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Why the PGA Tour needs to strengthen its ties with college golfers

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Pierceson Coody has chosen the traditional route to try to make it to the PGA Tour.

Omar Rawlings

June 28, 2022

NORTH PLAINS, Ore. — Michael Thorbjornsen had a very solid sophomore season at Stanford, but it wasn’t particularly special. He finished the year ranked No. 17 in the nation and tied for 32nd in the individual portion of the NCAA Championship. First-team All Pac-12 and second-team/honorable meniton All-American, depending on which publication you trust. Again, very good. Nothing out of the ordinary.

The summer, however, has been kinder to the 2018 U.S. Junior Amateur champion. He squeaked through an eight-for-three playoff to make the U.S. Open in his home state of Massachusetts, eventually missing the cut. Then, a week after Brookline, he finished solo fourth against a loaded field at the Travelers Championship. It was, per CBS’s Kyle Porter, the first time this century that an amateur had finished fourth or better in a non-major with that strong a field.

Thobjornsen’s success, coupled with his non-dominance at Stanford, is a testament to the strength and depth of today’s college game. So is the current composition of the Official World Golf Ranking. World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler, No. 2 Jon Rahm, No. 4 Collin Morikawa, No. 5 Justin Thomas, No. 7 Patrick Cantlay, No. 8 Sam Burns and No. 9 Viktor Hovland all played multiple seasons of college golf. The best college golfers become the best golfers, period. This hasn’t always been the case, but it is now.

Consider recent Texas graduate Pierceson Coody, who cruised to a five-shot lead on the Korn Ferry Tour on Sunday. He finished the year No. 11 in Golfstat’s rankings—once more, a very good college player but not a phenom—and yet he and his brother Parker (No. 51) still received an eye-popping offer from the Saudi-backed LIV Golf.

The pitch couldn’t have been easy to turn down. But first, some context. Pierceson Coody finished first in the PGA Tour University rankings for college seniors, which granted him Korn Ferry Tour status for the rest of the year. Such a direct path from college golf to the PGA Tour ecosystem—the PGA Tour, Korn Ferry Tour, PGA Tour Canada and PGA Tour Latinoamerica—has existed only since 2020. Before then, recent grads would have to rely on sponsor’s invites to get into events, then hope they play well enough in those events to keep it rolling. Otherwise, Q school like everyone else.

Pierceson Coody and the rest of the top five have it much, much better than college players of years past. But today’s pro golf landscape looks nothing like it did 12 months ago, and it could look entirely new 12 months from now. Such is the nature of this most uncertain time in the sport. And so now the youngin’s have options. Coody chose to stay with the traditional route, to accept his Korn Ferry Tour status and earn his way to the big-money big tour—to follow in the footsteps of fellow Texans Sheffler, Jordan Spieth and Will Zalatoris, who all established themselves on the PGA Tour rather quickly.

“I know all of those guys and if they believe in the PGA Tour and believe what it stands for and what they’re doing, then I think I made the right decision,” he told Golf.com.

Unlucky No. 6 in those standings, the first guy outside the Korn Ferry spots, was Alex Fitzpatrick. He, too, was offered by LIV, and he, too, turned it down. Fitzpatrick initially saw himself leaving college early, like his older brother Matt, until he saw the quality of college golf.

“That was kind of my mindset, maybe leave after a few years,” Fitzpatrick says. “But when I got here and started playing the college events here, I thought, my goodness. The guys here are really good. My first event, I think I finished fourth and I played great, and I lost by about six to a guy that I had never heard of. I couldn’t believe how good most of the players were that you never heard about.”

Alex Fitzpatrick will play in PGA Tour Canada events this summer and is hoping for some sponsor’s invites into PGA Tour and DP World Tour events to be sprinkled in. Unless he does something extraordinary, he’ll be in Q school later this year. It’s far from models and bottles.

Eugenio Chacarra, who finished No. 2 in the college rankings, took the money. After originally removing himself from the PGA Tour U standings to return to Oklahoma State for another year, he reversed course and signed on with LIV Golf. The Spaniard explained his decision on Instagram:

“I recently received an opportunity I could not turn down,” he said. “It is one of those trains that pass once in a lifetime.”

Greg Norman & Co.’s pitch, PR jargon and buzzwords aside, boiled down to this: You can go try to play your way for a chance of winning millions of dollars. If you play bad out of the gates—who knows? You might never get to the PGA Tour. Or you can sign this paper and we’ll give you millions of dollars.

LIV is going to continue aggressively courting the game’s best amateurs, who by and large play college golf. Their first wave of signings were largely guys past their primes, and they’ve had a hard time shaking an early reputation as a place guys go when they decide they don’t care much about competing at the highest level. Signing more players like Chacarra would poke additional holes in that narrative. For LIV, it’s a no-brainer.

For the PGA Tour, keeping these top prospects in their fold should also be a no-brainer. PGA Tour U was an important step in the right direction, but it simply did not go far enough. Maybe it did initially, but not now, when LIV exists as a tantalizing proposition for kids who want to cash in on their success. The PGA Tour should offer top college players a direct path to the best league in the world. Every other American team sport does so. Tennis, always golf’s natural comparison, is not apples-to-apples because the vast majority of top talent does not play in college.

Which brings us to the meritocracy argument. It’s true, golf has remained a beacon of fairness in professional sports. PGA Tour cards are earned, not given, and the PGA Tour has pushed that message because it feels it preserves a moral high ground of sorts. Ideally, golf would remain that way. It’s one of our game’s countless charms.

But organizations must adapt to protect their primacy. The PGA Tour is no different. And, at least theoretically, one would qualify for one of these direct-to-PGA-tour spots with his play and only his play. We’re also not advocating for giving players multi-year contracts that guarantee them millions of dollars no matter how they play.

Instead, here’s how it would fit in to the tour’s new FedEx Cup schedule, which will run from January through August, with the top 50 qualifying for a lucrative no-cut series while the rest jostle for cards and priority numbers: The top five college players—it should be all players, not just seniors, for there’s nothing stopping LIV from plucking underclassmen—at the conclusion of the college season receive PGA Tour status for the rest of the year. Play well enough, and they earn full status for the guaranteed-money events. Fail to do that, and they’d play in the domestic fall series with the rest of the outside-looking-in tour pros. The 5-15 finishers should get Korn Ferry Tour status rather than PGA Tour Canada status.

There would, of course, still be multiple paths to stardom for the Zach Johnsons and Xander Schauffeles of the world, guys who did not star in college but blossomed into world-class players. But from a purely Machiavellian standpoint—and that’s how the PGA Tour has to be thinking—they must sweeten the pot for the best college players, so they don’t have to rely on the loyalty of Pierceson Coody.