PINEHURST, N.C. – Life-changing rounds.
That’s what hangs in the balance for the wave of collegians making runs at earning LPGA tour cards at the inaugural Q-Series this weekend.
The choices they make promise to send a quake through the collegiate ranks, disrupting rosters and championship hopes at the schools that lose their star players. Or sighs of reliefs at schools that keep their stars.
Count Alabama coach Mic Potter’s team among the former.
With a little more than one round to go in the weather-delayed Q-Series, a whopping seven amateurs, six of them collegians, are among the top 45, the magic cut-off for winning LPGA tour cards. Two of them are Alabama stars.
That equals the total number of collegians that left school early to turn pro and take up the LPGA status they won at Q-School last year. Four collegians did so in 2016. One collegian did so in 2015.
University of Alabama senior Lauren Stephenson and Alabama junior Kristen Gillman told GolfChannel.com on Friday that they will turn pro and take up LPGA membership at the start of next year if they finish among the top 45 this weekend. They will forgo the spring collegiate season.
Stephenson is in fifth place with five holes to play in the suspended seventh round, which will resume Saturday morning. She’s 23 holes away from securing a tour card.
“I came here pretty much knowing if I got LPGA status, I would leave,” said Stephenson, Golfweek’s collegiate player of the year last season. “I’ve only got two classes left to graduate this spring. I’ll finish them up online. It’s not like I’m not going to graduate.”
Gillman is tied for seventh, and she also has just 23 holes to go.
“It’s too good an opportunity to turn down,” said Gillman, a two-time U.S. Women’s Amateur champ.
Ohio State University senior Jaclyn Lee and University of Colorado junior Robyn Choi could make it four collegians using Q-Series to launch their careers.
Lee told GolfChannel.com that she will take up LPGA membership if she earns a tour card, but she isn’t sure yet whether she will take advantage of the LPGA’s new deferral policy and wait until summer to join the tour. If she defers, she can return to school and help the Buckeyes this spring.
“I haven’t made that decision yet,” Lee told GolfChannel.com. “I haven’t had those conversations yet with my family and my coaches. I will cross that bridge when I come to it. I don’t really want to think about it until this is over.”
Wake Forest coach Kim Lewellen and University of Arkansas coach Shauna Estes-Taylor might want to send a bouquet of flowers to LPGA commissioner Mike Whan. It looks like they’ll get their stars back.
Whan instituted the new deferral policy this year, allowing amateurs to wait until July 1 before taking up LPGA membership.
Wake Forest senior Jennifer Kupcho, the reigning NCAA individual champ, reaffirmed her plans to defer LPGA membership in the highly likely chance she finishes up her brilliant run this week. She’s the low amateur so far, sitting in third place with 24 holes to go.
“It’s great to play well here, but I’m still going back to school,” Kupcho told GolfChannel.com. “The deferral is a great option for players who want to give the LPGA a shot but who want to return to school. We want this option.”
Arkansas senior Maria Fassi couldn’t agree more. The Annika Award winner as the best woman in the collegiate game last season is tied for 18th with 22 holes to go. She wants to return to school and help the Razorbacks win a national title in their own backyard this spring. Arkansas will host to the national championship next May.
“We’re lucky to have this deferral option now,” Fassi said. “If we weren’t hosting the nationals, it would probably be a harder decision for me. I think we have a really solid team and the fact that we are hosting gives us a good shot at winning the national championship. That makes the decision way easier for me.”
Colorado junior Robyn Choi is sitting right on the LPGA bubble, tied for 45th with 18 holes to go. Players who don’t finish among the top 45 still have options. Everyone teeing it up at Pinehurst this week is guaranteed at least Symetra Tour status.
“If I get my LPGA tour card, I will go pro right away and take up membership,” Choi told GolfChannel.com. “There’s an advantage doing that, in trying to secure your card for the next year. If I get Symetra Tour status, I may go back to school.”
UCLA senior Lilia Vu, the Women’s College Golf Association Player of the Year, is within reach of a tour card. She’s tied for 58th but just two shots from cracking the top 45. So is the University of Miami’s Dewi Weber.
Vu told GolfChannel.com that her plan was to defer LPGA membership if she finished among the top 20, but she said she was leaning toward turning pro immediately if she ended up farther back among the top 45. She is concerned that a lower ranking within that priority category might limit her starts next year.
“It depends on the number you get, as to when you can get into your first tournament,” Vu said. “I might have to start playing right away.”
Vu said she was uncertain whether she would defer Symetra Tour status and return to school.
UCLA sophomore Patty Tavatanakit, No. 2 in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, is sitting tied for 70th, six shots off the LPGA tour card cutline. She joined Stephenson, Kupcho, Fassi and Vu as the top five collegians who were granted an exemption to the Q-Series finals based on their college rankings.
“I was hesitant coming here, because I’m only a sophomore and I’m enjoying my college life,” Tavatanakit said. “I still think I’ve got a lot to learn. So, I didn’t really have the right mindset coming here, the commitment you need.”
Tavatanakit said she wasn’t likely to turn pro.
LPGA tour operations officer Heather Daly-Donofrio said the deferral option was created to give college players more choices. The tour will offer counsel to players who want to review the ramifications of taking the deferral.
Collegians who defer risk digging themselves an early hole in the money race next year, which could hurt their ability to keep their tour cards. The 2019 tour schedule isn’t out yet, but a player who waits until after the NCAA championships next year (May 7-22) to join the tour could miss as many as 8 to 10 starts.
“LPGA players are too good for you to miss that many tournaments,” Gillman said. “You’ll be too far behind if you defer. I think you have to start at the beginning of the season, because there’s going to be a learning experience, feeling things out in the beginning.”
Fassi understands that, but she said there’s value in the collegiate experience she doesn’t want to miss.
“Yes, I’m going to have to play better to keep my card, but the tour isn’t going anywhere,” Fassi said. “It’s always going to be there. I want to be part of my team. I may never have a chance to play for a team like this again. I want to finish up my education, get my degree and graduate.”
Both Fassi and Gillman are grateful they have the choice.