The PGA Tour Should Make More Room for College Stars

March 30, 2016

The 2016 version of the PGA Tour is young, and making that declaration has grown cliché. Sometime in the past few years, the influx of youth succeeding on Tour morphed from trend to normalcy. It probably has something to do with that Spieth kid, but what we have is a new, modern Tour and yes, it’s as young as it has ever been.

But it can get even younger, and the PGA Tour would be wise to adjust.

In this sense, “PGA Tour” doesn’t mean president Tim Finchem or any executives in Ponte Vedra. It means the individual events, the sponsored tournaments that possess Wonka-like golden tickets 40-plus weeks of the year. Of the hundreds of sponsors’ exemptions handed out each year, a mere handful reach college golfers. But they are as deserving as anyone.

Last February, Jon Rahm, then a junior at Arizona State, tied for fifth at the Phoenix Open, handling the most raucous venue on Tour, TPC Scottsdale, like a pro. Just three months after he got his diploma from Alabama-Birmingham, Paul Dunne entered the final round of the British Open as the leader.  

Fast-forward to this year’s Northern Trust Open and you find Charlie Danielson, a senior at Illinois, making it to the weekend; then at the Valspar Championship, Georgia senior Lee McCoy giving World No. 1 Jordan Spieth a free lesson on how to play Innisbrook. 

These performances are evidence that success can happen sooner than previously imagined. Dear PGA Tour, let it flourish!

Only a handful of events currently have built-in exemption spots for college players. The Valspar Collegiate, played each spring, offers one place in the next year’s Valspar Championship. The Barbasol Championship holds a spot for one of five national players of the year from the various levels of college golf.

Then there’s the Northern Trust Open, which hosts a Collegiate Showcase for a sampling of the best college players to fight for one spot in the big–boy event later that week. It incorporates foursomes of current collegians playing alongside Tour and amateur alumni competing for charity-bound winnings. It has existed for two years, and is already a beloved event. 

“The Northern Trust Collegiate Showcase is probably one of the absolute coolest things in college golf,” McCoy said on the podcast, just days after his fourth–place finish at the Valspar. “I think there could be a couple more of those throughout the year. I think it’s a great idea.”

I agree, Lee. The event is one of the absolute coolest things in college golf. It’s not hosted by the NCAA, or the college coaches or any specific conference. It is hosted by the Tour event and simple in scope. So, why are there not more like it? It’s hard to tell, but the decisions rest at the discretion of the sponsor and tournament officials. 

Sponsors’ exemptions commonly are handed out to veteran Tour players. Sure, a sponsor’s exemption for John Daly gives him another chance to strike gold as a 49-year-old wearing those funky pants. There’s some value in that, especially with Daly’s being a proven gate attraction. But why not occasionally favor one of the best amateur golfers in the world?

At this year’s Collegiate Showcase, Danielson shot 3-under to earn that lone spot in the Northern Trust field. Three days later, he one-upped himself, firing a 4-under in the first round of the main event. It became clear on the press–conference podium that he was enjoying himself. A lot. “I saw Jordan Spieth yesterday at the hotel,” Danielson said. “I was in an elevator with Adam Scott. Talked to Patrick Rodgers. It’s been pretty special, and then I was able to play golf with Steve Stricker and Scott Langley and Paul Casey.”

What Danielson is speaking of transcends sheer success; he’s talking about unrivaled experience, which he surely brought home to his campus in Champaign, Ill. It’s the same education Lee McCoy took to his college tournament the Monday after the Valspar. “The youth movement in golf… It’s giving us the confidence that we’re just as good as these guys,” McCoy says. “We can go out there and compete. It’s just a matter of getting a shot.”