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Amateur tug-of-war: When college and pro golf collide
31 Oct 2018
by Julie Williams of AmateurGolf.com

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An Arkansas huddle at the 2018 NCAA Championship (AGC photo)
An Arkansas huddle at the 2018 NCAA Championship (AGC photo)

At its highest level, college golf is a portal to professional golf. (Really, amateur golf is, too.) After four years playing golf essentially for a living, it’s hard not to feel the pull to continue that life. Few of the best Division I players in the top 50 or 60 programs in the country can pass it up.

It’s an odd dance, figuring out when and how to start that career, and this seems to be a particularly difficult concept for aspiring LPGA players. Maybe it’s because there are just enough success stories of players who came right out of amateur golf – Lexi Thompson, Brooke Henderson, Jessica and Nelly Korda – to entice a young player into banking everything on the possibility that she will be the next one.

Timing is a particularly interesting topic this week as the second half of the eight-round LPGA Q-Series gets underway in Pinehurst, N.C. In the three-day interim between parts one and two, three amateurs hung conspicuously in the top 5. A fourth was T-7 and a fifth was 11th. The amateur presence is stronger than usual this year, which appears to be the opposite of what the LPGA intended.

The LPGA made changes to its qualifying format last year in the name of making Q-School more about consistency than catching lightning in a bottle. Replacing the third stage with an eight-round Q-Series (played as two different tournaments but with scores carrying over) puts a premium on consistency.

More space was allotted in the Q-Series for Symetra Tour players and players who finished Nos. 101-150 on the LPGA money list, leaving less space for players coming out of the second stage. Collegians should have had a harder time getting into this situation, but Ohio State’s Jaclyn Lee, currently sitting in solo second at Q-Series, skated right through the first two stages.

The idea was to identify LPGA-ready talent and send newer players up through the Symetra Tour ranks. Still, there was a caveat for the nation’s top college players. The top 5 individuals in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings from the end of the 2017-18 season earned an exemption straight to the Q-Series. In case you were wondering, all five of those players accepted the offer, even though it meant forking over $5,500 to play in the Q-Series.

Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho (T-3), Alabama’s Lauren Stephenson (T-3) and Arkansas’ Maria Fassi (T-7) are taking huge advantage of that opportunity. UCLA’s Lilia Vu and Patty Tavatanakit are also in the field but began the second half of the tournament outside the top 45.

That number is important. Only 101 players tee it up in the Q-Series, but the top 45 and ties receive full LPGA status. Those aren’t bad odds.

There is another important change to note. For the first time this year, an amateur will have the option of deferring her LPGA card until the end of the college season. Essentially, she can have her cake and eat it too. That said, missing out on the first six months of the LPGA season sets up a scenario where a college graduate will have to play hard to make up that lost time and keep her card for the following season.

Coaches’ stances are different on the topic of LPGA Q-School. Some support their players’ futures at all cost, and some simply grit their teeth through the process. It’s hard not to sympathize with teams that stand to lose multiple players (Alabama) or a high-impact player (Ohio State, Arkansas, Wake Forest). Losing a top-5 player significantly changes the way your season can unfold.

There’s a great example of this on display at this week’s East Lake Cup, which is running concurrent to Q-Series. Only four teams are in that field (the final four from last spring’s NCAA Championship), but Alabama – without Stephenson and Kristen Gillman, it’s best two players (arguably, college golf’s best two players) – finished 18 holes of stroke play 26 shots behind Stanford. Their subsequent match-play round against Stanford wasn’t even close. Three of the five Alabama players didn’t even make it to the 16th hole. Only one Alabama player won her match.

What’s the solution? Short of requiring an amateur to turn professional to enter Q-School, this will keep happening. The option for deferment could be a college program’s saving grace, provided a player will choose that route and honor the commitment she made to a college program.

Having seen the tearful finale to eight Q-Schools over the past 10 years, I can tell you that the pull to professional golf is strong, especially once it’s put on the table. A sobbing Maddie McCrary turned down her final semester at Oklahoma State (a semester that included hosting the NCAA Championship at her home course) last fall in favor of conditional status (that means she didn’t even have a full LPGA card). McCrary has since made less than $20,000 in a combined 21 LPGA and Symetra Tour starts.

A popular line of reasoning is to compare this situation to other sports. It’s true that other college programs don’t deal with this issue. Football, basketball and baseball players don’t leave their teams mid-season to start playing professionally. Then again, there is really no crossover from amateur to professional in those sports like in golf. Amateurs are always present in major championships, whether they qualified (U.S. Open) or received an exemption (the Masters). Lots of tour events, on the LPGA and PGA Tours, offer sponsor exemptions to top amateurs. For one thing, it creates exposure.

And turning professional doesn’t necessarily mean staying professional. We see that in amateur events all the time. The USGA produced an informational video on the amateur reinstatement process earlier this month and noted that it receives as many as 800 applications for reinstatement each year.

The bottom line is that golf being a lifelong sport, there’s a lot of bouncing back and forth. The process is just particularly painful when a player is straddling the line of college and LPGA because there's so much at stake for player and team. Not much will change unless the LPGA takes a hardline stance against amateurs, or college coaches take a hardline stance with their players.

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