Gordon Sargent was sitting on his couch back home in Birmingham, Alabama, at 9 a.m. the day after New Year’s when his phone buzzed. It was a number he didn’t recognize, though the name on the caller I.D. was very familiar:
Augusta National Golf Club.
“I was a little caught off guard by it,” Sargent admitted this week while appearing on Golf Channel’s College Golf Talk podcast.
Not since 2000, when the Masters invited Aaron Baddeley, had an amateur been offered a special exemption into the field for the year’s first major. So, it was understandable that Sargent, the 19-year-old reigning NCAA individual champion, initially thought he was being pranked.
“I’m not even positive I believed him after he called me,” said Vanderbilt head coach Scott Limbaugh, the only person besides his parents that Sargent told before Thursday’s official announcement, “just because it’s just so not like something they would do. … We weren’t telling anyone because you want to make sure that it’s a deal.”
Once the Masters broke the news to the public, Sargent said he had over 250 text messages, forcing himself to put his phone on do not disturb while he compete in last weekend’s Jones Cup in Sea Island, Georgia, where he tied for sixth.
Back on campus in Nashville, Tennessee, on Tuesday, Sargent revealed that his official invitation did arrive in his parents’ mailbox on Monday.
“I’ve got pictures of it,” Sargent said. “So, I hope it’s real.”
It’s unknown if Sargent’s inclusion in this year’s field will signal an annual invite to the NCAA individual champion. Amateurs can play their way into a Masters berth by winning the U.S. Amateur, U.S. Mid-Amateur, Asia-Pacific Amateur, Latin America Amateur, British Amateur or by finishing runner-up at the U.S. Amateur.
An Augusta National spokesperson wouldn’t elaborate on the tournament’s future plans, only to say that Sargent was simply a “special invitation.”
“I do think this could be a monumental day for college golf,” Limbaugh said. “We don’t know how they are looking at it, but for him to get this special exemption … it’s incredible, and I am so happy for him.”
Sargent has played Augusta National once before, when he was 14 years old. He remembers hitting 3-iron into the first green. These days, the 6-foot sophomore is, as Limbaugh describes, “another level of long.”
Specifically, Sargent grooves the driver at about 185 mph ball speed, but on Monday he said he went after one and set a new personal record: 197 mph ball speed, 132 mph clubhead speed.
That’s the type of speed that has agents, club manufacturers and other sponsors raving about the long-hitting teenager. A few have even anointed Sargent the best college player in over a decade.
Talk like that naturally begs the question: How long before Sargent turns professional?
According to Sargent, he plans on staying at least three years at Vanderbilt, if not longer. Even if he satisfies the newly announced PGA Tour University Accelerated program, which gives a PGA Tour card to college underclassmen who earn a set number of points by checking off certain benchmarks.
Sargent currently stands at 10 points, halfway to the 20 he needs to earn a Tour card – three points for a career-high WAGR rank of third; three for winning the NCAA individual title; two for receiving the Phil Mickelson Award as the nation’s top freshman; and one point each for playing a Palmer Cup and World Amateur Team Championship.
He has a chance to earn four points at the Masters – one for playing, one for making the cut and two additional for a top-20 finish. Reaching No. 1 in the world would come with two more points. And winning the Haskins, Nicklaus and Hogan awards are good for three points each.
If he succeeds in getting to 20 points this spring, Sargent says he can defer that Tour card rather than having to take advantage of it right away this summer.
“You’d obviously be thinking about [accepting that PGA Tour card] because there’s just so much that comes along with it, but at the same time, everyone tells you that college is the best time of your life. … College golf is really the only time where you’re on a team besides Ryder Cup, Walker Cup, stuff like that,” he said. “But yeah, if I achieved it after this year, I’m still definitely going to come back for my junior year, and obviously things could change a little bit after that. But I don’t think I’m ready to play professional golf right now.”
Sargent added: “I can’t even imagine traveling the world by myself playing professional golf at age 20. I’d rather just stay in college another couple years and get better. … And if you have a PGA Tour card waiting for you, it gives you a lot of freedom.”
Sargent’s two big goals at the moment: Winning an NCAA team title this May and representing the U.S. at the Walker Cup this September. The latter would come with another Accelerated point.
And then, of course, there is the elephant in the room: LIV Golf. With the Saudi-backed series already showing it’s interested in young talent by signing former Oklahoma State standout Eugenio Chacarra, it wouldn’t be crazy to think that LIV would be interested in a guy like Sargent, who enters the spring ranked No. 1 in Golfstat.
Sargent says he’s had no contact with LIV, and he definitely hasn’t received any kind of offer to join the startup league. But that hasn’t stopped rumors from circling.
The craziest rumor that Sargent has caught wind of?
“Someone at the SEC Match Play just came up to me out of the blue and was like, ‘Congrats on the LIV offer.’ And I was like, ‘I’ve had no contact with LIV. I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ And the guy thought I was lying to him. And I’m like, ‘No, I haven’t talked to LIV at all.’
“He said [the offer] was $50 million. And I’m like, ‘Sir, I promise you, that’s just not true.’”
What is true, however, is Sargent will be teeing it up in the Masters this spring. No joke.