Catching up with Elite Amateur Series co-founder Andy Priest
06 Feb 2023
by Sean Melia of

see also: Caleb Surratt Rankings

Andy Priest with the Southern Am trophy (Bowling Green Daily News)
Andy Priest with the Southern Am trophy (Bowling Green Daily News)

The Elite Amateur Series had a successful first year of existence. Caleb Surratt won the series and a slew of berths into various professional events. The series will kick off its second year on June 14 at the Sunnehanna Amateur.

Andy Priest, the executive director of the Southern Amateur, chatted with about how the first year went, what they learned from the first year, how they plan to improve the series, and updates us on the progress of the Women's Elite Amateur Series.

There are a lot of exciting things in the future for the Elite Amateur Series, and while the series is new, the events have their own deep seeded traditions. Now that the dust has settled. How did the first year of the Elite Amateur Series go?

Andy Priest: I believe it exceeded our expectations. Going into something new. We felt like we had something special, and that we're building and launching something that had never been done before. But that was part of the nervousness of it, too. And we're kind of feeling our way through a little bit of it. At the end of the day the mechanics of it worked as seamlessly as it could between the events, getting the information to the USGA, and WAGR getting the standings shared back to us each week. To be able to publicize those on a cadence that we can rely on week over week. So from a mechanical standpoint, it went as well as we could have hoped or asked for. Certainly, there are still some improvements that we have identified. We are currently undertaking a new website project. The new website will make the standings a little more dynamic, versus a flat PDF or just being able to see the top 10. So there's some development we're working on to improve the usability and the visibility of the series.

AG: Any changes to the format or point system for 2023?

AP: No changes to the process. The three-tournament minimum will still be in place for this year. We did discuss it but we just felt like the top 50 in the final standings last year played an average of 4.3 Elite Amateur Golf Series events. Really we didn't feel like we needed to force playing in more events because we know these top elite amateurs have so many other playing opportunities beyond our seven events.

Caleb ran away with it last year. But he figured it out. I remember talking to him after the Southern Am and he knew what was at stake and that's when he said 'I'm going to the Pacific Coast Amateur this coming week.' Caleb played every week last summer, I mean, between our events, the US Junior, US amateur. I think at the Western he realized he couldn't play at that pace. That's part of the maturity that will come along; learning how to schedule. He's not gonna have a problem playing in whatever tournament he wants to play in, and he's going to have to start managing his starts. Plus he's going to have other commitments to with NIL on top of trying to play great golf at the same time. It's just a different world now for these guys.

Caleb Surratt with the EAS Cup

AG: How can the Elite Amateur Series help incentivize amateurs to remain amateurs?

AP: If I'm in their shoes asking 'Should I turn pro?' I would tell them, you are a full-scholarship athlete at an elite university. You have every resource at your fingertips: world-class practice facilities, world-class golf courses, you're flying in a private jet to tournaments. You have nutrition, you have physical exercise, you have weight training, you get an education at the same time. Sports Psychology. You got all this given to you. But once you leave that and go to professional golf, you're on your own. Now you have to try and find a place to practice if you don't already have something set up. You have to try to get status and try to have opportunities to play somewhere. That's why these guys are just running around Monday qualifying; that's their only option other than playing mini-tours.

I think there was a shift, a player is incentivized to leave early, after NCAAs to go ahead and get going on their professional careers. There is still going to be a little bit of that. But I think now, hopefully, with the Elite Amateur Series, with PGA Tour we're trying to give these players opportunities to stay amateur, but open those doors for them that would not open likely otherwise. To keep them playing amateur golf. It's not like, what you will encounter when you're livelihood depends on whether you make the cut or not. But these tournaments give them the next best experience, you know, hey, you know, final play, well, I'm not going to move up in the standings down the EGS. And especially with the changes to wagger. Now, the back half of the field is not gonna get as many points as they used to, which, you know, we see as a positive, and then that's the way it should be.

AG: What's the status on adding new events to the series?

AP: We're always evaluating and looking. We went into this, pretty much with a three-year window to get this off the ground. Let's learn from our mistakes and make it as good as possible before we bring on any potential other events in the future. I guess the answer is, there will be probably no new events this year, probably no new events next year, but certainly the door will be open for those conversations in the future. Very few events would even meet the criteria of being able to have that conversation. They have to bring something to the table for the group. It's kind of like a college athletic conference. Take the SEC. Texas and Oklahoma coming in and bringing a lot of value to the group. That's kind of the way we look at it. We bring in another event down the road and it needs to be able to hold its own, but it needs to provide something of value to the group and make us a stronger group, collectively.

AG: How about any new exemptions for those top five point earners in the series?

AP: We are still working on that. We hope to have that announced before the Sunnehanna. Hopefully, by the end of May, we will be able to announce the exemptions for next year. We know we got commitments already from two or three. Those conversations are ongoing. We hope to at least have what we had last year and add a few more, if possible.

AG: What was the feedback like from the players, parents, and coaches?

AP: From a player's and parent's perspective, they went into the summer with a lot of unknowns. They didn't quite understand exactly what this (the Elite Amateur Series) is. And now, they're seeing what Caleb is doing, they're gonna see Jiri Zuska play in the Puerto Rico Open. They're going to see Tommy Morrison tee it up in a Korn Ferry event in April, and Bryce Lewis play a Korn Ferry event, so now the light has gone off. If they play great, they're going to get an opportunity to earn PGA Tour, Korn Ferry, and USGA exemptions. I think that the realization that is coming to light is there.

So I think some of that was just education. They were trying to figure out exactly what the series is - how to get points and how it works.

The big thing that we're trying to be thoughtful and careful with is working with the college coaches. You know, it's great to get these Korn Ferry, PGA Tour starts. But sometimes they do conflict with the college golf schedule in the spring. We're doing the best we can to minimize the impact. Take Karl Vilips, for example. We had a draft of the five Korn Ferry Tour starts. The way we did it was we went in order and had a draft. So Caleb, had the first choice. He got to pick which event worked best in his schedule.

But the mechanics of it is we went down the list and then Karl was fifth. So the last event he got assigned the last one left. It was a Korn Ferry event in Kansas City the week of the NCAA Regionals. And so he had to decline the spot.

AG: Any update on the Women's Elite Amateur Series?

AP: Rob Addington has been leading that effort on our behalf. I've been helping him on the backend. We formed a committee outside of our group. We needed some insight from the leaders in the women's game to give us feedback, suggestions, and recommendations. We're close to tightening up that feedback and what those recommendations are to move forward. The women's elite game is a little different than the men's game - from the number of events, the scheduling, how the elite women's players travel versus the men, in some cases. We're taking all that feedback from that group, which was made up of USGA, and college coaches, elite players, or former elite players, giving us that insight to help us come up with those recommendations and criteria for conversation. So once we get that buttoned up here hopefully in the next little bit, there'll be some conversations with the events that we feel are in the mix to be included in the women's series. And hopefully, by October, we will have those groups identified and ready to launch in 2024.

AG: Are you hoping to have seven events like on the men's side?

AP: We're not married to the seven number. That's just how it fell on the men's side. We could make an argument for four, you can make an argument for eight; One of the big things that we want to achieve out of this is a better schedule. There are multiple elite women's events that are on top of each other on the calendar. We want to try and help incentivize them to work this out to where those conflicts don't exist. That's the one thing that we would like to see on the men's side mirror on the women's side, so these elite events are not competing against each other.

We want to help untangle and provide a more clear schedule throughout the summer instead of two or three events in early June, and then three or four events in mid-to-late July, and the space in the middle there where there's not much going on. There are ways to find some alignment behind that vision and goal to help achieve what's going be best for the players. So that's really what it's about. We want to launch these tournaments to be as strong as possible. The only way that's going to happen is if the events are not competing with each other.

AG: Has there been any discussion about having international events in the series?

AP: It has been brought up. But it hasn't been brought up by anybody from the R&A, for example. They haven't reached out to us and said, 'Can we get the British amateur or the European amateur? As part as part of this?' I think that when you look at the global game there are great players all over the world. For the most part the PGA Tour is the goal, and we're providing a way to get there and have those opportunities sooner than later.

If we want to look at what those (international) events bring to the group? Sure, how do they help us? How do they help the game? Is it good for the European players to get credit? WAGR takes all that in consideration with the power and how many points you would earn for placing in each of those elite events.

So it's probably not at the forefront, but over time the USGA obviously is supporting us and you would think that a natural extension of that in the future would be the R&A to recognize what we're doing and trying to provide maybe opportunities into their championships.

AG: How are you helping out golfers that might not be able to afford travel or other expenses it takes to compete at such a high level?

AP: Right now, it's pretty much self-funded by each event. We allocate a certain amount of resources to those players that we identify. We do not have a formal system yet. It's not like the ACE grant with the AJGA, with a formal application process. That is another goal of ours. We see that as an important part of going forward. The AJGA and The Southern Company partnered on a grants program. So we know that there are companies out there that believe in that. We just have to find that partnership where it's a win-win-win. A win for them, win for us, and win for the players.

For the sake of today, it's pretty much done quietly in the background as those situations arise. And certainly, we talk amongst each other. We have our internal agreements amongst each other so events are not going to give more money than other events. There's a threshold that we've all agreed to that we're all going to stay within and be fair across the board. We also share if a player reaches out or a family or college coach reaches out on the player's behalf. We will do our best to help them.

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