PGA TOUR U
Game changer: PGA TOUR University creates pipeline for collegiate stars
June 01, 2020
By Sean Martin , PGATOUR.COM
Introducing PGA TOUR University
The game has changed. PGA TOUR University is proof.
Before today, a player’s amateur resume was rendered moot the moment he turned pro. Sure, winning a U.S. Amateur or NCAA Championship may garner a few extra sponsor exemptions or allow a player to bypass one of Q-School’s many stages, but that was about it.
Now players can earn pro status for their performance in amateur events. PGA TOUR University, which was announced Monday, provides the pathway. The new program will reward the top college seniors with status on the Korn Ferry Tour and the TOUR’s international circuits (Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada, PGA TOUR Latinoamerica, PGA TOUR China Series).
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Professionals were always slow to recognize amateur accomplishments because playing for money is a whole new ballgame. Some players shine when the stakes are highest. Others wilt when they need to make a putt to pay their mortgage.
Pros used to be dismissive of schoolboy golf, where chemistry midterms are a player’s biggest concern and the difference between one stroke is often of little consequence. No one remembers if you finished sixth or seventh in the Southwestern Intercollegiate five years ago. College players can return to the comfort of campus after a poor showing.
Contrast that to pro golf, where a missed 6-footer may be the margin by which you lose your card. A missed cut stings more when you have mouths to feed.
That’s why even Tiger Woods was met with skepticism when he turned pro. Grizzled veterans, hardened by years of lip-outs and tough losses, questioned whether he could live up to the hype that followed his U.S. Amateur three-peat.
He did, of course, and the game would never be the same. Technology has only quickened players’ transition to the pro game. Now, no one can deny that today’s college players are more prepared than ever to thrive in the pro game.
“There’s hardly any need for an apprenticeship anymore. They hit the ground like veterans,” Golf Channel commentator Brandel Chamblee said earlier this year. “I think having (a smartphone) is like having Butch Harmon or Harvey Penick in your pocket. You have access to the best teaching and a library of video.”
That’s right. That oversized iPhone is for more than posting TikToks. Today’s players have grown up with immediate access to the best swing theories out there. Throw in the use of TrackMan to make sure players’ clubs are optimized and their distances are dialed in, and it’s no surprise that young players are having so much early success. ShotLink and Strokes Gained allow players to better understand their games and how to approach courses they’ve never seen before.
“What you had to figure out on your own took so much longer,” said 34-year-old Webb Simpson, once a top-ranked amateur and member of the vaunted 2007 Walker Cup team. “Now we have so much at our fingertips on our phone or on TrackMan. That’s one of the main reasons guys are improving a lot faster and they come out here and they’re ready to win. They understand their games more than I did even out of college.”
Nothing illustrates college players’ increasing readiness to compete than the fact that PGA TOUR University was approved by the very men these new pros will be playing against. Pros would rather leave home without their putter than give up spots in tournament fields. And they wouldn’t make the path to a PGA TOUR card easier than the one they had to trod unless they knew that this new generation was deserving.
The numbers speak for themselves, especially after last year’s unprecedented performance by the triumvirate of Matthew Wolff, Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland. No one can recall a trio of players in the modern era who won so quickly after turning pro. Add in Sungjae Im and Joaquin Niemann and we’ve had five players under the age of 23 win on TOUR since July. That’s one more than we had from 1985 to 2000.
Matthew Wolff's top shots from the 2018-19 PGA TOUR Season (non-majors)
Only Morikawa would have been eligible for PGA TOUR University, and none of them would have needed the assistance that it offers. But they prove that today’s young players are up to the challenge. Here’s more proof: Of the nine members of the 2017 U.S. Walker Cup team who turned pro, six had a PGA TOUR card within two years of their dominant victory at Los Angeles Country Club. And two members of that team, Cameron Champ and Morikawa, are already TOUR winners.
PGA TOUR University creates a pipeline to the pro game. Starting in 2021, the top five players on the PGA TOUR University rankings after the NCAA Division I Men’s Championship will earn Korn Ferry Tour status for the remainder of the regular season. This will give them starts into all open events. From there, they’ll try to play their way into the Korn Ferry Tour Finals and play for one of the 25 PGA TOUR cards up for grabs.
Now a good summer means a college star can be on the PGA TOUR in a matter of months. And if he can’t make it to the big TOUR, his high standing on the PGA TOUR University Rankings will earn him an exemption straight into the final stage of Q-School, guaranteeing him Korn Ferry Tour status for the following season.
Nos. 6-15 on the PGA TOUR University rankings can choose to take status on either the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada, PGA TOUR Latinoamerica or PGA TOUR China. Players must spend four years at a Division I university to be eligible for the benefits. This will encourage them to get an education, and help them develop the physical, emotional and mental skills necessary for the pro game.
In today’s data-driven society, the words “sample size” are bandied about too often, but that’s the biggest benefit of PGA TOUR University. It gives the best college players more opportunities to prove themselves.
Before PGA TOUR University, new pros cobbled together a schedule with sponsor exemptions and Monday qualifiers. Invitations into PGA TOUR events are always on short supply and often come at the last minute. The 18-hole Monday qualifiers offer little chance of success. So, unless a player caught lightning in a bottle, he was destined for Q-School, where one bad week would leave him empty-handed for an entire year.
Take the case of Vanderbilt’s Will Gordon, the 2019 SEC Player of the Year. You can be forgiven if you don’t recognize the name. It’s a fairly standard one, the type that would return its fair share of listings in the phone book. It doesn’t quite leap off the page like the howl-inducing surname of Wolff or have the punchy pronunciation of Morikawa or even the Nordic mystique of Hovland.
But Gordon has plenty of game. Top-25s in half his starts during this interrupted PGA TOUR season prove that. He turned pro last year, too, but there are only so many sponsor exemptions to go around. With 2019’s Big Three taking up most of them, he headed north of the border last year to play PGA TOUR Canada.
Shot of the Day
Will Gordon's grandstand approach for the Shot of the Day
He shot a 60 in his second event, started another one with back-to-back 64s and fired a 61 two weeks later. He finished 21st on the Mackenzie Tour’s Order of Merit, good for an exemption into Q-School’s second stage.
That’s where, like so many young players, he hit a speed bump. There was no dramatic flame-out, one that would add to that tournament’s long and gory lore. Gordon broke par in all four rounds. He shot 8 under par. His scores just happened to be two strokes too high.
Without Korn Ferry Tour status, Gordon has made just a half-dozen PGA TOUR starts via sponsor exemptions, Monday qualifiers and some strong play. He finished 10th at The RSM Classic. He tied Morikawa and Wolff for 21st place in the star-studded field that gathers annually at the Farmers Insurance Open. Then he earned his place in the Puerto Rico Open the hard way, making it through the Monday qualifier before finishing 20th.
But now, he’s a man with no tour. And with the professional golf world thrown into flux, he doesn’t know where his next start will be. He would’ve had Korn Ferry Tour status if PGA TOUR University had been in place.
It will also be helpful for the Class of 2021, which includes many players who returned to campus for a fifth season after coronavirus canceled the NCAA Championship. PGA TOUR University will help bring some security as a backlog of talented players turn pro next year.
It’s about time. The game has been changed forever.