They’ve got it pretty good, these elite college golfers.
Their swings have been optimized by $20,000 TrackMan devices; their games sharpened at the school’s state-of-the-art practice facility; their bodies rebuilt in Olympic-sized weight rooms. Throughout the season they play only the best schedules, on the stoutest courses, against the deepest fields. Their travel arrangements are made for them. Dinner reservations, too. When they check in at the host hotel, they’re not showing ID and slapping down a credit card for incidentals – their coach simply hands them a room key and points them toward the elevator.
It’s a charmed existence that, college seniors know, eventually comes to an end. Then what?
“The talent level isn’t that different from a sophomore to a senior, but the maturity level is,” said Georgia coach Chris Haack. “And so if a kid can be away from home for four years and go through the process, gain some more life experience, he’ll come out of school so much better prepared physically, mentally and, most importantly, maturity-wise to be able to handle all the things that come with being a pro.”
At least that’s the thought process behind this PGA Tour University program that was unveiled Monday, the new ranking system that will incentivize players to stay in school by creating a pathway to the Korn Ferry Tour (for the top five seniors) and other feeder circuits (for Nos. 6-15).
PGA Tour U isn’t and won’t be for everyone. World-beating underclassmen will still be able to turn pro after NCAAs, ink lucrative endorsement deals and secure the maximum seven sponsor exemptions allowed to non-members, hoping to parlay those spot starts into status.
But Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth and Matthew Wolff – they’re outliers, not the norm. Across the PGA and Korn Ferry tours, roughly 60 percent of the members were four-year college players, while 18 percent played less than four years and 22 percent didn’t play college golf. That means an overwhelming percentage – guys like Jon Rahm and Brooks Koepka, Xander Schauffele and Collin Morikawa – resisted the temptation to bolt early, honed their games and matured into young adults. How’d they turn out?
“You can’t cheat the system – you’re either good enough or you’re not,” said Oklahoma State coach Alan Bratton. “As a general rule, the more experience you can get, the better. It’s very difficult to overprepare.”
So consider, now, the path forward for the top five seniors. Exempt into full fields for the Korn Ferry Tour regular season, they’ll likely have eight or nine events to accrue enough points to either A) vault into the top 25, earning PGA Tour status for the following season, B) crack the top 75, retaining Korn Ferry Tour status and qualifying for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, where another 25 Tour cards are up for grabs, or C) if they play poorly during the summer, at the very least gain entry into the final stage of Q-School.
“This is a chance to get those who are ready out there even quicker,” Haack said.
Haack and Bratton were among the prominent coaches who were kept in the loop throughout the three-year process to develop PGA Tour U. Back then, they never could have imagined how deep the inaugural class would be. Then the coronavirus pandemic hit this spring, canceling the 2019-20 season, creating a bonus year of eligibility for affected seniors and limiting the available pro opportunities for juniors who were thinking about making the jump. And so vying for those 15 spots this coming season are Haskins Award finalists, first-team All-Americans and Walker Cuppers, giving the program the necessary juice to take off in Year 1.
The system isn’t without its flaws. No amateur events are counted in the two-year window. Injured players won’t be able to meet the minimum nine-event requirement in their final year of eligibility. There still should be a path for talented underclassmen to gain valuable experience in opposite-field Tour events and Korn Ferry tournaments, provided they remain amateur.
But the program is a boon to both the Tour, which now will get the most game-ready players in its feeder system, and a college game that should grow even stronger with a deeper pool of players.
“My hope is that kids and their parents will now take a little bit more of a pause and not be so anxious to get out there, thinking they’ve got to only go to school for a few years and turn pro,” Haack said. “This can slow down their thinking. I always tell my guys: ‘The PGA Tour isn’t going anywhere.’”
For the studs who wait, it’s never been more attainable.