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LPGA on Q-Series/NCAA controversy: Giving the athletes a choice

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 LPGA vs. college golf.

They won’t actually be pitted against each other Wednesday, but some of the game’s top college coaches can’t help feeling as if there is a clash of developmental aims playing out in ways it never has this fall season, with a pair of big events going on at the same time.

In Atlanta, four of the best college programs in the land will finish up the East Lake Cup.

At Pinehurst, the second half of the LPGA’s inaugural Q-Series will begin.

The clash is in the tug of war for talent, in how the juxtaposition of these big events brings into focus irreconcilable differences between the collegiate game and the professional game, differences both sides are eager to find compromises to navigate within.

Two of Alabama’s stars – Lauren Stephenson and Kristen Gillman – didn't make the trip to Atlanta. They’re at Q-Series. They’re both in good position to win LPGA tour cards, which could mean they won’t be returning to Alabama’s roster for the spring season.

With Q-Series being played over two weeks, a month earlier than the final stage of Q-School was traditionally played, fall college schedules have been impacted.

“I would like to see some revision,” Lauren Ianello, coach of defending national champion Arizona, said.

LPGA tour operations officer Heather Daly-Donofrio was one of the architects of this reimagined model of the final stage of the tour’s qualifying tournament. She said she is thrilled with how the Q-Series is unfolding, but she has heard the complaints coaches have expressed in Atlanta this week.

While she feels good about the rapport she has built with college coaches, she welcomes more input once Q-Series concludes. As much as Daly-Donofrio likes what she is seeing at Pinehurst, she said tweaks are possible.

“I do feel like the communication with college coaches is good, but I’m open to more communication,” Daly-Donofrio said. “With anything, it can always be better.

“I would love to hear some feedback, and I would love to address the coaches when they are gathered in a forum at some point. It can only help strengthen our relationship.”

But college coaches should know Daly-Donofrio sees a great upside to Q-Series, a two-week event that features 102 players battling to be among the 45 players and ties who will win LPGA tour cards.

“We’re really pleased with how it’s going, with everything from the quality of the field, the quality of the venue and the quality of the leaderboard,” Daly-Donofrio said. “We’re getting a lot of good comments from the players, about how they are looking at it more as a marathon than a sprint, how they like eight rounds instead of five rounds, with a break in the middle and a couple days to reset and regroup.

“A lot of players were easing into the event, knowing if they didn’t have a great round, there was no need to panic, because they still had time to make up ground.”

This new final qualifying stage includes players who finished Nos. 11-30 on the final Symetra Tour money list, Nos. 101-150 on the LPGA money list, the top five collegians from the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings, LPGA non-members from among the top 75 in the Rolex Women’s World Rankings and 40 players from the second stage of Q-School – half the number who made it from second stage last year.

Daly-Donofrio said she likes the new qualifying pool used to create the field, because it puts more emphasis on a year-long body of work, and less on a week or two of Q-School play.

‘That was a big factor in reworking the finals,” Daly-Donofrio said.

It’s also one of the reasons the LPGA created an exemption for the top-five ranked college players. Those collegians are also being rewarded for their body of work.

Some college coaches, however, believe the top-five exemption may serve to entice underclassmen to turn pro earlier than they planned. They don’t like the LPGA enticing players to leave school early.

Daly-Donofrio doesn’t see it that way.

She said Q-Series was set up to give athletes more freedom to make their own choices, including the freedom to return to college for the spring if they win a tour card this week. The tour created a new deferral this year, allowing collegians who win tour cards to delay taking up membership until any time before July 1.

“Historically, the top 10 collegiate players have graduated to the LPGA in some shape, form or fashion and become successful professionals,” Daly-Donofrio said. “We wanted to narrow that funnel from Stage 2 of Q-School to the Q-Series, but we also wanted to create opportunities and choices for that top talent as well.”

Collegians are flourishing halfway through Q-Series, with three at T-3 or better, four at T-7 or better and five at T-11 or better.

Daly-Donofrio said gifted underclassmen turning pro early is a reality of modern sport.

“Your top athlete in any sport may not finish out his or her college career in this day and age,” Daly-Donofrio said. “Again, that’s the athlete’s choice.

“We want to provide options and choices for the athletes. That doesn’t always fit with everybody else’s goals and desires, but, at the end of the day, we look at it as being the athlete’s choice.”

Daly-Donofrio said the new deferral option is the direct result of the communication opened with college coaches.

“We’ve had coaches call asking us to reconsider our policy and allow deferrals,” Daly-Donofrio said. “I’ve been speaking to coaches for years about this. It’s one of the areas where we’ve heard the coaches, understood their concerns and addressed them.”

In the recent past, collegians could enter Q-School as an amateur, but if they won LPGA status, they had to declare their intention to take up membership after Q-School’s final round. That has created headaches for college coaches, with departing stars wreaking havoc with their rosters in the middle of the school year.

Daly-Donofrio said the deferral option fit the LPGA’s desire to put more choices into the hands of athletes.

Again, however, Daly-Donofrio said changes are possible, after a thorough evaluation of this year’s inaugural event.

“If things need to be revised, or tweaked, we will certainly do that,” she said, “if it’s in the best interest of the competition and what we are trying to achieve.”