PGA Tour University: The Battle for Young Talent Intensifies
A guaranteed PGA Tour card and widespread eligibility for membership are the biggest changes to the pipeline yet. But are they enough?
By Jordan Perez
So it turns out that having the opportunity to become a PGA Tour member right out of college isn’t such a crazy idea.
The PGA Tour on Monday announced two major changes to its PGA Tour U program. The first initiative states that the No. 1 player in the final PGA Tour U rankings “will become a PGA Tour member and eligible for all open, full-field events following the conclusion of the NCAA Championship.”
This has been long overdue. In the first two years of PGA Tour U, no PGA Tour cards were awarded. Not one! But with LIV’s heavy investment in the Asian Tour, there is suddenly more urgency to retain young talent. Right now the leader in the PGA Tour University standings is Texas Tech senior Ludvig Aberg (above), who is also the top-ranked amateur in the world.
Another change, named PGA Tour University Accelerated, morphs the program’s identity even more.
Under new criteria, the floodgates are now open to underclassmen. Instead of relying solely on college events and pro starts, the window of opportunity has widened. Starting as early as their freshman year, underclassmen will be ranked off of “elevated benchmarks” in college, amateur, and professional events.
In the new system, points will be awarded for the following: a top five in the WAGR; winning a major college golf award; winning a marquee amateur event (U.S. Amateur, Latin America Amateur, Western, British); participating in national team events (Walker Cup, Palmer Cup, World Amateur Team Championship); and performances in PGA Tour events and major championships.
Players have until the end of their junior season to pile up points. The magic number is 20. Get there and earn PGA Tour membership. Stanford junior Michael Thorbjornsen (above) leads the way with 12 points, thanks to his win at the 2021 Western Amateur and his fourth-place finish at the 2022 Travelers Championship. Right behind him is Vanderbilt sophomore Gordon Sargent, the 2022 NCAA individual champion, who has 10 points. Both represented the United States in the World Amateur Team Championship and are in the top five of the WAGR rankings.
It’s no secret why the Tour implemented the biggest overhaul in the program’s history. “LIV has pushed a lot of buttons,” said Florida coach J.C. Deacon. James Piot, the 2021 U.S. Amateur champion, bolted for LIV. So did Eugenio Chacarra, a top player at Oklahoma State who got the attention of plenty of college kids by collecting $4 million when he won LIV Bangkok last month in just his fifth professional start.
“I’m super grateful [PGA Tour University] was established at the time that it was,” says Joe Highsmith, a two-time All-American at Pepperdine. By finishing 10th last year in the PGA Tour U standings, Highsmith earned status on PGA Tour Canada and recently parlayed that into conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour. But he’s quick to point out the disparity between golf and the rest of the sports world, saying, “If you were a top-10 player in any other sport, you would already be on the biggest stage out of school.” This is the contradiction the new PGA Tour programs will attempt to solve.
Highsmith believes the achievements of thegraduates played a major role in elevating the performance benefits. “It’s so much better than it was before,” he says. “It was big for Pierceson (Coody) to go out and win on the Korn Ferry Tour, and it’s been big for the guys in Canada to play well too.” Six graduates from the first two years, including Highsmith and Coody (below), are eligible for eight or more starts on the upcoming Korn Ferry Tour season.
It is increasingly clear that a year-round amateur schedule will provide a good yardstick of a player’s ability. The upgrades to PGA Tour University are belated recognition that the best amateurs are ready for the big-time, and that the PGA Tour needs to cultivate this young talent now more than ever.