In the final battle for the future of professional golf, the PGA Tour offers two proposals that would create a more direct path from college stardom to tour membership.
If approved, starting next year, the highest-performing winner of the PGA Tour League Rankings would gain full-time membership to the Tour, while No. 2-10 in the standings heads to the Korn Ferry Tour, the sports version of Triple-A, with a certain level of prestige.
Discussions have gone on for “several months,” according to a tour note directed at the players, but the reason for the progress is now clear.
“It’s a way of making sure these guys come to the PGA Tour and not anywhere else,” said Denny McCarthy. “I think it’s a great opportunity for them.”
Over the past decade, we’ve seen quite a few college studs that can’t be missed and experience near-instant tour success. Ricky Fowler and Jordan Spieth started this trend. Then came John Ram, followed by Colin Morikawa and Victor Hovland. The Tour is rocking an ever younger age (11 of the world’s top 13 are in their 20s), yet it has remained largely the status quo. There is no direct access outside of the maximum seven exemptions for sponsors. There are no financial guarantees. There is no multi-year commitment. After the NCAA Championships in May each year, the best players on the Korn Ferry Tour spread out to Canada, Europe or Latin America, and then, within a few years — perhaps — reconnect at the highest level.
“I think they need to create a better path,” Ram said last week. “Right now, it’s really, really tough. There is a lot of talent missing in Canada and Latin America. Every other major sport has a direct path to the majors from college except for golf.”
The tour debuted on the PGA Tour University program in 2020, but by limiting it to seniors, it was designed to entice kids to stay in school rather than ensure the best talent gets to the tour faster. Sure, in theory, these players could be a member of the Tour’s card holders within four months of graduating – they could either play well enough on a limited start from Korn Ferry in crossing the Tour’s minimum membership threshold, or earn their card through a Korn Ferry Tour Tour Finals. It didn’t work out that way, and some agents theorized that it was because the system required exhausted players to compete virtually non-stop, in high-pressure situations, for nine months while also grappling with the new realities of professional life. Not everyone is equipped to handle a lot, soon.
“In an ideal world, I would still think you should advance through the ranks and earn them,” Hovland said. “There has to be a way to make it on tour for next year, as it is now. I think that’s true. But obviously with the threats still going on, you have to make some compromises.”
LIV created turmoil in the college ranks during this year’s NCAA tournament, when news emerged that Texas star Pearson Cody (ranked #1 on the PGA Tour U) had turned down a “crazy amount” of money from the Saudis. But LIV didn’t quite explode: Arizona’s young David Puig appeared on the entry list for the first event in London. As Puig explained at the time, he was offered slim chances to test himself against the best in the world on the PGA or DP World Tours despite his top 10 rankings and college success. Leif provided that opportunity, and took advantage of it. After losing his spot on the PGA Tour U, Puig decided not to return to Arizona in his senior year and became a professional.
Eugenio Chacara’s most influential decision was that of Eugenio Chacara, one of the most prominent Oklahoma State figures who would have featured prominently in the PGA Tour U system had he been stuck in his first season. Instead, he joined LIV (teaming with one of his childhood heroes, Sergio Garcia) and won the Thailand event during his first three months as a professional. In six events heading into this week’s LIV Final, he took home $6,182,000 – and that’s not including what was said to be an eight-figure signing bonus.
“From his point of view, it’s kind of a no-brainer,” said Hovland, who played for Chakara while staying at Stillwater. “But golf purity, I’m old fashioned this way, where you need to go through the ranks. That’s how my brain works. But things change. I don’t know what the right answer is, but I don’t mistake these kids for going that way.”
It is reasonable to assume that Chakara’s summer was enlightening for many elite buffs who were (or are) considering similar decisions. Chakara’s chosen path could have major repercussions – he won’t be able to play in the 2023 Grand Slam (unless he advances through the Open Qualifiers), and he may be ineligible for the Ryder Cup – but he pulled out anyway. At the age of 22, he thought time was on his side.
“That’s what you wonder,” Ram said. “Is that what you wanted, just playing golf to make money? Or did you grow up to win the title and play the Ryder Cups?
“I’m not going to lie, if you asked me in 2016 and offered me $50 million to play LIV, I don’t know if I could go to my dad and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to turn this down, just because.’” I don’t know if I could tell you I wouldn’t have accepted it. And a lot of guys will do the same when you have none and you will be offered that as collateral.”
That’s why Ram warned: “My advice to the PGA Tour is to start looking at college players and offering more than they are now.”
And that’s the round’s response, at least in the short term.
The question is whether it will be enough to influence the next generation.
The tour still couldn’t compete with LIV’s $25 million bids.
The proposal only pertains to college seniors, which means lower class men like Puig and Chakara would still be subject to poaching. (A secondary proposal includes a fuzzy points-based system designed to instantly identify and upgrade non-big stars.)
This may be just the beginning of a broader restructuring aimed at 2024, but a single round card, essentially two months in duration, is unlikely to be seen as sufficient. The Tour still relies on more than a dozen graduating seniors to willingly venture into the competitive wilderness, where they will fend for themselves in feeding circles, with no guarantees of reaching their final destination. And, as Chacarra helped explain, there’s now another option that didn’t exist before: nothing stops these buffs from taking the LIV loot, playing this circuit for a few years and banking tens of millions of dollars, then going the traditional track with the Tour Q-School ( Where they will compete without the crippling financial pressure that most of them face in this field).
This is an attractive alternative.
The tour was criticized for its laxity, and had no choice but to act. In this changing landscape, she needed to deliver better promotions, faster, or she risked losing her best youngsters each spring. Some have argued that a guaranteed card can speed up the unique progression of top talent – after all, other types like Justin Thomas, Scottie Scheffler and Xander Shaveli, all in a quick start, each have trained for at least a year at the Palace – but the full season offers a better metric. From a limited number of positional beginnings.
“My first two years, maybe I wasn’t ready for the PGA Tour schedule, but maybe I was? I don’t know,” said Maverick McNeely, “who after 11 wins at Stanford would have gotten a ticket for the Tour had that system been in place in 2017. Now, it is In his fourth year on the tour.
“I think a full season prepares you better than four stages of Q-School, and four stages of Q-School prepares you better than a Monday qualification. If the players have proven themselves over four years in college golf — which is basically a round for senior amateurs.” – Then the cream rises to the top. And we really want them to round as fast as we can.”
McCarthy was also one of those guys who was on the cusp of a PGA Tour U listing, after his decorated career ended in Virginia in 2015. “I know that after I got out of college I felt kinda ready,” he said, “and then I played some events and I wasn’t Also.I quickly realized I had to get a lot better, but it’s evolved a lot since then.So it’s the learning curve that’s going on: They come in here and they either do or they don’t, and they realize how much better they need to get and understand how good everyone is here. Really. It’s a win-win situation, honestly.”
Hovland turned pro in 2019, as part of a class, after his junior season at Oklahoma State, but admitted he would have been tempted to stay in college had the PGA Tour U franchises been available. When asked if he could tell right away if the opponent had the goods to tour, he said, “You see a lot of talented guys could Kill it for a ride, but I guess there’s the X factor. There’s something different when there are touring trucks, more people, 150 other guys, and you’re on your own, and you have to be really good – but you also have to be comfortable and you have to adapt and do your best. You have it in a different environment. Just because you’re playing well in college and throwing yourself out there, there’s an adaptation that has to happen. And you can’t really tell unless you’re there.”
Developments in the PGA Tour U should generate more interest and interest in the hottest incoming talent before they get their start to their exhilarating summer after the NCAAs. It’s the closest golfer can get to a draft. And even if those players didn’t stick, the overall goal, from the Tour’s perspective, was still accomplished: the little studs were kept away, at least initially, from the Tour’s main contender.
“Speaking to the players, it’s not one of the things we’re trying to defend our tour from coming in talent,” McNeely said. “It’s very different from previous years where 10 years ago you might have seen tour veterans trying to keep access limited because we want to protect our eligibility. We have a competitive threat. We have to attract the best talent.
“The PGA Tour is still where everyone wants to play, and if you’re a young player and you really want to do something in this game, you don’t get that by going to the LIV. You can get that by testing yourself against players who want to be the best. “.
And in this shattered era, with mind-boggling money on offer, the tour still hopes it will be attractive enough.