Monday Morning Rap: It's Time To Start Giving The Best College Players A Direct Path To The PGA Tour

Good morning, golf fans. A quiet-ish week means I'm going to start by riffing on something that's been on my mind.

Give the kids a chance...like, an actual chance

Michael Reaves. Getty Images.

Good morning on this Monday, which likely finds you licking your wounds after yet another packed sports weekend. You might even be dealing with the double whammy, as we are over here in the Northeast: the normal post-football Monday blues, combined with the existential dread that comes after what could be the last money weather weekend of the year. It was legitimately 70 and sunny all weekend in the City, full you're-a-bum-if-you're-staying-inside vibes, and who knows what the weather gods have in store for us the rest of the year. If you're a Phillies fan, you're coming off all that and the nightmare of watching the Houston Astros celebrate in your faces. I'm offering you a virtual hug. Autumnal Mondays are not for the faint of heart. 

Be thankful, however, that you're not one of the young men playing for their professional futures this morning. 

Monday marks the final round of the final stage of Korn Ferry Tour Qualifying School, where dreams go to flourish and to die. This marks the last year that Q-School will not offer a direct path to the PGA Tour—starting next year, the top five finishers in final stage will get privileges on the Big Tour—but there's still some pretty meaty carrots out there: the first-place finisher will be fully exempt on the KFT next season. The rest of the top 10 (and ties) will receive 12 guaranteed starts, with 11-40 getting at least eight attempts on next year's KFT. Every player who qualified for final stage will receive some level of conditional status for next season. 

The path to the PGA Tour has shifted considerably in recent years; it wasn't all that long ago that 25 full PGA Tour cards were attainable through qualifying school. Then, for the last decade, the KFT has been the main thoroughfare to the big leagues. But the recent earthquake in professional golf has reverberated throughout all the world tours, and things will be different moving forward. Beginning next season, the top 10 finishers on the DP World Tour's season-long points race that don't already have PGA Tour cards will get them. The top five finishers in final stage will also get cards, and there will be 30 cards handed out at the end of next year's Korn Ferry Tour regular season, up from 25. (The three-event Korn Ferry Finals series will no longer offer PGA Tour cards, just elevated purses and points). 

Those upcoming changes won't make Monday's round any less nervy for the 80 or so guys in contention for guaranteed starts, who are facing a proper nut-up-or-shut-up moment: get yourself some guaranteed starts, or you're looking at another year of Monday's, mini tours and scratching for Korn Ferry starts. While the bickering at the tip-top of the professional golf pyramid has monopolized media headlines and public attention, it all reeks a bit of the rich getting richer. Do I make X million here, or do I make X times two million there? Will my LIV check offset my loss of endorsements? I already know my grandkids won't worry about money, but can we extend that to my great grandkids? The jockeying at the periphery of pro golf, however, is where things get real. Can I really afford another year of driving around the country staying in motels? Do I even want to? Am I good enough to do this? 

It's a painful conversation that confronts the vast majority of professional golfers. The Jordan Spieth path to the PGA Tour—bet the best junior, the best college player, win on tour right away, millions of dollars instantly—is not the normal path to the PGA Tour, which historically has treated every newly turned professional the same. Sure, the top college players sign endorsement deals that give them financial runway, and they might even get a headstart with some sponsor's invites, but amateur success does not guarantee even a smidge of professional success. Plenty of All-Americans flame out without even sniffing a PGA Tour card. There's a romantic beauty in that type of meritocracy, and it's why for every Jordan Spieth there seems to be a Zach Johnson, who played No. 5 on his team at Drake University and will retire having won a green jacket and an Open Championship at St. Andrews. But it can't and won't continue, yet another product of the competition-induced changes reshaping golf. 

The PGA Tour could get away with its earn-you-card stance for decades, for it was the only viable option in town. An All-American out of, say, Auburn, would jump through hoops to get a PGA Tour card because what else is he going to do? That's obviously not the case with the emergence of LIV Golf, and LIV has already made an effort to begin poaching top collegiate talent by luring them with guaranteed money and guaranteed starts on a very rich tour. It's an enticing proposition for a college kid, particularly one who didn't grow up with much and maybe didn't always dream of playing just on the PGA Tour. Consider the case of Eugenio Chacarra, the former world No. 2 amateur and Oklahoma St. alum who eschewed the PGA Tour universe in favor of signing a guaranteed deal with LIV Golf. Instead of facing the possibility of falling short, of having his college momentum cease at the gates of pro golf, Chacarra decided to take the guaranteed payout and made an additional $6.9 million in prize money this year. LIV also made offers to Wake Forest grad Alex Fitzpatrick, younger brother of Matt, and both Pierceson and Parker Coody out of the University of Texas. 

“I might be sitting on my couch with millions in my bank account watching my friends play on the PGA Tour, and that would have been devastating,” Pierceson Coody told Golf.com when explaining his decision to stiff-arm LIV.

“Seeing that kind of money was kind of a wow moment for me,” Pierceson said. “It was a crazy amount of money, but I love the American tour. I never saw myself as a LIV golfer, but a PGA Tour golfer.”

Both Fitzpatrick and the Coodys said no, opting to go the traditional route and chase their dream of playing on the PGA Tour. But the PGA Tour can't continue to bank that other 20-somethings will make that same choice. If they want to continue attracting the top talent, something's gotta change. Namely: there should be a direct path from college golf to the PGA Tour. Chacarra took the LIV money, and other young players—particularly non-Americans like Chacarra, who aren't as tied to the PGA Tour and see the appeal of a more global-focused entity like LIV—will begin to do the same if offered. 

Toward that end, the PGA Tour created the PGA Tour U rankings a few years ago, which offer the top five finishes in its points rankings a direct path to the Korn Ferry Tour. It's a nice start, but it doesn't go nearly far enough. The rankings are only open to college seniors, while the best college players are increasingly underclassmen. Michael Thorbjornsen of Stanford, for example, is the No. 2 player in the country and finished T-4 at the Travelers Championship earlier this summer…but he's a junior, and so he's ineligible for the rankings. Secondly, and this might sound a touch more extreme, there should be a path not just to the Korn Ferry Tour, but to the PGA Tour. 

Young players are having more success on the PGA Tour than ever before. Much of that is due to college golf, which has made huge strides in the last decade. The top programs are better-funded than ever, offering pristine practice conditions and constantly traveling around the country to play high-quality events against top competition. Players are growing up optimizing their physical ability with launch monitors and golf-specific workout routines, and they're equipped with course-management strategies that used to come only with years of experience. The top players coming out of college are smarter, faster and more mature than they were a generation ago, and the gap between the best amateurs and the best professionals is shrinking. The cream of the college crop are good enough to at least have a shot at immediately playing the PGA Tour. Plus, Golf Channel has recently increased its investment into the college game, with multiple collegiate tournaments popping up on TV throughout the year. Those broadcasts would draw far more attention if viewers knew the players they're watching would compete against Rory and Scottie and JT next year, not if they eventually claw their way onto the PGA Tour.  

If you're not convinced by the merit argument, think of this from a more Machiavellian lens: to keep the top talent, you've got to make yourself a more attractive entity than the competition. The PGA Tour still has serious inherent advantages over LIV: it has the history and the legacy events, it has more top players and it doesn't come with the PR baggage that LIV does. But as of right now, LIV can offer the top college players something the PGA Tour cannot: guarantees. That's gotta change. Tightening the relationship between NCAA Golf and PGA Tour golf should be a no-brainer for Ponte Vedra, and you'd still keep open a (narrower) path to the PGA Tour for the DPWT and Korn Ferry Tour guys. Here's a two-part solution, then: 1. The PGA Tour U rankings should be open to all college players, not just seniors, and 2. The top five finishers should receive PGA tour cards, with the next 10 getting Korn Ferry Tour cards. 

Russell Henley finally closes the deal

The top 10 in the strokes gained: approach statistic—a newer-age stat that, to put it simply, ranks each player on the PGA Tour's iron and approach play—is typically a who's-who of the world's best players. Will Zalatoris led the tour in it last year. Collin Morikawa was third. Then came Scottie Scheffler, Cameron Smith, Hideki Matsuyama, Xander Schauffele and Justin Thomas. 

Perhaps you realized we skipped over No. 2 on that list: it's Russell Henley, who has quietly been among the world's best iron players for the past couple year. The Georgia grad was sixth in strokes gained: approach in 2021 and third the year prior, so this is hardly a fluke. That type of ball striking has kept him afloat in plenty of big tournaments, but the shortcomings of the rest of his game have prevented him from performing at the consistent level tha his other strokes gained:approachers do. And when he has got a look at a title in recent years he hasn't taken it, squandering a 54-hole lead at the 2021 U.S. Open (he'd finish T-13) and blowing a five-shot back-nine advantage to Hideki Matsuyama back at the Sony Open in January. 

Henley gave himself his best opportunity yet to return to the winners circle on Sunday, when he teed off the final round of the World Wide Technology Championship in Mexico with a six-shot lead. He didn't exactly slam the door closed, playing his first six holes in one over, but bounced back from that bogey at No. 6 with three consecutive birdies to take all the life out of the final round. His one-under round and 23 deep total was good for a four-shot win over Brian Harman, with a group of five (including Scottie Scheffler) finishing joint third at 18 under. 

“I've just choked, you know," Henley said of his recent near-misses, and he gets credit for fully acknowledging the c-word. "The nerves have gotten to me, and I've made bad mistakes. Bad mental mistakes. And just haven't gotten it done on Sunday. Put myself in position a decent amount, just haven't gotten it done. So, to come out and kind of do everything pretty well today tee-to-green and keep it pretty clean and just play steady was what was nice.

“I don't think I would have done it unless I had kind of failed so many times.”

Scheffler closed with 62 for a much-needed high finish. A string of meh finishes—he had just one top-10 in his previous seven starts–saw him dethroned from world No. 1 by Rory McIlroy, and he'll look to continue the momentum at this week's Houston Open. Two-time defending champion Viktor Hovland finished T-10 in Mexico, with an increasingly frustrated Collin Morikawa taking T-15. Moriakwa said earlier in the week that nothing felt good basically all year, and with no official starts lined up before January, he's staring a winless 2022 straight in the face. 

Bernhard Langer, The Timeless Wonder

There's really not much left to say about Bernhard Langer. It feels like I've written one of these Bernhard Langer is Unbelievable pieces every year for the past half-decade, but that's the thing with senior-tour golf: the more they keep winning, the more impressive it becomes. And this man keeps winning. 

The 65-year-old shot 63 on Saturday and closed the deal with 66 on Sunday to win the Timbertech Championship by six shots and, at 65 years, 2 months and 20 days, broke his own record as the oldest winner in the history of the PGA Tour Champions. He now has 44 wins on the senior circuit, one short of the all time record, and you gotta think it's only a matter of time until that's his. He's now won a title in all 15 of his seasons on the champions tour, at least two titles in each of the last 10, and more than $33 million earnings since turning 50. That's a helluva second act for an already Hall of Fame worthy career.

“You’ve got to be healthy, hungry, willing to work, have a good support system, a great caddie and good coach, many, many other things," Langher said of his late flourish. "As I said, the willingness to put in the hours, because many people when they get to 50, 60, they’re going to say, ‘Well, I’ve had a good career and I’m going to take it a little easy and all that.’ You can’t do that out here, there’s too many good players.”

Elsewhere…

—Max Homa's wife, Lacey, gave birth to the couple's first child, a son named Cam. So all of Homa's very funny almost-dad content will now become very funny dad content. 

—One of the participants in the final stage of Q School is Brandon Hagy, who lost his PGA Tour card this season. Hagy's been on the PGA Tour for five years, which means he has a one-year KFT exemption he can use to get full status for a year. But he's playing in the final stage to try to earn that status rather than have to burn the exemption…and he's doing so with a recognizable name on the bag. 

Joe LaCava Jr., son of Tiger Woods' caddie Joe, is caddying for Hagy at final stage. And it seems he's going to stay on the bag going forward. "Going to give the caddie life a try," LaCava Jr. told me by text. He's caddied for Charlie Woods in each of the past two PNC Championships and has spent recent summers looping at Winged Foot Golf Club in New York. 

—The new DP World Tour schedule came out last week, and it features increases in purses across the board—most notable, however, is a new income assistance programme that guarantees players at least $150,000 if they participate in at least 15 DP World Tour events. In the last year, coinciding with the emergence of LIV Golf, the PGA Tour and the DP World Tour have now begun guaranteeing some level of income to its players. 

—Patrick Reed and his lawyer, Larry Klayman, are suing a new crop of golf media entities for $250 million in damages. This, in addition to the $750 million suit he's already filed against Golf Channel and a trio of golf journalists. 

—LIV Gold had its first "free agency" move, with Talor Gooch leaving the champion 4 Aces to join Bubba Watson's team, which will be renamed before next year. Gooch will be replaced on the Aces by Peter Uihlein. It's surreal to be writing a sentence like this in a golf article, but this is the vision LIV has been pushing, and they deserve credit for making it a reality is such a short period of time. Now let's see if anyone will start to actually care about the teams, which is pretty vital if the team concept is going to take off. 

—We at Fore Play collaborated with our friends at G Fore to produce some special edition Transfusion shoes, availble in both the Gallivanter (proper-as-hell golf shoe) and the MG4X2, a cross trainer you can wear on or off the course. These things are comfy as hell, and you should buy a pair. 

—Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Jordan Spieth are all set to participate in the latest edition of "The Match," which will take place in primetime outside Tampa on Dec. 10. Given JT and Spieth's friendship, and Tiger and Rory's business partnership on TMRW sports, you've gotta think its JT/Spieth against Tiger/Rory. Should be a fun one. 

—Gemma Drybergh, from Scotland, won her first LPGA title with a four-shot victory at the Toto Classic in Japan. 

Until next week,

Dan