Gina Kim can’t take more than a few steps this week at Plantation Golf and Country Club without seeing a staff bag. With 227 competitors in the field for Stage II of LPGA Q-School, the majority of them Symetra Tour or recent LPGA players, it’s no surprise.
However, Kim’s blue Duke University stand bag won’t stand out as much as one would think.
The Blue Devils senior is one of 14 current college players teeing it up at this week’s qualifying event in Venice, Florida. Like her peers, Kim is hoping to advance to the two-week Q-Series later this fall and earn an LPGA card.
Kim, who medaled at first stage this past August, will be joined at Stage II by six other All-Americans: Arizona sisters Vivian and Yu-Sang Hou, Florida State’s Beatrice Wallin, Vanderbilt’s Auston Kim, Houston’s Karen Fredgaard and Auburn’s Kaleigh Telfer. Arkansas senior Brooke Matthews, Golfstat’s top-ranked individual and already with two wins for the Razorbacks this fall, is also teeing it up, as are Virginia Tech’s Emily Mahar, Texas’ Brigitte Thibault, Alabama’s Polly Mack, Oklahoma’s Libby Winans, Cal’s Katherine Zhu and San Diego State’s Sara Kjellker.
“I’m just trying to take it easy and not put too much pressure on myself,” Kim told GolfChannel.com on Tuesday evening, two days before the 72-hole stroke-play event begins on Plantation’s Bobcat and Panther courses.
In a sense, Kim and this current crop of Q-School collegians have little to lose. A byproduct of finishing four rounds at this week’s no-cut event is earning Symetra status, so should they fail to qualify for Q-Series, not only can they return to their college teams, but there will still be 13 events left on the feeder tour once the NCAA Women’s Championship wraps up in late May.
“After all of this, I still have a team to go back to,” Kim said. “I still have a college to go back to.”
Unlike their professional counterparts, however, these student-athletes have tough decisions to make that become more difficult the further they advance down this qualifying road. Do they accept their LPGA cards and turn pro immediately or defer their status and return to school for the spring?
Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi both opted to defer their status in 2019, with Fassi winning the NCAA individual title and Kupcho capturing the Augusta National Women’s Amateur and helping Wake Forest to a national runner-up finish. But in two years since the LPGA provided college players the option to defer, those two are the only players who earned LPGA status to actually do so.
Five college players in each of the past two Q-Series have bolted school early.
Former Alabama standout Kristen Gillman, one of those 10, is among the pro entrants in Stage II. Gillman is trying to retain her LPGA status along with notables Haley Moore, Mariah Stackhouse and Linnea Strom. Other pros in the field include Sierra Brooks, Sophia Schubert, Frida Kinhult, Lucy Li, Gabi Ruffels, Kaitlyn Papp and Jaravee Boonchant.
The current women’s college game has already lost three of its top underclassmen in the past few months as rising juniors Linn Grant of Arizona State, Pauline Roussin-Bouchard of South Carolina and Maja Stark of Oklahoma State all decided to leave school and join the pro ranks. The talented trio has recently combined for five wins between the Ladies European Tour and LET Access Tour, with Stark winning three times this summer, and all three are in this week’s field.
It’s likely that more of their peers will follow them to the pros before the year is over.
Prior to the start of the fall season, Arizona head coach Laura Ianello talked with high enthusiasm about her squad, led by the Hou sisters and adding several talented freshmen. There was just one caveat, though.
“The only thing that’s going to be the big question mark for us is Q-School,” Ianello said.
While none of the 14 collegians at Stage II have officially declared their intentions, if the recent trend holds true, it’s unlikely that more than a few, if any, would come back to school and bypass precious early starts on either tour. Still, many insist they remain undecided.
“I honestly think it’s too early,” Matthews said a few weeks ago. “I’m just going to focus on, you know, like week by week. I haven’t made my decision yet. Just focusing on soaking in all this time with my team and my coaches. I love it here. We’ll just see how it goes. That’s really all I can say.”
Kim is at a similar point in the decision-making process. Without knowing what her status will be for next year, she maintains it difficult to make an informed and responsible decision. So, she’ll wait until December.
“I’ve really been thinking hard about it,” Kim said. “It’s a tough decision to make, and to be honest, I’m still on the fence about it. I could make as many predictions as I want, but golf is probably the most unpredictable game to be doing that, so I can’t really say anything until after I finish Q-School completely. My coach understood, and he was like, yeah, let’s wait until after Q-School when we have all the cards laid out in front of us and we can make a decision. I’m going to focus on all of that later and just try to play well and get some sort of status here.”
Just don’t think Kim has already checked out of college golf. After she finishes play Sunday, she’ll head up I-75 to Atlanta as Duke wraps up its fall at the East Lake Cup.
Kim won’t be competing, as she’ll miss Sunday’s practice round.
“But I wanted to come and watch,” Kim said. “I’ll be over there being a cheerleader.”