Back in April, Oklahoma State’s Eugenio Chacarra put out a lengthy statement to announce that he would be returning to school for a fifth year despite being No. 3 in the PGA Tour University rankings at the time.
The decision took a lot of people by surprise. Chacarra had proved to be a bonafide winner in the college game, and his standing in PGA Tour University would have given him several Korn Ferry Tour starts this summer. He would have had a chance to make it through Korn Ferry Tour Q-School in the fall or at least have conditional KFT status the following year.
Instead, he opted to go back to college for another year, rolling the dice that he would stay near the top of the rankings.
“I am convinced that an additional year of hard work in Stillwater will allow me to continue to grow academically and personally,” Chacarra wrote on Twitter in April. “Which will only prepare me better for the PGA Tour and my professional career.”
But little more than two months later, Chacarra abruptly changed course by turning pro and fleeing to LIV Golf as one of the young players being poached by the Saudi-backed circuit. LIV had, according to Chacarra, called in late June to offer the highly ranked amateur. He initially said no and then countered with what Chacarra called “a ridiculous number” that he figured wouldn’t be accepted. It was.
"I’m just deciding to start my career on the LIV tour instead of the PGA Tour or European Tour. It was a simple decision."
When Chacarra has been asked about his reasoning for leaving, he naturally mentions how the well-beyond-market-value money will impact his life and his family’s lives. But something else he spoke about really hits on one of the underlying battlefields between the PGA Tour and LIV.
“I have one of my best buddies, Austin Eckroat, who was top five in the PGA Tour University (in 2021) and he didn’t play as good as he wanted to in those six events on the Korn Ferry Tour,” Chacarra said on the 5 Clubs podcast of his former Oklahoma State teammate. “And then he goes to Q-School and he doesn’t play his best, so he had to play Monday qualifiers and work his way to get through the Korn Ferry. I’m happy for him, but … the PGA Tour University program only gives you six events and you have to make your own path.”
The point Chacarra went on to make was about security. With LIV, he was given a multiyear contract with guaranteed starts and automatic money. He could play against respected players right away, and he could do so without the concern of status. As someone who had never been a member of the PGA Tour, DP World Tour or any other pro circuit, Chacarra said his understanding is that he can’t be banished from those tours. He could, in theory, pursue the PGA Tour in the future. How that would work out in reality is still unknown.
“I’m just deciding to start my career on the LIV tour instead of the PGA Tour or European Tour,” Chacarra said. “It was a simple decision.”
The PGA Tour is, of course, aware of this weakness that it has in the fight to keep the most talented players in its pipeline. In most major professional sports, up-and-coming athletes are awarded a contract with certain guarantees. It’s been well-documented that the tour’s meritocracy – a treat-all-members-equal structure prohibiting giving preferential treatment – makes for an interesting challenge when it comes to trying to promote the best college players.
They don’t want a system that slows young collegiate talent from getting through. Even though the true top amateurs can’t be stopped on their way to the big leagues, some of those ascensions throughout the tour’s history have been more laborious than they should have been. If the process is too daunting, some players like Chacarra will look to LIV.
But at the same time, handing out instant PGA Tour status to a top college player could be precarious. It goes against protecting the current tour membership who earned their cards playing against other professionals. Automatically bypassing hundreds of Korn Ferry Tour, DP World Tour, PGA Tour Canada and PGA Tour Latinoamérica players is seen as a bridge too far.
That’s the line the PGA Tour has tried to walk in its ever-evolving PGA Tour University program. First announced amidst the pandemic in 2020, the rankings award benefits to college seniors ready to start their pro careers. For the first two classes of graduates, the top five in the standings were given Korn Ferry Tour status for the remainder of the summer so, like in Eckroat’s case that Chacarra cited, they could use a small number of tournaments to work their way into the Ferry Tour Finals or use their exemption into the final stage of KFT Q-School to get status that way. Players finishing 6-15 in the rankings received PGA Tour Canada status for the summer while also getting access to the second stage of KFT Q-School.
With these benefits, there have been four players who navigated through the system to reach PGA Tour membership for the 2022-23 season: Eckroat, Davis Thompson, Kevin Yu and Trevor Werbylo. Among PGA Tour U grads, there have been four players who won a professional event within their first five pro starts.
“College golf and the PGA Tour sort of had that 54-year informal overlap prior to June 2020,” said Brendan von Doehren, the executive director and architect behind PGA Tour University. “This has been kind of a long, long time coming that (the previous model) finally burst. We’ve gained a lot of momentum in the industry, through amateur golf, through college golf. This has truly reshaped that transition process by which you are an amateur and how you become a pro. And for a lot of positive reasons for all the constituent bases. So we’re proud of where we are today.”
But with the landscape of modern professional golf quickly shifting, von Doehren and his team recently announced some substantial changes to their program for the third PGA Tour U class. In an attempt to speed up the process and combat the justified status concerns that influenced Chacarra’s decision to go to LIV, PGA Tour University will now award several enhanced benefits, and will do so for 20 college seniors instead of just 15.
First of all, the top five finishers will get more security by gaining an international tour (meaning PGA Tour Canada or Latinoamérica) membership the following season if they don’t make it through the Korn Ferry Tour during the summer. The second team, which is the 6-10 finishers, will have conditional Korn Ferry status in the summer so they can compete in those events if one of the top five graduates decides not to play – this has happened on occasion as players accept PGA Tour sponsor exemptions or qualify for a major championship. Previously, the Korn Ferry fields were not being filled with five PGA Tour U graduates if one or more of the top five finishers weren’t using the spot.
“What that does for us is that it gets more guys in events,” von Doehren said. “They’re able to kind of make cuts, get in the reshuffle for the Korn Ferry Tour. Hopefully by the end of the year, they parlay no status into potentially a card.”
PGA Tour University graduates now have more security and several opportunities to get to the PGA Tour.
On a related note, von Doehren said they are hoping to award some form of Korn Ferry points to PGA Tour U graduates who have success in major championships such as the U.S. Open. That event, for example, has been played opposite the Korn Ferry Tour, forcing some players to choose between playing in a major and chasing status.
The second team is also exempt for that summer on PGA Tour Canada and for the following season on PGA Tour Latinoamérica. The third team of players ranking 11-20 will just receive PGA Tour Canada status that summer and PGA Tour Latinoamérica status the following year. Still, that alleviates concerns about a lack of playing status.
“By going deeper, providing exempt access, it’ll strengthen those tours,” von Doehren said. “It allows players to schedule and to know if they’re in events or not, getting sponsors exemptions, all that kind of preparatory stuff we’re seeing.”
Where it gets really interesting is this: Those 20 graduates will actually compete against one another for future eligibility. By the end of the fall, the three players with the highest combined point totals for events played on the PGA Tour or Korn Ferry Tour will be exempt on the Korn Ferry Tour the following year. This will ensure players who use sponsor exemptions or Monday qualifiers to get into PGA Tour events won’t be penalized for not playing in Korn Ferry Tour events.
Had this system been in place this year, Pierceson Coody, Chris Gotterup and Jacob Bridgeman would have been the three players getting full Korn Ferry status. While Coody earned full Korn Ferry status through being in the top 75 last season, Gotterup is not fully exempt and Bridgeman is headed to the final stage of Korn Ferry Q-School – so Gotterup and Bridgeman would have benefited from the change had it been in place earlier.
Another vital change: In 2023, the PGA Tour will reintroduce the direct-to-tour Q-School – for the first time since 2012 – giving the top five finishers a PGA Tour card. For this upcoming class, the top five PGA Tour U finishers will receive an exemption into final qualifying for the Q-School. Nos. 6-20 will be exempt into the second stage of Q-School. In addition to the lure of a PGA Tour card, there also will be Korn Ferry Tour status on the line there. This new version awarding PGA Tour access will replace Korn Ferry Tour Q-School.
“They basically get two shots at (PGA Tour status),” Pepperdine golf coach Michael Beard told Global Golf Post. “You get the summer and then you get another shot at it in the fall.”
There is one more important note: the Korn Ferry Tour is fundamentally changing how it awards PGA Tour cards starting next year. Gone is the Korn Ferry Tour Finals as we know it. Instead of handing out 25 cards at the end of the regular season and then an additional 25 cards at the end of the the Finals, the four-tournament final series will just be a part of the regular season – which likely will give PGA Tour U grads more starts in the summer – and only 30 cards will be handed out instead of 50.
The PGA Tour’s new fall series will now determine a lot of the PGA Tour membership because only 70 players will qualify for the FedEx Cup playoffs. If you aren’t in the top 70 and don’t have PGA Tour status from a victory or other accomplishment, you will be fighting for tour status again. Presumably, certain Korn Ferry players who didn’t get PGA Tour cards during the regular season will also be a part of that fall series, although it hasn’t been announced yet. The theory is there will probably be more churn in PGA Tour membership, another benefit for college players turning pro.
Beard made the point that, in his discussions with other college coaches, there is a near-unanimous agreement that the changes improve the college game by convincing players to stay. A player who comes into his senior year well down the standings easily could catch fire and get into the top 20.
“I think you’re going to see less and less guys turning pro early,” Beard said. “PGA Tour U has really given excitement and some life to maybe guys that were really great freshmen year but maybe had an underwhelming sophomore year. And then now in a way it kind of gives them a little bit more to build towards as a junior, because you know you’re a part of this PGA Tour U and that season’s gonna count for when you turn pro.”
Points for the upcoming class of 2023 began to accumulate the week after the 2021 NCAA Championship. The standings are based on World Amateur Golf Ranking points and include a list of eligible tournaments that go beyond just college events.
PGA Tour University graduates now have more security and several opportunities to get to the PGA Tour. They could, despite the built-in late start, play excellent golf on the Korn Ferry Tour in the summer and reach the top 30. Or they could play well enough to make the PGA Tour’s fall series and obtain a card that way. Or they could use their favorable exemption to get straight to the PGA Tour through Q-School. Or they could qualify for full Korn Ferry status the following season and have a whole season to work toward the top 30 again.
If a college grad isn’t getting through to the highest level, it’s going to be easier to blame his scorecard than it will be to blame the system at large. Even in the worst-case scenario, PGA Tour U grads will have status on one of the international tours and could work their way up through the system.
“The stats are showing that we’re just dropping them into fields against pros and they are man-to-man winning events,” von Doehren said. “It’s not a coincidence. And so we just need to continue ensuring that flow is there throughout the system.”
While it’s not perfect – and calls for getting top players some kind of PGA Tour status are justified – this is a definitive step in the right direction. It may be inevitable that the tour will one day be forced to speed up the process even more than it has, but this is a substantial and meaningful improvement.
Is it enough to keep the Eugenio Chacarras of the world in the PGA Tour pipeline?
We will soon find out.
Top: Eugenio Chacarra (right) opts for security of LIV Golf over uncertainty of PGA Tour qualifying route