Nichols: LPGA needs to tweak Q-Series for the good of women’s golf

SHOAL CREEK, AL - MAY 31: Patty Tavatanakit of Thailand looks at the 14th hole with her caddie Robert Tignor during the first round of the 2018 U.S. Women's Open at Shoal Creek on May 31, 2018 in Shoal Creek, Alabama. (Photo by Drew Hallowell/Getty Images) Drew Hallowell/Getty Images

Nichols: LPGA needs to tweak Q-Series for the good of women’s golf

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Nichols: LPGA needs to tweak Q-Series for the good of women’s golf

The LPGA threw down a sledgehammer on college golf with the inception of its new Q-Series. Seven of the 11 amateurs who qualified for the eight-round event earned full status for 2019. Six college hotshots and one junior.

It’s an unprecedented number.

Two of those players – 2018 NCAA champion Jennifer Kupcho of Wake Forest and Maria Fassi of Arkansas – say they will defer status until after the NCAA Championship next May.

They will prove to be exceptions to this rule going forward, with the vast majority of players likely to skip the spring semester to take advantage of every playing opportunity that becomes available their rookie season. With Arkansas hosting the 2019 NCAA Championship, Fassi wants to bring home the program’s first national title in Fayetteville. That draw won’t be around in the coming years, however, as the championship moves to Scottsdale, Ariz., for the foreseeable future.

LPGA tour operations officer Heather Daly-Donofrio said the whole concept of the new Q-Series was to give “value to their whole body of work” – for professionals and amateurs alike.

That might have been the premise, but giving an exemption to the top five players in the Golfweek/Sagarin College Rankings gave players an opportunity they simply couldn’t refuse.

“You’re kind of making the decision for them,” said Kristy McPherson, a South Carolina grad and LPGA veteran who earned back her card at this week’s Q-Series.

UCLA’s Patty Tavatanakit (above) was in the running for College Player of the Year last year as a freshman. She actually hesitated in coming to Pinehurst at all for Q-Series.

“My heart and soul was not in this tournament,” said Tavatanakit, who told her dad as much after the third round.

Tavatanakit loves the beauty of her Westwood campus. Can’t live without the savory food in Koreatown and cherishes the friendships made in the Greek community. Tavatanakit joined a sorority as a freshman but ultimately dropped out because it proved too much to take on with golf and her studies.

“I feel like I’m too young to be out here,” said the 19-year-old of tour life.

Tavatanakit called it a miserable week. She was the only player from the top-five rankings who didn’t earn full status and said she was more than ready to get back to campus.

“When I hear these kids coming out I want to just give them Beth Bauer’s number,” said McPherson of the can’t-miss American superstar who left Duke early and couldn’t keep her card on the LPGA. “She’d trade all that in to just finish her four years of school.”

Four years of college golf isn’t for everyone, and that’s perfectly fine. But where Q-Series sits on the schedule – busting up the fall college season and then gutting programs before the postseason – wreaks all kinds of havoc on the LPGA’s primary feeder system. In no other sport is there such a disconnect between the college game and the pros.

And it’s not just that a team such as Alabama went from potentially one of the all-time greats this season to regional hopefuls. It’s what those strong early performances mean in the rankings as the spring approaches. Weaker teams that score big victories against teams such as Alabama (now down two first-team All-Americans) and UCLA (now minus one first-team All-American) in the spring could get propelled into the postseason.

Teams such as Colorado and Ohio State have likely just lost their No. 1 players (though both Robyn Choi and Jaclyn Lee say they haven’t decided) – and they can’t reload like the perennial powerhouses.

There are connections in these rankings that will be impacted for months to come as teams become a fraction of what they were in the fall.

Of course, coaches want to qualify for the postseason and contend for national titles. It’s what they’re paid to do. But college players also have an expectation of what they’re signing up for when they join a program. And with the LPGA’s current qualifying system bringing so much upheaval into the college game, the impact is likely far more wide-reaching than officials ever realized.

Stanford coach Anne Walker believes the LPGA had good intentions in creating this new path for college standouts. What she’d like to see, however, is the LPGA get together with college coaches and representatives from its LPGA membership to see what can be done to make this process less disruptive for the other 99 percent of college golf.

There are a number of ways the LPGA could improve the new system.

Perhaps drop the top-five exemption down to second stage.

College players compete with the least amount of pressure at Q-Series because there’s a safety net in place. Everyone else is competing for their livelihood.

“They’re playing a different game,” Alabama coach Mic Potter said. “They have nothing to lose.”

Daly-Donofrio said the deferral was put in place to give the athletes more choices. In the past, players had 30 minutes to make a decision on whether or not they were going to turn pro to take their card.

Potter would like to see the LPGA start the clock, so to speak, immediately after NCAAs for players to start earning money toward keeping their card and extend it to the spring of the following year.

“Let them defer,” he said, “but give them a fair shake in terms of earning their card.”

Kim Kaufman got a curt welcome when she turned pro on the Symetra Tour (Golfweek File Photo).

Kim Kaufman doesn’t have any issues with the top five players earning an exemption but knows there are plenty of pros who think differently. Kaufman actually started her career on the Symetra Tour by way of her Golfweek college ranking and never will forget what a pro said at her first event: “It’s not fair. You haven’t paid your dues.”

“It totally took me back,” Kaufman said. “I’ve never forgotten it.”

The cleanest break of all, of course, would be to ban amateurs from Q-School and the Q-Series, forcing players to make a decision on what comes next after the postseason (like other sports). At least then players would honor their commitment for that season and give programs the chance to contend for titles fully loaded.

The LPGA could then add more sponsor exemptions to its full-field events and increase the playing opportunities for college golf’s best. That certainly would add more intrigue.

The bottom line is this: Are top college players ready for the LPGA? Talent-wise, probably. But does that mean they are ready in every other sense?

Potter said Alabama spends roughly $100,000 per year on a player.

Is it worth walking away from those resources? The road to the LPGA is not paved with sponsorship money for the vast majority. Even landing free equipment can be tricky. A star player might have it at the beginning of her career but might lose those sponsorships after a rocky start.

Tweaks to Q-Series most certainly are in order. It’s not the LPGA’s responsibility to look out for the best interest of college golf coaches. But it should have a commitment to the overall health and growth of the women’s game. It should want players in their Q-Series who are 100 percent committed to being there, not showing up because they’d feel like a fool not to. And that doesn’t account for the mess left in their wake after turning pro.

As for the other 99 percent of college golf, those are the women who, as Walker said, go on to become ambassadors of this great game.

Create a system that’s fair to them too. Gwk

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