2004: The Q-School quandary

School or Q-School? To go or not to go?

After deliberations with friends and family, Duke sophomore Brittany Lang and Oklahoma State junior Karin Sjodin have decided another year of college is in their best interest. Good thing. But both strongly considered entering the first stage of LPGA Q-School later this month, an event that would have conflicted with the season-opening NCAA Fall Preview.

If Lang or Sjodin would have advanced to the final stage of Q-School in December, earned LPGA status and accepted membership, they would, under tour rules, have to turn professional and could not return to school in spring. If they failed to qualify at the final stage, they would be able to return to school in the spring without penalty.

Here’s the problem: Had either gone the Q-School route, their respective programs likely would have been left in shambles. Duke has five players on its roster. Losing Lang would leave the Blue Devils with four, including freshman Jennifer Pandolfi and senior Niloufar Aazam-Zanganeh, who is nursing a pulled leg muscle. Oklahoma State has six players. Losing Sjodin would have left the Cowgirls with five, the fifth being New Zealand newcomer Kyla Welsh, who is expected to see little playing time.

Coaches are dealing with limited numbers in college golf. It’s not as if it’s football or basketball, where athletes easily can be replaced.

If you don’t think a golf program can decline quickly, look at Florida. A few weeks before the 2003-04 season, the Gators were one of the favorites to win the NCAA Championship. But Aree Song left before the season, her twin sister Naree left in the middle of the year and Florida failed to advance to the NCAA Championship. The Gators are still trying to recover.

When the U.S. Golf Association changed its policy in January 2002 to allow amateurs to play in PGA Tour and LPGA qualifying tournaments without jeopardizing their status, the NCAA quickly adopted the same guidelines. (Kudos should be given to the NCAA for adapting to the USGA because that hasn’t always been the case.)

Although no college player – man or woman – has attempted Q-School the last two years, several have thought about it. And one day soon, it’s going to happen.

Lang, 19, won three tournaments last season and was NCAA Freshman of the Year. However, she missed the cut at the LPGA’s Jamie Farr Owens Corning Classic, then shot 80-80 at the U.S. Women’s Amateur and missed qualifying for match play, leaving her convinced that another year in Durham was best for her and the Blue Devils.

“If I’m going to do it (turn pro), I’m just going to do it,” Lang said. “It’s total disrespect to your team. . . . It’s like saying, ‘Hey, I’m here but I don’t want to be.’ ”

Despite a runner-up showing at the NCAA Championship, Sjodin said she feels she needs another year to develop her skills, especially her short game. Sjodin, 21, said she thinks she wouldn’t play her best at Q-School if she knew she still had college golf to fall back on, because the fear factor wouldn’t be there.

“I don’t think it would work well,” Sjodin said. “I think you have to decide what you want to do first and then go 100 percent on that thing. I don’t think you can go halfway.”

The Q-School policy is apt to affect women’s college golf more than men’s because young females – Aree Song, Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, etc. – recently have shown that they can compete on the LPGA on a consistent basis. The same cannot be said for men.

But just because the NCAA allows an athlete to compete at Q-School doesn’t mean a university has to. This is where coaches uncomfortable with the possible scenarios should step in and take control by drafting a policy that states team members are not allowed to play in professional qualifying tournaments during the school year. This still would allow players to compete in occasional PGA Tour or LPGA events and the World Amateur Team Championship, special events that don’t usually conflict with college tournaments.

Players who don’t agree with the policy may leave school early but at least that team won’t have to deal with such selfishness in the middle of the year. Coaches need to decide which is more important.

Last fall, UNLV sophomore Sunny Oh approached Rebels coach Missy Ringler and told her she would like to enter LPGA or Futures Tour Q-School. Ringler told Oh she thought her game wasn’t ready and that it was sending the wrong message to her teammates and UNLV, which had invested heavily in Oh. Ultimately, Oh didn’t go to Q-School. She turned professional after the NCAA Championship in May and has struggled on the Futures Tour this summer, making only $546.

Auburn coach Kim Evans hasn’t yet been faced with the situation. If she is, she said she’ll deal with it on a case-by-case basis.

“I probably am on each side of the fence,” Evans said. “If you have a player that has the means to survive on the tour, one of those standout players, you’d hate to keep the opportunity from them. Then again, the old-fashioned side of me would love to see them come to college and get their education.”

The bottom line is, players need to fully appreciate what they’re getting and not take advantage of the loopholes. College should not be treated as a safety net, not when one considers how much a school has invested in a player. (A university, according to numerous coaches, can spend anywhere from $125,000 to $175,000 on expenses – tuition, books, travel, meals, equipment, etc. – for a four-year, full-scholarship golfer.) Student-athletes should show loyalty to the institutions that have provided them the opportunity for higher education while playing a sport they love.

Two weeks ago in this space, I suggested that high school senior Paula Creamer should turn professional and not go to college. Many didn’t agree with the stance, but at least she wouldn’t be leaving a college on the hook. College athletes need to realize their decision can affect an entire program.

“If I’m going to go to school, I might as well focus on school and play for my team,” Lang said. “I’m going to commit myself to the team, and then when I’m ready, I’ll commit myself to the tour.”

In other words, players should make their choice before the school year – not in the midst of it.

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