Pair of collegians soak up Korn Ferry Q-School experience, hoping for breakthrough

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Pair of collegians soak up Korn Ferry Q-School experience, hoping for breakthrough

College

Pair of collegians soak up Korn Ferry Q-School experience, hoping for breakthrough

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WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – For many of the players who enter Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School, a PGA Tour career is a pipe dream. Chandler Eaton uses that phrase to describe a science outreach program he imagines one day developing with his dad Scott, who works as a computer scientist.

Eaton is a Duke senior majoring in environmental science. He and Kansas senior Andy Spencer are the only two amateurs in the 154-man final-stage field of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School. Both will have a decision to make if they finish the week at Orange County National among the top 40 and ties and thus lock in some number of guaranteed starts on the developmental tour for the 2020 season.

Regardless, Eaton plans to finish his degree at Duke. He arrived in Durham, North Carolina, with the goal of playing professionally but also knowing it may not be a sustainable way to live.

“I always worked like I was going to (play professionally), and I still know I’m going to be fine whatever I do,” he said.

KORN FERRY TOUR: Q-school leaderboard

Collegians at Q-School are received differently in men’s and women’s golf, probably because it’s not as popular a path for the men as for the women. Five of the top female players in the nation entered the LPGA Q-Series in October, and all five are headed to the Symetra or LPGA tours at the start of 2020. Stanford got dinged twice in that process, losing a pair of senior All-Americans in Albane Valenzuela and Andrea Lee.

Changes to the PGA Tour’s qualifying structure in 2013 made it much more difficult for a player to come straight out of college and onto the PGA Tour. Matthew Wolff, who won a Tour event 41 days after claiming the NCAA individual title, is the exception. The vast majority of players are funneled up through the Korn Ferry Tour.

Still, the women have the option to defer status they earn at their Q-Series. Eaton wouldn’t mind that route, if it were available to him. He won’t have to turn professional immediately if he does finish among the top 40, but he must do it relatively soon or risk getting lost in the reshuffle that happens after every four events once the 2020 season starts.

There aren’t many ways for an amateur to skip the pre-qualifying and first stages of Q-School, but Eaton got a pass straight to the second stage when he made the cut at the U.S. Open this summer. That was a life-changing week in itself.

“I got a lot of confidence in my game from that, but most importantly I just learned those guys are playing with so much pressure to make a living,” Eaton said. “They are so calm and relaxed and have so much belief in themselves, that was the biggest thing I learned. When things are going bad, just keep believing.”

Eaton and his family viewed this as an opportunity he may not get again. Duke coach Jamie Green agreed, likening Eaton’s situation this week to “playing with house money.”

Eaton becomes his first active player to go through Q-School. As he watches the process unfold, Green acknowledges that a deferment option (allowing a player to pick up the status he earned at the end of the college season without getting lost in reshuffles) would be the best of both worlds – at least from where he’s sitting.

“I think it’s awesome,” Green said of Eaton’s path to final stage. “A couple of people have asked me how I feel about it, and obviously we want the best team with the best players every semester we have a chance, but our team is based on individuals and we care about each one of those guys.

“If this is his dream job, I want him to get it.”

There are different ways to approach Q-School as a college player. Ohio State graduate Will Grimmer did this dance last year as a senior, but only made it as far as second stage.

“When you know that you’re in college and you’ve got a spring semester to fall back on,” Grimmer said, “I think that makes it a lot easier to go out and kind of free-wheel it this week versus guys that are pro and have been grinding out here for six to eight years and know if they don’t play well this week, they don’t have any starts and they don’t have a good alternative to fall back on.”

He’s at final stage as a professional this year.

Braden Thornberry made it to final stage a year ago as a senior at Ole Miss. He finished T-72, which didn’t earn him any guaranteed starts for the 2019 season, but turned professional before the spring season anyway. Thornberry is also back at final stage this week.

“I wouldn’t say there was less pressure last year, obviously there was another option,” he said. “Honestly, that probably made it a little bit tougher. You weren’t fully making up your mind either way, there’s that little bit of doubt – if I finish here what am I going to do. This year, it’s pretty clear cut.”

Andy Spencer is a senior at the University of Kansas. Photo: KU Athletics

Spencer, the Kansas senior, played his way to this point from the pre-qualifying stage. After his junior season, the Prairie Village, Kansas, native sought advice from Matt Gogel, a former professional who was a fraternity brother of Spencer’s dad Jeff at Kansas. Gogel thought that, at the very least, the process would be great experience.

Spencer’s family, coach and teammates got on board. Q-School marks the first professional experience Spencer has had outside of the Watson Challenge, a professional event limited to players in Kansas City.

“There’s really no downside to playing,” Spencer said. “Obviously I want the best for my team at KU, but I thought if I was good enough to come out here and do this, might as well give it a shot. I’ve kind of taken the route that I have no pressure, just kind of play free.”

Asked what it would take to turn professional, Spencer said he had the top 40 circled. That would get him guaranteed starts next season.

“If I were able to do that, I’d have to weigh my options and make a pretty tough decision.”

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