When the PGA Tour announced widespread changes to its qualifying system – which starting next year will no longer provide a direct route from Q-School to the Big Show – college golf’s elite players were predictably peeved.
“I wasn’t happy,” said Florida senior T.J. Vogel. “I thought it was a bad break, just a bummer.”
“I was pissed,” said Alabama sophomore Justin Thomas (pictured above), the reigning National Player of the Year.
“It was a little discouraging,” said Cal senior Max Homa, “just because it seems like it’s so difficult now. It almost seems like people are trying to create it so you can’t make it.”
A one-year mass exodus from college seemed imminent. The world’s top amateurs had trained most of their adolescent life to play the PGA Tour, and a proposed plan would make that goal more difficult to attain. Of course they would give The Last Q-School a try.
But then a strange thing happened.
Homa again: “The thing is, I really still believe that if you play well, if you deserve to be out there, if you work really, really hard, that you’ll be out there regardless of how many barriers are in front of you.”
Which may help explain why only seven players – including only one ranked in the top 20 in the country – have attempted to navigate Q-School this year while still enrolled in college. (And only four players – North Florida’s Sean Dale, Missouri’s Jace Long, Stanford’s Andrew Yun and Texas’ Jordan Spieth – are still left, playing this week’s second stage.) The biggest name among that group is Spieth, 19, who has already experienced success at the pro level and was expected to bolt early anyway.
Still, “I’m a little surprised more guys aren’t giving it a shot,” he said recently. “But it’s a financial sacrifice. If you don’t think you’re going to go pro anyways, there’s no reason to do it. The best players will find their way onto the PGA Tour somehow.”
Maybe so, but even TCU sophomore Julien Brun, who won earlier this season on the European Challenge Tour, thereby earning fully exempt status on the 2013 European Tour, has decided to stay in school. Asked why, the Frenchman said, “When you line up the pros and cons, it was not really a tough choice. I came to school to get a degree.”
So why the shift in philosophy? Why did the mass exodus never transpire? In a college landscape rife with early defections, why in college golf is it cool to stay in school?
Well, give Spieth partial credit – attempting Q-School certainly is an expensive endeavor, and the financial factor was cited by each of the dozen players interviewed by GolfChannel.com last month at the Isleworth Collegiate. After all, the cost for first-stage qualifying at Q-School is $4,500, and after adding expenses for a caddie, hotel, airfare and rental car, the entire experience can cost upwards of $15,000. “That’s a huge investment with no guarantees,” said ’Bama junior Cory Whitsett.
Besides, being a college golfer just might be the sweetest gig in the game. Take Vogel, the 2012 U.S. Amateur Public Links champion. This past fall, his Florida Gators played the Ocean Course at Kiawah Island, Isleworth, Old Overton and Olympia Fields. Two weeks ago, eight lucky teams competed in a two-day event at Cypress Point.
“Who wouldn’t want to stay in school and play these courses and be tested like this?” said Vogel, ranked in the top 15 nationally. “This is pressure-packed, when you’re coming down the stretch on a really hard golf course. It really teaches you how to close.”
Two years ago, Bud Cauley deemed that his college experience had adequately prepared him for the pros. Alabama coach Jay Seawell told him then, and still maintains now, “that these players just have to make sure everything is in order. You don’t turn pro to play mini-tour golf. Things were lined up for Bud. He knew that he wasn’t going to be poor and in some Motel 6 in some redneck town. You know, it’s hard to buy something when you’re losing money.”
That’s the type of advice that can resonate with his new standout player, Thomas, who was at the forefront of the will-they-leave-early? movement. In his first season at Alabama, he won four times, led the Crimson Tide to the NCAA finals and captured the Jack Nicklaus, Phil Mickelson and Haskins awards. Really, why wouldn’t he leave school after one year?
“I want to win a national championship,” he said. “The PGA Tour isn’t going anywhere. I feel like I might be (ready), but who knows? The main thing is just maturity. I just finished my first year and need to get a little better.”
So whether they chose to stay in school because of the money, or because they actually like college, or because they don’t want to abandon a team with championship aspirations, or because – God forbid – they want to graduate, one thing remains certain: “If you’re good enough this year, then you’ll be good enough in a few years,” Illinois coach Mike Small said.
“If you’re a happy kid, why go?”