Just two months after announcing significant changes to the PGA Tour University program, more meaningful tweaks are likely to be approved by the tour’s Policy Board today.
This time, direct PGA Tour access is being offered.
For the uninitiated, PGA Tour University is a platform that awards professional status to top college golf seniors. Since it began in 2020, the program’s rewards have continued to get better as an increasing number of players are now set to earn added job security and more Korn Ferry Tour starts while having additional routes to reach the PGA Tour.
These moves have largely been driven by LIV Golf’s ability to poach young college players such as Eugenio López-Chacarra and David Puig. The allure of guaranteed money and multiyear contracts has been hard to pass up, especially when considering the PGA Tour’s relatively laborious path to membership.
The tour is rapidly hoping to alleviate that problem. On top of reinstituting direct-to-tour Q-School and generating more churn in the bottom half of its membership by cutting cards from 125 to 70, the tour is now offering even more benefits to top college players.
The first is that the No. 1 player in the final PGA Tour University ranking will become a tour member who is eligible for all open, full-field events following the conclusion of the NCAA Championship. This is a decidedly positive move, although it probably sounds better than it will look like in reality. The top player essentially will get starts in the “second-tier” summer tournaments – John Deere Classic, 3M Open, et al., of the schedule – that don’t have elevated status. The Memorial and Travelers Championship, for example, are expected to be elevated events closed off for just the best players, so the top finisher probably wouldn’t play in those tournaments.
This top college player will have about seven summer starts by our count. He could play tremendous golf and reach the top 70 to obtain a card, but it’s probably more likely that he would be funneled into the new six-tournament fall series in which a tour card would be at stake, the retooled Q-School and/or the next season’s Korn Ferry Tour. There won’t be any shortage of ways he eventually can get his tour card, but it’s not like that these top finishers are being given guaranteed long-term status.
The second benefit has a similar reward. Juniors, sophomores and freshmen who achieve elevated benchmarks in college, amateur and professional golf can earn tour membership through a new program called PGA Tour University Accelerated. In other words, outstanding talents can be fast-tracked before their senior year so they don’t have to bide their time. Once these certain benchmarks are met, the player would join that No. 1 finisher in being eligible for all open tour events following the NCAA Championship.
The bar figures to be set extremely high to qualify for this path, but at least it will exist.
These are both positive moves. It’s important to remember that the tour is in the precarious position of wanting to cater to young talent without undermining its meritocracy values and upsetting the current membership by letting college kids bypass several rungs on the ladder without proving themselves against professionals. We’re not talking about the NFL; we’re talking about a membership-run organization. And this does slightly improve the tour’s odds of keeping college kids in their system.
However, the work feels incomplete.
For one, we wonder whether the tour is missing an opportunity by limiting this program to U.S. college students. Japan’s Taiga Semikawa, the No. 1 amateur in the world, and Australia’s Harrison Crowe are examples of players who are not being incentivized to play the tour. Another top amateur, Thailand’s Ratchanon “T.K.” Chantananuwat, already has a relationship with LIV. Chacarra and Puig are from Spain. This is clearly a weakness that LIV can exploit. Are these international stars, especially in the Asia-Pacific region, going to head to LIV just because they aren’t attending an American college?
Secondly, it’s still curious why the PGA Tour would rather protect the very bottom portion of its membership – those in past-champion categories and others who are using exemptions based on long-gone glory years – instead of giving younger players more opportunities.
Take George McNeill, a 47-year-old who won a couple of tour events 10-15 years ago. Clinging to past-champion status, McNeill has made 75 tour starts since 2015-2016. He has two top-10 finishes and has never been better than No. 175 on the points list in that time.
With no offense meant toward McNeill and others like him, it’s long past due to trim the fat on some of these lower-tier tournaments. At the same time, if PGA Tour University graduates reach certain benchmarks on the Korn Ferry Tour (or even lower circuits such as PGA Tour Canada), maybe they can be promoted for starts in the big leagues.
And lastly, it also seems inevitable that university graduates eventually will have more paths to earn conditional tour status. If the graduating class of 20 players identifies a handful of standouts throughout the summer, there could be some form of hybrid PGA Tour/Korn Ferry Tour schedule available for the next season. Points earned on both circuits should count toward future-status benchmarks so players don’t have to choose between either tour.
Giving more PGA Tour starts to those who have early professional success isn’t a handout. You still have to go out and earn full status against other pros.
All in all, it’s a difficult equation for the tour to solve – and officials have taken considerable steps in the right direction – but we suspect there will be more “pipeline protection” down the road.