Over the past couple of years, I've come to dread the first full week of January. It's got nothing to do with the post-Christmas blahs or a gosh-I-wish-I-had-a-few-more-days-of-vacation kind of thing. What I dislike is the fact I've got to chase all the rumors that boil up in December about various college players who have decided not to return to their respect schools for the spring semester.
Seriously, I take no pleasure in calling a college coach, chit-chatting about the holidays and then having to ask him or her the tacky but unavoidable question:
So did everybody from your team make it back to campus?
The list of players who aren't returning this time around isn't too lengthy, thankfully. Among the more notable are Jane Rah at Oklahoma State and Amelia Lewis at Florida, both of whom are leaving school to focus more on their games, and Daniela Holmqvist, who is officially transferring from Tulane (where she was Conference USA freshman of the year in 2009) to California. What was different this time, though, was that I heard from some well-placed sources that there are already a handful of players who know they're going to transfer during the summer. These players have told there coaches as much, thus setting themselves up to be competing as lame ducks for the next five-plus months, doing wonders, no doubt, for their respective teams' morale.
What's going on out there? Why does it seem like more and more players are jumping around? Holmqvist is now the third player on the Cal women's roster who transferred into the program for the 2009-10 season, joining Joanne Lee (formerly at USC) and Emily Childs (formerly at Colorado). Truth is, several top-25 programs on both the men's and women's front have transfers on their rosters, more so than I can recall in a while
In talking to various coaches at the GCAA and NGCA conventions last month in Las Vegas, I got the sense that there is a growing unrest with the present situation, where the moment a player starts to feel uncomfortable at a school, he or she is off to find a new one.
This transfer dilemma is an effect with seemingly numerous causes, most centered around the accelerated recruiting schedule that has become de rigour in Division I college golf. Long story short: more and more coaches are offering scholarships to high schoolers at an earlier and earlier age while simultaneously more and more high schoolers are making verbal commitments before they've even started their senior years—and before taking an official visit to see a school. (I'll leave it up to others to decide what begat what in this chicken-or-the-egg debate.)
What seems to be happening is that players typically now go on unofficial visits, often receive offers, then get nervous that if they don't accept something pretty quickly somebody else will take their spot (and money) and that they'll be left without a chair to sit in when the recruiting music stops. Yet with schools committing to players (and vice versa) so early, it's fostering a situation where players might be making decisions without having gathered enough information. The problem truly surfaces when, once the players are finally enrolled, they come to realize that this wasn't the place they thought it would be and that they've made a mistake.
So how to you remedy the situation? Unfortunately, it's a bit like putting a genie back in a bottle. Coaches could collectively say, "We're going to hold off on offering scholarships," but if a few begin to cave on this pledge, the proverbial floodgates will open again. Without the NCAA reviewing and revising some of its recruiting rules (i.e. allowing coaches to contact players on Jan. 1 of their junior years rather than July 1 proceeding their senior year and allowing for official visits in the spring of a high schooler's junior year), the potential for bad decisions remains.
The NCAA rule I'd like to see changed/enforced, however, the one that might address some of my concerns with the least amount of politics is the one that allows student-athletes in golf to transfer to another school without having to sit out a year in residence (schools now typically waive that requirement when releasing their student athletes. Golf should require all players to have to miss a year's competition if they decide to switch schools (as is the case in basketball and football). It would certainly have a chilling effect on the number of transfers if for no other reason than it attaches a consequence for the player to his or her action. Any leverage players currently have in the ability to threaten to transfer if something doesn't change with the way they're being treated at their original school would be greatly reduced.
I'm a believer if a player wants to transfer badly enough, given his or her situation, then he or she will be willing to sit-out the year to do so (case in point: Philip Francis, who because of Pac-10 rules on transferring to another school in the conference is out of action this season after leaving UCLA for Arizona State but was willing to do so to be closer to his family and his instructor in Scottsdale).
Meanwhile, knowing that if you do transfer--especially if you transfer from one school to another between the fall and spring semesters--you're going to have to sit out a season might cause golfers to do a little more homework as they're making their original decision in high school on where to go to college.
All that said, and at the risk of being labeled a hypocrite, I am more sympathetic to the decision that Rah and Lewis made to leave school as opposed to transferring. If I have a beef with them, it's that I wish they wouldn't do it in the middle of the season, when coaches can't find somebody to replace them on their schools' rosters.
"I think college is for everyone, but I don't think college golf is for everyone," Lewis told me over the phone when I spoke with her yesterday. That's a fair enough statement. Lewis had always been on the fence about college, but decided to give it a try after so many people she trusted were encouraging her to do so. Yet an inability to work on her game at the pace she wanted to ultimately made her rethink things.
"I told [Gator coach Jan Dowling] before the winter break that I was considering not coming back," Lewis said. "And I did some more thinking and decided I needed to make the decision to leave.
"It was hard because I love the girls on the team," she added. "We got along great. I called them [during the break] to tell them what I was doing and they support me. They want me to be happy."
The Jacksonville native, who won the Women's North and South Amateur last summer, says she intends to continue to pursue a college degree from her home while compete as an amateur in 2010.