PGA TOUR UNIVERSITY
Insider: Korn Ferry Tour players praise PGA TOUR University
June 08, 2020
By Adam Stanley, PGATOUR.COM
Introducing PGA TOUR University
When Braden Thornberry turned professional in 2018, he had accomplished almost everything there was to do in amateur and collegiate golf, including becoming the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world.
Yet, when he decided to begin playing professionally, he had the same status as the player ranked No. 1000.
“There really wasn’t much advantage,” said Thornberry.
Announced in early June, however, was a program designed to help those top-ranked collegiate golfers get a kick-start on their professional career.
Beginning in 2021, the top-15 finishers from the Official PGA TOUR University Ranking List at the conclusion of the NCAA Men’s Division I Golf Championship will be awarded exempt status to the Korn Ferry Tour, PGA TOUR Latinoamérica, Mackenzie Tour – PGA TOUR Canada and PGA TOUR Series – China, based on their respective finish.
The top five finishers from the final Official PGA TOUR University Ranking List will receive Korn Ferry Tour membership and will be exempt into all open, full-field events beginning the week following the conclusion of the NCAA Division I Men’s National Championship through the conclusion of the Korn Ferry Tour Regular Season.
“This is huge,” said Thornberry. “In the NBA, you have a guy like Zion (Williamson) who comes out of college and they have this runway to start their professional career. Golf doesn’t have that.”
Will Zalatoris, who was the ACC Player of the Year in his junior year at Wake Forest, said that when he was approached about this idea at the end of last year, he thought it was a ‘tremendous’ idea.
He played at Wake Forest while Jennifer Kupcho, the celebrated collegiate star who won the inaugural Augusta National Women’s Amateur in 2019, was also there on the women’s team. He remembers Kupcho playing Q-School for the LPGA Tour, finishing second, and waiting until the end of the college season before she could go straight to the LPGA Tour.
“She was able to get the best of both worlds. The day after she’s done playing in the NCAA (championship) she can chase her dream and play as a professional,” said Zalatoris. “In reality, that rarely happens on the men’s side.”
Zalatoris lives with Davis Riley in Texas, and Riley, part of the University of Alabama team that advanced to the NCAA Championship final in 2018, said the PGA TOUR University program is a ‘great opportunity.’
A lot of guys, he said, are going to want to play well and stay for four years – eligible golfers must stay in school for at least four years – to try to get instant status on the Korn Ferry Tour.
“People are going to be motivated. They’re going to play for their teams but they’ve got something else, for themselves, to play for too,” said Riley, who won the Panama Championship earlier in 2020.
“It will definitely incline guys to stay four years. And if they’re on the fence about leaving after their second or third year … unless you’ve got guaranteed starts, and it’s kind of hard to guarantee anything, I think it’ll incline guys to stay, which is great. I’m sure some college coaches are excited about this too.”
Riley, whose closeness to his teammates at Alabama has been well documented, said the time he had with the Crimson Tide was his best golf memory to date.
“You work so hard during the year – you get in the dirt and you get in the gym and you’re in each other’s face, just pushing each other to get better. To have it all pay off and make the national championship is the most satisfying feeling,” he said. “My college golf experience was some of my fondest memories for sure.”
With PGA TOUR University being unveiled for 2021, there’s a hope that college golfers will be able to have even more of those special moments with their teammates while still fighting for status.
Golf Channel will be broadcasting the NCAA Championship, and fans will be able to see some guys who have nice college careers continue their journey at the BMW Charity Pro-Am a few weeks later, for example. They might play well again that week and the next thing you know, Zalatoris said, you’ve got people following them.
“I think it’s awesome on a lot of fronts,” he said.
For Thornberry, who won the NCAA men’s individual championship at Ole Miss in 2017 (and won 11 times in his college career), he had a handful of developmental discussions before deciding to return for a senior season.
He had lots of people encourage him to turn professional after his sophomore season, he said, but he wasn’t ready mentally to be on the road 30 weeks a year and do his own thing. He is from a small town in Mississippi and went directly from living with his parents during high school to attending college, barely an hour from his hometown.
As soon as people have success in college, Thornberry said, they try to turn pro and take advantage of that momentum. At the same time, if you were always going to play well as a pro, you’ll continue to play well in college and improve. There needs to be more of that mindset, Thornberry said.
“There has not been anyone who went four (years) and regretted it, but there are definitely people who turned pro out of high school or after freshman year and regretted it. That was the advice I got. If you’re a good golfer and you’re meant to be a pro golfer on the PGA TOUR, then you’ll be there when you’re 30 and it doesn’t matter if you turn pro at 19 or 22,” said Thornberry, the co-medalist at Korn Ferry Tour Q-School’s Final Stage in December.
“That was some good advice I got, and this program encourages people to stay longer, and overall it’s a solid movement in people have some opportunities coming out of school.”