ATLANTA – For two women’s coaches, at least, there is a sense of foreboding at this week’s East Lake Cup. It could be the final college event for the past two NCAA players of the year.
Both UCLA senior Bronte Law and Duke junior Leona Maguire qualified for the final stage of LPGA Q-School, set for Nov. 30-Dec. 4 in Daytona Beach, Fla. The top 20 finishers in the five-round event earn full status on the LPGA next season, and considering their talent and current form, there’s a good chance that both stars will retire their team uniforms come December.
It makes for a bittersweet end to the fall, as a professional problem once again threatens to undermine this college golf season.
Fortunately, LPGA commissioner Mike Whan now has a plan in the works that bodes well for the college game.
Whan said last week that the tour will soon eliminate the traditional Q-School route. Instead, much like the model the PGA Tour established in 2013 with the Web.com pipeline, the Symetra Tour will be the only pathway for players to compete on the LPGA.
Beginning as early as next fall (but most likely in 2018), the LPGA will hold a three-event qualifying series that will award Symetra Tour cards. Currently, the top college players who earn LPGA cards are leaving college at the halfway point of the season to ensure that they have the best opportunity to retain their card with a full season in the pros.
With this new system, players likely would defer turning pro until after the NCAAs in May, missing about a third of the Symetra season, which begins in earnest in April. They would then have all summer to either (A) finish in the top 10 on the money list to earn an LPGA card, or (B) play well enough to compete in the new qualifying series, which will include players who finished outside the top 100 in LPGA earnings. Former Alabama star Emma Talley just showed it’s a viable option, finishing 26th on the money list despite starting her pro career after NCAAs.
“I think the qualifying series is a much better answer for a college student,” Whan said.
The current Q-School system has long been problematic for women’s coaches, who have watched their most talented players bolt for the pros midway through the season, leaving the lineup in flux.
The potential losses this year would significantly alter the women’s landscape. Among those currently entered in final stage are Maguire and Law – the past two Annika Award winners, and the Nos. 1 and 2-ranked amateurs in the world, respectively – as well as South Carolina senior Katelyn Dambaugh (the Annika Award runner-up a year ago) and USC seniors Karen Chung and Tiffany Chan.
“Players are saying, ‘This is potentially my last shot at a straight ticket to the tour,’” UCLA coach Carrie Forsyth said, “so it drew out a lot of people.”
Forsyth has been hit particularly hard in recent years, losing Stephanie Kono and Alison Lee to early departures.
Lee’s exit was made easier by the fact that she earned medalist honors that year at Q-School.
“The writing was on the wall,” Forsyth said. “She was ready.”
“But this one will be a little harder for me,” she said of Law. “We’ve had Bronte for more than three years. We know what she brings. It’s more than her score. She’s a great leader, a really excellent model. That’s going to be tough.”
But Law attempting Q-School wasn’t a surprise; in fact, after hearing that changes to Q-School were imminent, she approached Forsyth last fall to explain that she would go this route.
“At the start, it did make things sensitive and it was difficult,” Law said. “But Coach said to me, ‘You’re ready. I’m not going to hold you back from that.’
“They’re looking out for my future, too. They know that’s where I want to be. They’ve prepared me for the next step, and now they’re just letting me go to the next part of my life.”
Said Forsyth: “Obviously it has an impact on us short term, in the negative, for this year’s team. But long term, it’s always beneficial to have players out on tour. It speaks a lot about the program that players can come in here and get better.”
And besides, it’s hard to blame Law and Maguire for looking ahead under the current system.
Law, 21, is scheduled to graduate this spring, and her stock likely won’t get any higher, coming off a banner year in which she earned player of the year honors, posted a 5-0 record at the Curtis Cup, competed in three LPGA majors and won the European Ladies Amateur Championship.
“Honestly, I’m in the best scenario,” Law said. “I have the opportunity to go onto the LPGA, but if not I get to spend the year with my teammates and friends and finish off what should be a very good year.”
The 21-year-old Maguire, meanwhile, was the 2015 Annika Award winner, the low amateur at this year’s Women’s British Open and a contender through three rounds at the Olympics.
“If I get my LPGA card, that’d be great,” Maguire said. “If I don’t, I’m not losing anything – I’m coming back to a great team and a great program. It’s a win-win either way.”
This is the first time in his 33-year career that Duke coach Dan Brooks has had a player test the pro ranks midway through a season.
“I’m doing it on a trial basis, to see how I like it,” he said, “and I don’t like it very much.”
Brooks’ beef is with the current system, how it puts the player in an uncomfortable position of having to leave behind their teammates to follow their dreams.
“Even having the option to do this during the fall has always been a problem,” he said, “and it finally caught up to us.”
And so for now, Brooks and Forsyth are competing with the capable squad they have, but wary of what the offseason will bring.
“This is going to be one of those really strange years where if you’re fortunate and you don’t have any kids at Q-School, you can develop chemistry and gain some momentum,” Forsyth said. “When you’re a team like us, you’re going to have to reset and start again and build on what we have and try to pull up the players who aren’t in the lineup right now. It’s an unfortunate situation.”