interesting questions. If you can't use your name or image to promote a product, are members of the England team in breach of the rules? We don't want to encourage anybody to lose their amateur status, but is everybody to blame or is it just the responsibility of the individual? The whole situation needs clarification."

The R and A say that in such a case the amateur status of Hoddle and the players is not affected but it would be different if there was a cash prize. "If somebody put up a large sum of money for a hole in one and there were 50 people taking part they'd all be in breach of the rules," Rickman said. "What we allow and encourage is for prizes to be nominated for charity or for awards to be made of a symbolic nature, a cut glass trophy for example.

"What happened at Mill Ride is not an isolated case. We have had correspondence with other clubs. A number of these clubs are proprietary and clearly there is a business motive. We are pleased that commercial money is coming into the sport but we don't want to see it and the clubs damaged by short-term interests."

The R and A admit they are under pressure to increase the limit on prizes for amateurs and there will be a review next year. "We try to find a figure that is meaningful throughout the world," Rickman added. "Some say it's way too low but pounds 200 is significant in some parts of the world. Those who want an increase want to use golf as a means to an end. If people want to make a living out of it there's always the option of the professional game. A hole in one is the ultimate achievement for most amateurs and it doesn't need any material gain."

The R and A's powers are limited. "We are trying to appeal to the better judgement of the clubs," Rickman said. "The rules apply to the individual and the immediate sanction is against the player."

Meanwhile, any clubs in doubt can enter the R and A's nationwide quiz on the rules of golf. A number of "attractive prizes" are being donated by Titleist and Compaq.