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Lingering college questions after LPGA Q-Series

Lauren Stephenson and Kristen Gillman at the 2018 Curtis Cup
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Lauren Stephenson (L) and Kristen Gillman at the 2018 Curtis Cup.  - 

The much-discussed LPGA Q-Series marathon is over, finally, and the impact on the women’s college game is immense.

Of the 48 players who earned full LPGA cards for next year, seven were collegians with decorated playing résumés: national champions and award winners and first-team All-Americans.

Here is a breakdown of which players, coaches and teams are most affected, and the potential fallout for 2019 and beyond:

Who earned LPGA cards?

It’s a who’s who of women’s college golf, a group that includes the reigning NCAA individual champion (Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho), U.S. Women’s Amateur champion (Alabama’s Kristen Gillman), Annika Award winner (Arkansas’ Maria Fassi) and Golfweek’s No. 1-ranked player a season ago (Alabama’s Lauren Stephenson). Also earning LPGA cards were UCLA senior and three-time first-team All-American Lilia Vu, All-Pac 12 performer Robyn Choi of Colorado and Ohio State senior Jaclyn Lee, currently No. 3 in Golfstat’s rankings.

Miami senior Dewi Weber (the 2016 NCAA runner-up) and Georgia senior Bailey Tardy (a former first-team All-American) each will at least have Symetra Tour status next year, by virtue of playing in the Q-Series finals. As of Monday morning, they’ve yet to decide whether they’ll forgo their final semester of eligibility and turn pro.

Most interestingly, the LPGA granted an automatic exemption into final stage for the top 5 players in the season-ending Golfweek/Sagarin college rankings. Essentially, the tour cherry-picked the elite college players and made their path to the tour as easy as possible. Four of those top-tier stars rose to the challenge, and the only one who didn’t advance was a surprise: UCLA sophomore Patty Tavatanakit, who was conflicted even being in Pinehurst for the event (she didn’t believe she was ready for the tour, yet couldn’t pass up the opportunity to try to qualify) and tied for 84th.

Which teams are most affected?

Alabama is decimated.

Five months ago, the Crimson Tide were the No. 1-ranked team in the country and reached the NCAA finals. They’ve now lost four starters from that squad: Cheyenne Knight turned pro after NCAAs; Lakareber Abe graduated; and both Stephenson and Gillman are leaving school, primed for big LPGA careers.

Last week Alabama coach Mic Potter got a preview of what’s to come over the next few months. At the East Lake Cup, the Tide trailed by 26 strokes after the 18-hole shootout, then got overwhelmed in the semifinals before a surprising 3-2 win over defending champion Arizona in the consolation match.

With Stephenson and Gillman out of the mix, the Tide will have to rely not only on junior transfer Jiwon Jeon (currently fifth in Golfstat’s rankings) but also a pair of freshmen, Carolina Caminoli and Mary Mac Trammell, at the backend of the lineup. They’ve struggled mightily in limited action this fall.

Just a month ago Alabama was the clear-cut No. 1 team in the country, shooting 73 under par to win its first two events of the fall. Now, after these defections, the Tide could struggle just to advance out of NCAA regionals.

Said Potter: “I just have to coach the girls I have as well as I can and see what happens.”  

UCLA will take a hit, too, though it could have been even worse.  

Vu’s absence will hurt the Bruins’ NCAA title chances, no doubt, but no one has played better this fall than Tavatanakit, who is a legitimate Player of the Year contender.

This week, Carrie Forsyth’s Bruins are closing out the fall with the Pac-12 Preview in Hawaii, without their two leaders. To fill their spots, Forsyth has called up two players who were a combined 48 over par in their last college start.

“This year has been a little more impactful than normal, and I feel really bad for Mic Potter and Carrie Forsyth,” USC coach Justin Silverstein said. “It’s a tough deal.”

What’s the impact on the college game?

It’s significant, because the Q-Series promotions rob the college game of some of its best talent and also diminish a few of the top programs.

So which teams will fill the void?

Which players will take the next step?

Alabama and UCLA’s decline is good news for a team such as USC, which last week won the East Lake Cup over Stanford and reaffirmed its position atop the Golfstat rankings. They have one of the youngest teams in the country, with four sophomores and a freshman, but they were able to coalesce at the right time last season, advancing to the NCAA semifinals, and should be considered the favorites at nationals next May in Arkansas. In this match-play era, depth is the most important, and USC boasts five starters (actually, eight, if you dip into its bench) with the capability of posting a sub-par scoring average.

Stanford, Duke, Texas and Arizona State also look like serious contenders, and Arkansas is playing its home course for the NCAA finals.

Stanford junior Albane Valenzuela looked the part of a bona fide star at the East Lake Cup, where she eagled the final hole to earn medalist honors, then breezed through two quality opponents in match play. Plagued by injuries in the past, Valenzuela has the game and experience – she has played in the Olympics, contended in an LPGA major and won college events – to have a breakout year.

What to watch for in 2019?

A couple of things:

1.) Kupcho, the NCAA individual champion, and Fassi, the reigning Annika Award winner whose Arkansas team hosts NCAAs next spring, both said that they’ll defer LPGA membership until after the college season ends in late May.

Those are selfless decisions – and ones that should be applauded! – but they come with risk. By getting a late start on tour, they’ll likely have eight to 10 fewer starts to earn enough money to keep their LPGA card.  

If they’re unable to retain their status, how many players in the future do you think will defer membership?

The short answer: None.

2.) All of a sudden, Golfweek’s season-ending rankings hold a lot of weight. Those are the players who will automatically gain entry into the Q-Series finals – guaranteeing, at the very least, some Symetra Tour status for 2020 (but, as this year showed, they should be able to qualify for the big tour).

Right now, with the fall winding down, that top-5 group is: Stanford’s Valenzuela, UCLA’s Tavatanakit, Stanford’s Andrea Lee, Vanderbilt’s Abbey Carlson and UCLA’s Mariel Galdiano.

That’ll be a tight race come springtime – and it’ll have far-reaching impacts, for both the players and their teams.

3.) Will there be changes next fall? The Q-Series has been such a hotly debated topic this year that it’d be a surprise if the rules weren’t slightly altered for the 2019 edition.

At its core, having the amateurs play against the pros in the Q-Series creates a competitive disadvantage – the college kids have a cushy fallback option of heading back to campus if they fail, while the pros are playing for their livelihoods. That needs to get sorted out. And though the LPGA is a business that smartly wants to pluck the best young players from the college ranks, there’s been virtually no communication with the top coaches, which creates confusion, resentment and hostility.

“What we all want is just a seat at the table with the LPGA,” Silverstein said. “Maybe both sides can get what they want out of the situation.”