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College Golf's Retention Dilemma

by Jim Nugent - March 10, 2014

One week after taking over the top spot in the World Amateur Golf Ranking, Stanford University junior Patrick Rodgers announced last Monday that he will turn professional at the end of this academic year. He becomes the second highly ranked player to cut short his college career in the past 90 days. Ranked No. 1 at the time, Matthew Fitzpatrick bolted from Northwestern during the Christmas holidays after fewer than four months on campus.

These are just two examples in recent years of really talented college players leaving school early for the pro ranks. Rickie Fowler, the No.1 ranked amateur for 36 weeks in 2007- 08, left traditional golf powerhouse Oklahoma State after just two years. He was followed by teammate and 2010 U.S. Amateur champion Peter Uihlein, who left OSU in the middle of his final year in 2011. (College golf has a fall schedule and a separate spring season. Uihlein left with the blessing of everybody involved.)

UCLA’s Patrick Cantlay, adamant about getting his degree for much of his time atop the WAGR, turned pro in 2012 after his sophomore year. More recently and more famously, Jordan Spieth left the University of Texas in the middle of his second year and in scarcely more than a year has catapulted himself inside the top 15 in the world.

All of which leads to the question: Why can’t the American college golf system hang onto its very best players?

Stanford junior Patrick Rodgers will turn pro at the end of this academic year

To be sure, the lure of lucre is a big part of the equation. The money to be won in the modern pro game is just too tempting; English Literature 101 cannot compete with the prize money available and the dollar signs these kids have in their eyes. And with agents buzzing the ears of the players and their parents, it’s tough for a college coach to offer a better vision for the short-term future.

The performance of many of the above-mentioned players only serves to reinforce this notion. Besides, Spieth, Fowler and Uihlein have risen quickly up the pro golf rankings pyramid and are banking serious dollars and euros. They have shown once again that the golf ball does not know nor care how old you are. A talent like Rodgers has to look at them and think, hey, I can play with those guys, so why not join ’em?

If it were just money, you could understand the situation. But I think there is more to it than just earnings potential. I believe that the U.S. college golf system, like much of college athletics today, needs serious study and likely change.

The NCAA, an organization in crisis and perhaps fighting for its very existence, presides over college golf as it does all intercollegiate athletics. It has mandated athlete-student rules and regulations that make improving in college almost impossible for the really elite player.

To begin with, college golf is a team game. In fact, the NCAA individual championship was intentionally diminished in 2009 to give the team title more prominence; fortunately this folly will be reversed beginning in 2014. But apart from the Ryder Cup or the Presidents Cup, when are these kids going to play team golf? If they are attending school to prepare for the next level, how does playing and practicing in a team-focused environment, which most did not do in high school, help them? It might be different and fun for awhile, but just a little while.

Then consider the rules regarding competitive days. College players are limited to 24 competitive days in tournaments each academic year, excluding conference championships and postseason play. Many of these kids will play as many tournament days in the 90-day summer window as they will in an entire nine-month college season. There is an awful lot of down time in the college game. Kids get bored; they want to compete. It’s what they do.

The limit on competitive days causes the college game to take some drastic measures, such as 36-hole days. Given the dreadful pace of play that is prevalent in the college game today, this means that athlete-students are on the course from dawn until dusk, grabbing a box lunch to eat along the way. This is unhealthy and shortsighted.

Taken altogether, is it any wonder that after a few years – or a few months – the elite players have had enough?

Not long ago, the really elite players stayed for four years and got a degree, despite the temptation of the pro game. Scott Verplank won the 1984 U.S. Amateur, a PGA Tour event (Western Open) in 1985, and the 1986 NCAA individual championship but still graduated on time at Oklahoma State.

Phil Mickelson finished at Arizona State despite winning a PGA Tour event while a junior, and Matt Kuchar finished at Georgia Tech after winning the 1997 U.S. Amateur and dazzling spectators and television viewers alike at the 1998 Masters. More recently, Luke Donald spent four years at Northwestern before turning pro and clawing his way to No. 1 in the world.

I am afraid that day is gone. The situation is not as dire as in college basketball, where one-and-done has become the norm for too many, but the elite golfer is going to leave early. U.S. college golf cannot retain its very best, and it is diminished accordingly.

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