When it comes to college players, LPGA qualifying system still needs work

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When it comes to college players, LPGA qualifying system still needs work

LPGA Tour

When it comes to college players, LPGA qualifying system still needs work

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Albane Valenzuela apologized for the background noise. She was riding through campus on her bike (helmet on) as we discussed her decision to quit college golf with one semester remaining.

One day prior, the Stanford star stood before her teammates and told them something similar. Only there among friends, especially the seniors, Valenzuela bawled.

Walking out of that room, second thoughts poured in. Was she doing the right thing?

“I thought about that in my head,” she said, “but in my heart I think I knew it was time to turn pro.”

For those who don’t follow college golf regularly, this is a scene that plays out annually at top programs across the country. Elite players who want to position themselves for the next step sign up for LPGA qualifying and, in many cases, feel they can’t afford to put aside tour membership to finish out the spring semester. (It’s like the top five players in basketball getting drafted before March Madness.)

Along with Valenzuela, USC’s Jennifer Chang accepted her LPGA card and will turn pro for the start of the 2020 season. Florida’s Sierra Brooks and Frida Kinhult of Florida State will play a full season on the Symetra Tour in hopes of making their way to the LPGA.

The timing of Q-Series is awful for college programs. Stanford’s top-ranked player, Andrea Lee, has yet to announce if she will return for her final semester. It’s obviously impossible to replace two top-five players in the middle of the year.

Regardless of what Lee decides, the system still needs work.

The dates of Q-Series aren’t moving. So what else can be done?

Last year the LPGA allowed players to defer their tour status until after the spring semester. Jennifer Kupcho and Maria Fassi were the first ones to try that route. Both enjoyed outstanding springs (Kupcho won the Augusta National Women’s Amateur, and Fassi won the NCAAs) and went on to keep their tour cards despite playing only half a season.

On one hand, the deferral system could be viewed as a rousing success. But it’s also possible that no one with a top-20 finish at Q-Series defers again.

Why? Because it’s a huge risk. Missing the first five months of the season presents a massive mountain to climb for a rookie. Kupcho killed it this year. She’s currently 38th on the money list with $502,123. Fassi, however, finished 98th on the money list and made only 11 starts. The difference between Fassi kicking back in November and heading to Q-Series was a mere $6,117.

Arkansas coach Shauna Estes-Taylor knows that hosting NCAAs last May played a massive role in Fassi’s decision to return to campus.

“If the situation had been different,” said Estes-Taylor, “I don’t know what her answer would’ve been.”

Similarly, the 2020 Olympics played a major role in Valenzuela’s decision to turn professional. She represented Switzerland in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro before coming to Stanford and places a return to that stage as her highest priority.

Even so, she’d like to see the LPGA work with college coaches to make it easier for players like her to finish out the spring semester.

Alabama coach Mic Potter believes a wrap-around money list might be a possible answer. Allow earnings to accumulate from June 1 to May 31 of the following year.

Here’s another idea: Rather than have the top players in college golf get a pass to the second stage of Q-School, where players only have to complete four rounds to earn Symetra Tour status, Estes-Taylor would like to see those players instead get exemptions straight onto the Symetra Tour after the spring season.

This would also keep players from needlessly missing college events in the fall and perhaps keep a few who aren’t ready for Q-Series from putting themselves in the position to advance by being forced to tee it up (and pay) for Stage II.

The LPGA is all about protecting its own. Well, here’s the truth: College players have a distinct advantage over professionals in the qualifying process.

Q-Series is an eight-day grind. There’s nothing easy about it. But college players certainly have the best shot at getting through because unlike professionals, they have a cushy backup plan.

“It’s not really fair,” said Estes-Taylor. “One group is playing to put food on the table, and the other group is testing the waters.”

The fix for that is an obvious one: Make Q-Series for professionals only.

“You go there as an amateur,” said Stacy Lewis, “you’ve got nothing to lose.”

(Lewis, by the way, was medalist at the 2008 Q-School after graduating from Arkansas.)

It’s not a bad thing to make these players face a decision that has consequences. The thought process for going to Q-Series and taking that next step without a safety net looks completely different to the current landscape.

Amateurs haven’t always been allowed to participate in Q-School.

Why not go back to that?

It’s up to the LPGA to make some changes that will benefit all of women’s golf. Deferral was a good idea in theory, but there won’t be many Kupchos and Fassis who follow.

College golf isn’t the tour’s responsibility, but it is the main feeder system for the LPGA and Symetra Tour, and the lifeblood of American women’s golf.

Once again, there’s got to be a better way.

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