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Is the Pathway Between College and the Pros Dooming Amateur Golf?

27 Nov, 2019

By: Mary Helen Sprecher

“Amateur golf is doomed,” moaned a headline recently, referring to the ways the sport is making it easier for elite collegiate women to test the waters of the pro tour, at the expense of their varsity careers. It’s a phenomenon that has played out repeatedly this year. But does it signify a large-scale problem?

Certainly, the issue of collegiate golf presenting a pathway to the pro levels has been under scrutiny. All the way back in the beginning of 2019, SDM reported on the fact that the PGA had been working to develop a new program to allow top collegiate golfers to transition to the PGA TOUR. One of the benefits of the program would be convincing promising amateurs not to make the choice between finishing their education and turning pro. 

According to GolfWorld, while this is not currently an issue in men's golf, a number of women players have had to choose between beginning their professional careers in the middle of the college seasons due to the dates of LPGA Q school, now known as LPGA Q Series. The frequency became amplified to the point the LPGA now allows deferred status to those who qualify.

This year alone, notable elite college players elected to forego their second semester of college golf in order to move to the LPGA Q Series, hoping for a spot on the Symetra Tour. The problem, golf analysts say, is when they’re doing it.

For those who don’t follow college golf regularly, notes Golfweek, “this is a scene that plays out annually at top programs across the country. Elite players who want to position themselves for the next step sign up for LPGA qualifying and, in many cases, feel they can’t afford to put aside tour membership to finish out the spring semester. (It’s like the top five players in basketball getting drafted before March Madness.) The timing of Q-Series is awful for college programs.”

It certainly was in Stanford University’s case. Albane Valenzuela recently told her teammates that she would not be returning to play because she had decided to turn pro. And Stanford’s top-ranked player, Andrea Lee, who previously left the team to try herself against the pros, hasn’t committed yet to returning for her final semester. Trying to fill the holes left by two elite golfers – in this case, ranked among the top five nationally – is impossible in mid-year.

Stanford isn’t the only school suffering losses. Golfweek notes that USC’s Jennifer Chang accepted her LPGA card and will turn pro for the start of the 2020 season. Florida’s Sierra Brooks and Frida Kinhult of Florida State will play a full season on the Symetra Tour in hopes of making their way to the LPGA.

And they’re far from the only cases. Multiple options have been suggested; one was to have qualifying players get exemptions straight onto the Symetra Tour after the spring season had concluded. (This, notes Golfweek, “would also keep players from needlessly missing college events in the fall and perhaps keep a few who aren’t ready for Q-Series from putting themselves in the position to advance by being forced to tee it up (and pay) for Stage II.”

Hint: This could be why the PGA has been hesitant to adopt a specific strategy.

It’s easy to advise players to stay in college golf and worry about the tour later, but the experience, at least according to some analysts, does not march with the reality. College golf, they note, is win-focused, rather than coaching-focused, and is less involved with individual player development. Some pundits even encourage promising juniors to turn pro early, using college as a fallback in case it doesn’t work out. (One quote: “When you get your Amateur status back you will be able to play for a college team if you want to. There is no age limit to eligibility. Of course, you will be the old guy or girl on the team by then but so what?”)

Look for the goalposts to change in the years to come as the LPGA (and in time, the PGA) try to find ways around the current problem.

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