Nichols: LPGA should modify Q-School rules to help amateurs avoid painful middle ground

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Nichols: LPGA should modify Q-School rules to help amateurs avoid painful middle ground

LPGA Tour

Nichols: LPGA should modify Q-School rules to help amateurs avoid painful middle ground

Editor’s note: This column originally appeared in the Dec. 11 digital edition of Golfweek Magazine.

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DAYTONA BEACH, Fla. – Maddie McCrary walked out of the scoring tent at LPGA International and into her mother’s arms. The Oklahoma State senior needed to birdie the 90th hole of LPGA Q-School to have a chance at earning a full card for 2018 via a playoff, but instead three-putted for bogey. An LPGA rules official immediately informed a teary McCrary that she must turn professional to accept conditional status. She had until play concluded – three more groups – to make a decision.

For the next 30 minutes, McCrary agonized with her parents and swing coach about leaving Oklahoma State a semester early, taking every last second the LPGA allowed.

“Are you emotionally ready for that?” her mother, Angie, asked of moving back home to Texas and likely starting her career in Australia, her first trip overseas.

McCrary did not look like a player whose lifetime dream had just come true when she spoke with the media. Instead, she looked heartbroken. One of four seniors on a team that finished the fall season ranked ninth, McCrary gave up the opportunity to compete for a national championship on Oklahoma State’s home course next May.

“I just had to decide what I want to do with the rest of my life,” said McCrary, her eyes still wet with tears.

There has to be a better way.

As the LPGA overhauls the final stage of Q-School in ’18, now is the perfect time to put an end to on-the-spot decision-making for amateurs. Officials are in talks about allowing amateurs to defer their LPGA membership until the college season ends.

That system already is in place on the Symetra Tour. Top-ranked amateur Leona Maguire took that route. The Duke senior stopped after two stages of Q-School, shoring up enough status to play a full schedule on the developmental tour after NCAAs.

The LPGA’s new final stage, known as the Q Series, will take place in late October and feature eight rounds over two courses with cumulative scores. While it still will be possible for a player to start in Stage I and advance through all three stages, making it past Stage II will be substantially more difficult. That should deter some college players from rolling the dice with Q-School before they’re ready. In 2013, 59 amateurs competed in Stage I. This year: 82.

There’s a new carrot on the Q Series stick, however, that could prove irresistible to the game’s elite. The top five from the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings at the end of the spring season will be exempt into October’s Q Series. A fast-pass through the first two stages might be something the stars of tomorrow can’t ignore.

At the end of the fall season, only one senior, Texas’ Sophia Schubert, was ranked in the top five. So while the total number of college players entering Q-School early might go down under the new system, the number of underclassmen who earn their cards might actually rise.

LPGA officials, like college coaches, should be interested in the long-term health of their players. They ultimately should want women who come to the big stage to be informed, capable and ready.

Allowing players to defer LPGA membership is a step in the right direction. It’s unreasonable, however, to expect anyone who has earned full status to actually defer.

The best thing for all parties involved is to ban amateurs from the Q Series.

“College golf should not be a back-up plan,” said USC coach Andrea Gaston, who had two players in the final stage. Both turned professional: Junior Robynn Ree earned her full card while sophomore Muni He missed the cut and will compete next season on the Symetra Tour.

If players knew they had to turn professional to compete in the new Q Series, most would think harder about walking away from a college scholarship.

Really, what’s the rush?

Seniors could still compete in the first two stages and earn enough Symetra status to have a place to play after graduation. There are plenty of examples of players who have come out midway into the Symetra season and earned their card. South Carolina’s Katelyn Dambaugh did it in 2017.

Success in college does not always translate to success at the next level. But a solid collegiate resume that includes valuable air-time on Golf Channel at NCAAs could go a long way toward securing hard-to-come-by sponsorships. McCrary could’ve made a name for herself in May in Stillwater, Okla. Now she’s simply one of 30 rookies trying to cobble together enough money to get started at her new job.

“We have a little tucked away,” said Angie, who along with her husband works as an elementary physical education teacher.

The harsh reality of women’s golf is that the vast majority of players who make it on the LPGA won’t earn enough money to retire when they quit the tour. They’ll need to keep working.

If everyone truly has the best interest of the players at heart, then set up a system that allows players to make a clean break from one chapter before starting the next. Deferring until June is not the answer.

“Once you get a tour card,” said Gaston, “the first thing you have to do is figure out how to keep it.”

Create a system that rewards commitment. The world could use a little more of it.

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