Within the pandemic-altered landscape of professional golf, there is still a place for good timing.
Take the case of John Pak, the talented 21-year-old senior at Florida State University. After his junior season was cut short in March – Pak had won two of his past three events at that point, becoming a seven-time winner at FSU – the realistic opportunity for a national championship was taken away. But just when it looked gloomy, the golf gods made it up to him.
With no local or sectional qualifying for this year’s U.S. Open, the USGA invited the top seven amateurs in the world to Winged Foot. Pak, who was sitting at No. 7, is from northeastern New Jersey about an hour from Westchester County in New York where the course sits. He had played the A.W. Tillinghast masterpiece in a junior tournament six years ago, giving him a slight head start on others. He also took advantage of where he lived by getting out to play Winged Foot extensively in the weekend before the tournament.
That favorable set of circumstances proved crucial as Pak emerged as the only amateur to make the U.S. Open cut, his T51 finish earning him low-amateur honors and a spot next to winner Bryson DeChambeau on the podium.
“I set three goals for the tournament,” Pak said. “One was to beat Tiger. I’m a huge Tiger fan and I thought that would be really cool to beat the greatest golfer of all time, in my opinion. The second was to make the cut and the third was to be the low am. To accomplish all three was pretty special.
“I tried to think of it as a normal tournament. I’ve played well since I’ve been in college, so why change anything?”
His performance at Winged Foot likely assured him of another Walker Cup invitation, this one to be played next May at Seminole Golf Club in Florida. For the record, Pak says his opening tee shot at the 2019 Walker Cup made him far more nervous than his major championship debut, although he was brilliant in both outings – Pak went 3-0 in the United States’ victory at Hoylake, and he figures to be a leading figure for the Americans yet again.
"I think PGA Tour University is the best thing to come out of college golf in a long time. ...
It makes my future a little more clear.
Pak’s great timing extends to professional golf as well. This is the first year of the PGA Tour University rankings, an initiative that provides the top five college seniors immediate membership on the Korn Ferry Tour following the 2021 NCAA Championship. For those finishing sixth through 15th, status on other developmental tours also is available.
The made cut at the U.S. Open puts Pak at the top of those rankings by almost exactly 1,000 points ahead of Arizona State’s Chun An Yu. Georgia’s Davis Thompson, Texas Tech’s Sandy Scott and Oklahoma State’s Austin Eckroat are all in line for Korn Ferry Tour status as well.
Consider the circumstances: With all PGA Tour players keeping their status for another season, no Korn Ferry Tour players graduating to the PGA Tour and the Korn Ferry Tour Q-School not taking place this fall for new players to be added there, there is a traffic jam that extends to the Mackenzie Tour and other developmental circuits.
Pak could find himself in the express lane. If Pak gains Korn Ferry Tour status, he will be eligible to start playing next June. Due to the extended season in which Korn Ferry players have been accumulating points since early 2020, it would take a special run for Pak to make his way into the top 25 and get himself in line for a PGA Tour card. However, making it to the Korn Ferry Tour Finals would be far more realistic. In that case, he would have a strong chance at PGA Tour status.
If all else fails, Pak still would be exempt into the Final Stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School next fall. That would give him the chance at becoming a full Korn Ferry Tour member for the following year.
“I think PGA Tour University is the best thing to come out of college golf in a long time,” Pak said. “For it to start my senior year, I got really lucky with that. I was always going to stay four years in college, but that solidified my decision of staying four years. It makes my future a little more clear. I know what may be coming and it’s not so unknown anymore. I think that’s awesome.”
On the other side, there is an extensive list of players within the pro game who have been hurt by the current circumstances. For any Korn Ferry Tour players who won in 2020 and normally would have secured their PGA Tour cards by this time in the calendar, it’s going to be an agonizing next 12 months to see if they can hold their spot within the top 25. For most of those players it will require at least a few more good finishes.
If anyone deserves to complain, it’s Will Zalatoris. The former Wake Forest standout has been far and away the best player on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2020, collecting 10 top-10s and a win on his way to a No. 1 ranking.
In a normal year, he would be cruising to a PGA Tour card and happily playing a fall season with a chance to get a head start on the stars of the game. Instead, he is grinding, and doing a tremendous job of it – Zalatoris finished in a tie for sixth at the U.S. Open, making more money in that start then his previous 16 Korn Ferry Tour appearances combined. The following week, a drained Zalatoris made the cut on the number at the PGA Tour’s Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship and then rallied for a top-10 finish, getting him into the Sanderson Farms Championship last week.
He missed the cut there, but remains on the brink of special temporary membership. That would allow him unlimited sponsor exemptions, which normally are capped at seven.
“At this stage of where I’m at, I can’t take a week off,” Zalatoris said. “At least I can admit it now, I was a little drained after (the U.S. Open).”
Zalatoris is up to No. 70 in the world, a near-impossible feat for a Korn Ferry Tour player. Data Golf, a rankings site that has become popular in the online golf community, lists Zalatoris as the No. 24 player in the world – truly unthinkable for someone without a PGA Tour card.
Zalatoris seems a lock to get his PGA Tour status at some point in the future. The worst possible scenario is that he has to wait until next year when the Korn Ferry Tour season ends. The best-case scenario is gaining 103 more FedEx Cup points and unlocking what would be a nearly full PGA Tour season. At the rate he is playing, a win – and the automatic full membership that comes with it – is realistic.
It’s all a part of players figuring out how to maneuver their way through an odd situation. For a rare few, everything has aligned perfectly. For others, it’s been a test of patience.