The Last Word: Lewis must weigh up cons of life as a pro
The British amateur's showing at The Open shines a light on a tricky situation for the unpaid game
Sunday 17 July 2011
It is with great pride and a sense of foreboding that Tom Lewis's performance at the Open Championship has been greeted inside British amateur golf. They say every pro has its con and with the emphasis very much on "pro", this is how its been this week on the Kent coast.
The word is Lewis could well join the paid ranks tomorrow – two months earlier than planned. "What are two months?" you may ask. To the English Golf Union, who have invested so much time and money in his progression, those two months include the English Amateur Championship, the Home Internationals, the Walker Cup, the European Amateur and the US Amateur.
In short, these two months could decide whether, in terms of elite performance, the EGU's season has been a success or a failure. And obviously, without their star, the chances of the latter will be much increased. No doubt, the £100,000-plus the EGU have spent on Lewis's development has not been wasted, when one considers all the youngsters the 20-year-old might have inspired to take up the game. But still, amateur golf is a competitive, accountable business and the EGU's frustration, if not downright anger, is perfectly understandable.
As are the moves under way to clean up the whole murky area of amateurs turning pro. At the moment it is a farcical situation, which has been caused by the archaicdistinction between the paid and non-paid. Amateurs should not be assistedby professional management groups – but they are. Lewis's example is but the latest.
He would have been mad not to have accepted the help, as the interest around him threatened to spiral out of control. It was the same at the 2007 Open at Carnoustie, when Rory McIlroy, then an 18-year-old amateur, burst into the public eye with a 68. It was an alien scenario for the teenager,with the media clamouring for his attention. Chubby Chandler, the larger than life supremo of ISM, had known McIlroy since he was 12, when he enrolled in the Darren Clarke Foundation. Clarke became McIlroy's mentor and despite the attempts of rival agency IMG, it was inevitable he would sign into the same stable. So Chandler was on hand at Carnoustie to provide the benefit of experience. We're weren't talking deals or contracts, but a few pointers. It might have skirted the hazy line drawn out in another age, but it more than satisfied the common sense of modern times. An inexperienced boy needs guidance when the media sharks have the scent.
Four years on, Lewis freely admits that his people have been talking to different agents, who have been courting the Welwyn Garden City wonder. Lewis all but let on to me that he has, at the very least, made a verbal agreement with one management company. It only then required the briefest brush of the surface to discover that IMG, the management monolith, have won the race.
IMG are, and have been, advising the young man's team and they would not be doing their job if they did not dangle the possibility of abandoning his Walker Cup ambition. Lewis is big news and will not only receive an invite for next week's Scandinavian Masters, but every event thereafter. The choice is simple. Wait until the Walker Cup and then try to win his Tour card over six fewer tournaments. Or ride the tide of hype. Which would you do, or, more to the point, what would you advise your son to do?
It is a question perhaps made more straightforward by Lewis's extraordinary talent, just as it was for McIlroy (who waited until after the Walker Cup and was never sure he made the right choice). But for every McIlroy there is a Justin Rose and a Ty Tryon. Rose missed 22 consecutive cuts after turning pro, in the wake of his fourth place at the 1998 Open. At 17, he would have benefited from at least a few more months on the amateur circuit. He was woefully under-prepared for the dog-eat-dog ranks.
Tryon has long been a poster boy for golf's lost boys. Turning pro as a hotshot, disappearing off the radar within 18 months, still struggling a decade on. They're not all Rory.
But the danger is they all think they are and can all be convinced they are. And as the average age of major champions drops and as the likes of McIlroy are depicted as enjoying the life of a Premier League footballer, so more young amateurs will take the plunge. It's already happening. And the concern within the amateur game is that some, if not most, are leaping in without anywhere to leap and much to leap with. Invites are so scarce that without a high profile they have no chance. Then, if they miss out in the hell that is Q School, they have to scrape by on the chicken feed tours. They are being signed up by smaller agencies with big promises, but no guarantees. Where's the Bentley?
Lewis will likely never have to worry himself with such trifles, yet his story should assist in forcing through the new regulations. The Independent on Sunday has learned that from January, agencies will be able to sign up young amateurs as long as they help finance their development and as long as there is a contract stating when they will turn pro. So everybody will know where they are and will be. It is not right that the amateur game is paying for the development of these players, so the professional game can make millions. It will now be a two-way street.
Furthermore, much of the negotiating has been forced underground and agents – not the IMGs or ISMs – are playing a numbers game. Sign a hundred, unearth one earner. They are taking advantage, selling dreams to starry-eyed kids who will never be Rory or Tom. Of course, Tom isn't Rory yet. But expect the transformation to start very, very soon.
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