PINEHURST, N.C. - All those college coeds playing in the LPGA’s inaugural Q-Series turned Saturday’s final round into a hell of a sorority party.
The cheerleading squad from the University of Alabama should have been here with megaphones.
From Wake Forest, Ohio State, UCLA, Arkansas and Colorado, too.
Boom dynamite, boom dynamite!
We gonna tick tick tick tick blow dynamite!
That football cheer would have echoed nicely through the trees at Pinehurst No. 7 on this uniquely collegiate autumn afternoon.
The coeds brought a fresh vibe to the reimagined final stage of the LPGA qualifying tournament. They brought a new crackle of electricity, too.
They stole the show over the 144-hole, two-week marathon.
“I think it’s a real statement about the strength of the college game,” said Wake Forest senior Jennifer Kupcho, who closed with a 2-under-par 70 to finish second, one shot behind seven-time Korean LPGA Tour winner Jeongeun Lee6. “I think it should encourage young players to go the college route, because it really shows what we can do.”
Kupcho, the reigning NCAA women’s individual national champion, was among a whopping eight amateurs to earn LPGA tour cards by finishing among the top 45 and ties.
Seven of those were collegians.
How good is that?
Just two collegians who were still on school rosters were among the top 45 earning LPGA status last year.
Just four made it through in 2016, only one in 2015 and none as recently as 2013.
Ohio State senior Jaclyn Lee joined Kupcho among players winning LPGA status by finishing sixth.
Alabama’s dynamic duo, senior Lauren Stephenson and junior Kristen Gillman, also won tour cards. Stephenson tied for eighth and Gillman tied for 13th.
UCLA senior Lilia Vu made the boldest final-round charge among collegians. She was two shots off the cutline for LPGA tour cards at day’s start and shot a 67 to finish tied for 27th.
Arkansas senior Maria Fassi tied for 32nd and Colorado junior Robyn Choi birdied two of the final three holes in clutch fashion to squeeze into the mix with a tie for 45th.
Suzuka Yamaguchi, an 18-year-old amateur still in high school in Japan, tied for 36th.
The collegians were beaming over their showing.
“The college game is underrated,” said Fassi, the Annika Award winner as the best collegiate woman in the game last season. “The college game is growing so much, and it’s getting so much stronger. You have to really shoot low to win college tournaments today.”
The new Q-Series format exempted the top five collegians straight into the final stage. It boosted the presence of the best collegians.
Kupcho, Fassi, Stephenson and Gillman all justified their exemptions with play over eight rounds. UCLA sophomore Patti Tavatanakit won Symetra Tour status but expects to return to UCLA.
“Q Series may not be good for the college game, but I think it’s great for golf,” Stephenson said.
Saturday wasn’t all good news for the college game.
In fact, there’s some really bad news.
Shock waves will rumble through some elite programs, wreaking havoc with rosters in the middle of the collegiate season and damaging championship hopes.
Of the seven collegians to win LPGA status, as many as five of them may forgo their spring collegiate season to turn pro and take up tour membership at the start of new year.
Kupcho and Fassi, however, aren’t among them.
They told GolfChannel.com again Saturday that they are sticking to their plan to use the tour’s new deferral policy to retain amateur status. They plan to return school to help their teams complete the spring season. They will join the LPGA sometime in late May or early June. They have until July 1 to claim tour membership.
Alabama’s Stephenson and Gillman both told GolfChannel.com that they will turn pro to be ready for the start of the LPGA season.
UCLA’s Vu also said she was going to turn pro and take up membership to start the new year.
Colorado’s Choi also said she expects to go directly to the LPGA at year’s start.
Ohio State’s Lee said she was still unsure.
“I want to talk to my parents, family, friends and coaches, over the next few weeks,” Lee said. “There are a lot of things to get in order to make a decision like this. It’s not clear cut for me. I need some time to mull it over.”
There are some tough goodbyes ahead for Stephenson and Gillman, whose Crimson Tide will no longer be favored to defend their title at the NCAA Championship in May.
“It’s definitely sad to leave,” Stephenson said. “We don’t want to leave the team in a bad spot, but this is our dream. We will be supporting the team, and I know they’re supporting us.”
Kupcho and Fassi will be pioneers of sorts.
They will be the first amateurs to make this journey to the LPGA using the new deferral policy.
A lot of collegians heading to the Q-Series in the future will closely watch how they fare.
The upside of the deferral is that it allows Kupcho and Fassi to complete their collegiate experience while continuing to help their teams.
The downside is that they could miss up to eight to 10 LPGA starts, depending when they join the tour late next spring or early next summer.
They will fall behind on the money list in the battle to keep their tour cards for the 2020 season. They won’t, however, have to worry about losing their spot in the year’s first reshuffle, usually occurring in May.
According to the LPGA published answers to Q-Series FAQs:
“An amateur’s position on the LPGA priority list that is earned at the Q-Series will be held until the competitor either turns professional (LPGA membership will begin on the date she notifies the LPGA that she has accepted professional status), or up until just prior to the second reshuffle of the LPGA Tour season, whichever comes first.”
The LPGA’s priority categories are revised for next year.
All players who won LPGA status by finishing among the top 45 and ties at Pinehurst will play out of a new category.
In the final stage of past Q-Schools, only the top 20 earned full status. They competed out of a priority category just ahead of LPGA pros who finished Nos. 101-125 on the previous year’s LPGA money list. Players who finished 21st to 45th at Q-School played in the next category after that.
Next year, the top 45 and ties at Q-School will all compete ahead of LPGA players who finished Nos. 101-125 on the money list.
“The deferral gives us the best of both worlds,” Fassi said. “It’s really a gift, to be able to return to school and our team, to graduate but also to be able to join the LPGA.”