KORN FERRY TOUR FINALS
Alex Smalley goes from mini tours to PGA TOUR card
September 01, 2021
By Nick Parker, PGATOUR.COM
- September 01, 2021
- Alex Smalley at the 2021 Wyndham Championship. (Jared C. Tilton/Getty Images)
Every Monday before a Korn Ferry Tour or PGA TOUR event 100s of players sign up all with the hope of a chance at chasing their dream. Before those hundreds more went to a pre-qualifier just hoping to qualify for the Monday qualifier. All doing so in search of one day pulling off a storybook run like Alex Smalley’s done the last month.
A little less than 2 1/2 months ago, Smalley, 24, played a mini-tour event. On Sunday, he locked up one of the 25 PGA TOUR cards awarded during the Korn Ferry Tour Finals with a T4 at the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Championship. It’s the type of crazy run from the minor leagues to the big show overnight that seems to only happen in golf. The opportunity to totally change your fortunes in a week that this game provides is also the reason so many pros continue to chase it.
“I hadn’t really thought about it until you mentioned it that I was playing mini-tour events a couple months ago and now I’ll be going to the big stage,” Smalley said. “It’s kinda surreal. But I guess I could kinda say that’s why so many chase it, chase the dream. You could be playing mini-tour events and two months later have a PGA TOUR card. That’s why so many people are motivated to chase their dream even when some of them might not have the financial abilities to do it is because of stories, I guess, like this. So, it’s pretty surreal.”
Coming out of Duke in 2019 with a 3.6 GPA and big game, Smalley was one of the few can’t-miss-type prospects that come out of college each year that seem to be on the fast track to the PGA TOUR. He earned All-American honors, won the 2018 and 2019 Sunnehanna Amateur Championship and made the 2019 Walker Cup team. The type of college player today that would have almost assuredly gained Korn Ferry Tour status via the new PGA TOUR University rankings, but that program wasn’t in place when he graduated. So, after turning professional in September of 2019, he headed to Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying Tournament in search of a place to play but had one bad round at second stage and was back to the drawing board.
“I was pretty, I wouldn’t say devastated, but pretty upset to not at least making it to the final stage of Q-School in 2019,” Smalley said. “So, I had to get a little creative.”
In March of 2020, he successfully navigated Forme Tour Q-School for status, but then COVID happened, and the world shut down. His big break didn’t come until September of 2020 when he got a sponsor’s invite into the Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, where he finished T14. He got another sponsors invite to that event in March and finished T22. That put the path he’s taken now into his head of earning enough non-member FedExCup points to play his way into the Korn Ferry Tour Finals in hopes of either full Korn Ferry Tour membership or a TOUR card. So, he aggressively chased Monday qualifiers in a bid to accumulate points.
“From that point forward, I felt like I had a pretty decent chance if I could get myself a few more opportunities,” Smalley said.
In total in 2021, he attempted nine PGA TOUR Monday qualifiers. When he missed, he’d fly back to a Forme Tour event. When Monday qualifiers or Forme Tour events weren’t happening, he played mini tours. When he wasn’t playing, he wrote letters to Tournament Directors for sponsor’s exemptions. Mostly, though, he stayed ready.
His opportunity finally came in July with his mom, Maria, on the bag as his caddie when he Monday qualified into the John Deere Classic and ended up finishing T47 to get closer to the threshold needed to get into the Finals.
Armed with a sponsor’s exemption to his hometown event, the Wyndham Championship, for the final event of the regular season, Smalley knew he had a shot to earn his way into the Finals. He entered the week with 83 non-member FedExCup points, while 200th place in the FedExCup standings had 90 points.
“The last 3-4 weeks have been wild,” Smalley said. “At Wyndham, I knew I had to at least make the cut and do decently well get into the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, and I ended birdieing the last four holes on Sunday to cement my place in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, so that was really exciting.”
As he headed the next day to Boise for the start of the Finals, his thoughts weren’t on the 25 PGA TOUR cards but rather avoiding a similar fate at Q-School.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t really think that getting a PGA TOUR card in the last three events was super possible. I knew it was possible, but I was really just hoping I could play well enough to get a Korn Ferry Tour card and not have to go to Q-School,” Smalley said. “That was the biggest thing on my mind. I wasn’t super worried about trying to get a PGA TOUR card. I knew my game was in a good place and was hoping that I could do well enough to not have to go to Q-School because Q-School is not the place you want to be. It’s very stressful.”
Smalley won’t have to worry about that after a T48 and T4 to open the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, completing a rise to the biggest stage that certainly isn’t a surprise but was a more a round-about-way to his desired destination than he expected.
“Everybody takes different paths, you know? There’s no one set way to get there,” Smalley said. “Fortunately, in my case, there was one more to do it so very grateful and happy to be able to do it in a different way and glad it worked out.”