During the college golf season, GolfChannel.com will check in weekly to update what’s happening in the world of college golf.
In the past few weeks, college golf has upped its intensity.
Two men’s tournaments, the Southern Highlands Collegiate and Valspar Collegiate, offered extra incentive to their competitors in the form of PGA Tour exemptions. The raised stakes made both events infinitely more compelling, as UNLV’s Jack Trent topped Texas freshman Cole Hammer in a thrilling three-hole playoff earlier this month in Las Vegas and Oklahoma State sophomore Matthew Wolff held off charges from Texas A&M’s Chandler Phillips and FSU’s John Park – and darkness – to prevail Monday in Palm City, Fla.
Selfishly, as a college golf fan, this sport needs more of this.
College players are already provided many opportunities to test their games against the pros. The U.S. Amateur winner, frequently a collegian, receives several Tour exemptions. Other amateur events, such as the Jones Cup and Players Amateur, hand out Tour spots, as well. And some college standouts are awarded exemptions based on merit.
But while these young stars certainly aren’t being shut out, there are ways to further improve the college product and open up more doors.
As of now, there are just four college events that consistently reward their medalists with pro exemptions – the Haskins Award Augusta Invitational, which for the past few years has also handed out a Valspar spot, and Palmer Cup, which gives one player each year an Arnold Palmer Invitational invite, are the others.
With the PGA Tour partnering with the NCAA to develop an access program for college players, it would make sense to start expanding in this area. What if the winner of The Prestige at PGA West got into the Desert Classic? Or the Puerto Rico Classic winner stay to play in the Puerto Rico Open that week?
PGA Tour starts hard to come by? Why not get the Tour’s other tours involved? It would be cool to see the winner of the Olympia Fields/Fighting Illini Invitational qualify for the Web.com Tour’s Illinois stop. Or the Western Intercollegiate champion being invited to the Ellie Mae Classic in Northern California. Or the biggest and most exciting idea: The NCAA champ getting a major exemption.
The possibilities are endless, and any increase would be great for not only the college game, with more and more events looking to telecast or streaming options, but also the pro game, which would benefit from having its future stars gain more notoriety from its fans before they even begin their pro careers.
Also, these college players can handle the spotlight. It’s hard to keep track of the number of times a college kid has finished highly in pro event – Braden Thornberry at the FedEx St. Jude Classic; Lee McCoy at the Valspar Championship; Collin Morikawa losing in a playoff at the Web.com Tour’s Air Capital Classic.
Plus, who doesn’t want to see more of players like Matt Wolff right now? Wolff competed in the Waste Management Phoenix Open, was in the top 10 after 18 holes and demanded an impressive gallery for all four days in his Tour debut. He’ll get another start, too, next year at the 2020 Valspar courtesy of his win Monday at The Floridian.
The hard-hitting Oklahoma State super sophomore, with Cowboys alum Rickie Fowler in the gallery, shot 14 under and won for the fifth time in seven stroke-play events this season.
Before Monday, no player in the storied program’s history had won more than four times. (Even Fowler has never won more than twice in a season.) Lindy Miller, Willie Wood, Michael Bradley and Charles Howell III used to share Oklahoma State’s single-season wins record. Now, Wolff is all alone atop that list.
— Oklahoma State Golf (@OSUCowboyGolf) March 19, 2019
And he’s got bigger records to chase. With potentially five events left this season, Wolff needs three more to tie the national single-season wins record of eight shared by Tiger Woods and former North Carolina State standout Matt Hill. Should he reach that mark, he’ll also pass his current head coach, Alan Bratton, on Oklahoma State’s career wins list. Bratton won seven times. Miller holds the Cowboys record with 11 career individual titles, but that mark is safe as Wolff is expected to turn pro after this season.
Talents such as Wolff raise the profile of college golf. More tournaments with tour rewards could lift it exponentially – and, at the very least, make college events more exciting.
PASSING THE TEST
Normally, this section is reserved for tournament winners. But what the Florida men’s team did Tuesday was more impressive than capturing any trophy.
Theo Kelly, a 7-year-old from Jacksonville, Fla., was diagnosed last year with optic nerve glioma. After seven weeks of chemotherapy, the tumor grew. It has since stolen the vision from one of his eyes.
But what cancer won’t do to Kelly is keep him from being a part of a team. Thanks to the Gators, Team Impact and Golf Fights Cancer, Kelly officially became a member of Florida’s golf program by signing his national letter of intent during a ceremony Tuesday at Mark Bostick Golf Course.
“He’s had a pretty rough go, but to see the smile and look on his face today, that’s what it’s all about,” said Florida coach J.C. Deacon, who sat next to Kelly as the youngster became Deacon’s latest signee – and in a class all his own.
Team Impact is a non-profit organization that connects children facing serious or chronic illnesses with college athletic teams. Since 2011, the program has matched more than 1,700 children with more than 500 colleges and universities in 49 states.
Kelly will join the team during the season for tournaments, team dinners and more. The Gators, meanwhile, will gain a teammate and perspective.
“He’s going to help our team just as much as we’re going to help him,” Deacon said.
After signing pen to paper, Kelly headed outside for his first team practice. Deacon had a Nike driver cut down to size for Kelly while some players brought in old clubs. Senior Ryan Celano even gifted Kelly a Bettinardi putter.
While Kelly has only been playing golf since earlier this year, he’s quickly developing a passion for it. He frequents Topgolf, and after being shy around his teammates during an initial visit, Kelly was hugging and laughing with the Gators on Tuesday. His swing has improved, too. Of course, he does have 10 swing coaches now.
“It’s unbelievable how far he’s come,” Deacon said. “He’s having a blast being around these guys.”
The feeling is mutual.
“Having Theo around, it’s a constant reminder that the state of your game is not the state of your life. It’s the things like this that really matter,” said senior Gordon Neale. “I always like to think that the most important things in life are your relationships with people, and our relationship with Theo is a great reminder that all of us in this program are very lucky to have, especially in the bad times, because if Theo can go through what he’s going through with a smile, there’s no reason a little 74 here and there should affect our lives as much as we tend to let it sometimes.”
Rory McIlroy, who won the Players Championship on Sunday at TPC Sawgrass, didn’t play college golf. But he almost did.
In fact, McIlroy inked his national letter of intent with East Tennessee State in November 2014 – as a 15-year-old, too.
“Did my SAT, did everything like that, so I fully ready to come over and play college golf,” McIlroy said. “But at that point I knew that I really wanted to turn pro earlier than the four years. … I had no intention of graduating at all, so I thought it was just better to play full-time amateur golf in Ireland.”
McIlroy declined offers from bigger schools, often telling his mom to tell those coaches over the phone that, “I’m going to ETSU.” But he couldn’t ignore the allure of pro golf.
He turned pro after the 2007 Walker Cup and, well, the rest is history.
“By the time I was probably just getting out of college I had just won my first major,” said McIlroy, whose 2011 U.S. Open win was the first of four major titles. “It was a good decision in the end.”
To this day, though, McIlroy’s signed NLI hangs in East Tennessee State coach Fred Warren’s office along with some autographed photos. Warren made sure to save the piece of paper. He knew McIlroy was going to be a star.
“You could see he was special,” Warren said. “Watching him was like eating potato chips. It’s impossible to eat just one.”
Warren remembers talking with an agent who was following Georgia’s Brian Harman at the 2006 Palmer Cup. The agent was raving about Harman when Warren interrupted.
“I told him, ‘You think he’s good? There’s a 16-year-old boy who’s better than him,’” Warren said, referring to McIlroy. “‘When you see Rory, give me a call.’ Two months later, I got an email: ‘Just saw Rory. You’re right.’”
It’s Spring Break for many, so hopefully you’re enjoying some well-deserved rest and relaxation. If you want too follow some college golf, though, North Carolina and Oregon are hosting men’s tournaments this coming week – the Tar Heel Intercollegiate on Saturday and Sunday, and Oregon Duck Invitational on Monday and Tuesday. On the women’s side, Auburn’s Evans Derby Experience, set for Saturday-Monday, is the biggest event of the week.