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To Stay, Or Not To Stay …

Call it the Spieth Effect. When the PGA Tour changed the Q-School process last year, effectively making it virtually impossible to go directly from college to the pro ranks without spending some amount of time on the Tour, I thought it slammed the door on early departures from college. It looks like I may be completely wrong. But following in a long established American tradition, I will pass the buck and blame somebody else. Namely, Jordan Spieth. Let me explain. In the old days, a college player could play his way onto the Tour after leaving campus and playing mostly on sponsor exemptions. Since 1980, Gary Hallberg, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods and Ryan Moore are the only ones to successfully make the leap straight to the pros while avoiding Q-School. More commonly, a really talented college player could go through the Q-School process and go right to the Tour, as UNLV’s Derek Ernst did last fall. But in an effort to boost the marketability of the PGA Tour’s developmental league after Nationwide Insurance dropped its sponsorship, the Tour changed the rules of the road. Q-School no longer provided a direct route to the Tour; it gained entry only to the newly named Tour. Admittance to the big league would come almost entirely from performance. My expectation was that this change would cause more schoolboys to remain on campus and play for four years, hopefully picking up a degree along the way. But as rumors spread through the amateur community that top-ranked amateurs Justin Thomas and Patrick Rodgers are seriously looking at turning pro after the Walker Cup, I have to conclude that I was wrong. Thomas, a sophomore at the University of Alabama, and Rodgers, a sophomore at Stanford University, are ranked No. 5 and 11, respectively, in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. Both are having solid college campaigns, and they are expected to be important contributors to the U.S. effort to take back the Walker Cup in September. I think they, and others, are looking at what Spieth has accomplished in a very short time since he turned and thinking, “Hey, I’m as good as he is, why wait?” Since turning pro in late 2012, Spieth has all but played his way onto the Tour. His haul at the Tampa Bay Championship earned the 19-year-old special temporary status. He has now earned more than $500,000 in just four starts, meaning he can receive unlimited sponsor exemptions; he is likely to get as many as he wants. It isn’t just Spieth that is turning the heads of today’s leading amateurs. A cadre of really young players, some of whom Thomas and Rodgers played with and against from time to time, are cashing checks with lots of zeroes and climbing the world golf rankings at a very young age. Georgia graduate Russell Henley, a Walker Cup teammate of Rodgers in 2011, won in Hawaii this year and has banked $1.3 million. Another Walker Cupper from 2011, Patrick Cantlay, has posted a win on the Tour after decamping early from UCLA. Youngsters like Harris English, Ben Kohles, Luke Guthrie and Scott Langley are showing that in today’s game, age is just a state of mind. There is another, unspoken consideration at work here, and it is the nature of the American college game. There are some who question whether school is the best route to professional success. There are only a handful of college coaches who are truly capable of preparing young men for this kind of a career, and have the résumé to prove it. And there are just a few college programs that have the requisite off-course support to prepare these kids properly. Factor in the NCAA-mandated limited competition model, the nature of the team game, a ridiculously slow pace of play norm, and in some cases a very demanding academic requirement, some kids conclude that a year or two on campus is enough. Understandably so. Spieth and Cantlay have made that decision post-PGA Tour Q-School modifications, and it looks like it is paying off. And so a door that was presumed closed has been kicked open, and it’s not realistic to think others in the years ahead aren’t going to walk through it. If this becomes a trend, the college game won’t suffer, but the American Walker Cup team selection process will become more difficult. Divining the true intent of college age Walker Cup candidates will become even more challenging, and disappointment is sure to ensue when a talented kid signs a contract after holing his final putt at the NCAA Championship, despite assurances that he intended to play for his country. The downstream effect could be that in the future, talented teenagers will begin plotting a professional golf career during high school years. Some may sidestep college altogether. And in that regard, the men’s landscape may begin to look like the women’s, in which going from high school to the pro ranks is not all that unusual. But then again, I may be completely wrong.


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