Laura Ianello has been in this situation before. Four years ago, Ianello, the Arizona head women’s golf coach, watched as one of the Wildcats’ best players, Krystal Quihuis, left school a semester early to take up membership on the Symetra Tour. Of course, what remained of Ianello’s squad, led by Haley Moore and Bianca Pagdanganan and bolstered by the midseason arrival of then-freshman Yu-Sang Hou, went on to capture the 2018 NCAA Championship at Karsten Creek.
This time, however, Ianello faces a much tougher challenge.
Hou and her younger sister, Vivian, both decorated All-Americans and among the best amateurs in the world, each received their LPGA card on Sunday at Q-Series. Both will take up membership when the new season begins in less than two months, which will leave Arizona with two sizeable holes in what is now a young and inexperienced lineup.
Winning an NCAA title again this May? It's suddenly become a longshot, but Ianello also can't fault her two superstars, who she says are like daughters to her.
"I'm so proud of them," Ianello said Monday. "And though it is bittersweet and I will miss them dearly, this is the best next step."
These circumstances aren’t unique to Arizona. Before these current Wildcats, it was Stanford. And before the Cardinal, it was Alabama. Teams losing their best players to the pros in the middle of the season.
And that’s just in the past few years.
There will certainly be more, too – likely even in the coming days with other top programs, including Duke and Arkansas, awaiting what could be similar news.
"Us coaches, we stay resilient and do the best we can," Ianello said last fall at the East Lake Cup, which the Hous missed to compete in second stage (Arizona finished last in stroke play before going 1-1 in match play). "But it’s not fun."
Before we get into potential solutions, let's first revisit how we got to this point:
This is a trend that has been exacerbated by the LPGA’s decision in 2018 to revamp its qualifying process and debut an eight-round Q-Series as the final step to earning membership. During that rollout, the top five college players in the Golfweek/Sagarin rankings were exempted into Q-Series, and any collegian who earned status, LPGA or Symetra, was allowed to defer that status until after the following spring semester. Previously, players had to decide immediately after final stage whether to turn pro or not.
“We want to provide options and choices for the athletes,” said Heather Daly-Donofrio, the LPGA’s tour operations officer, in 2018. “That doesn’t always fit with everybody else’s goals and desires, but, at the end of the day, we look at it as being the athlete’s choice.”
However, at the time, many coaches spoke out against the tour, claiming that the changes unnecessarily hurt the college game – even more than the previous model – by enticing top underclassmen to enter Q-Series and potentially turn pro before they’re ready. They also argued that it’d be a rare occurrence for a player to defer and pass up precious starts, particularly on the LPGA.
“You can say now that you’re going to defer, but they can’t defer,” Alabama head coach Mic Potter said a few years ago. “They know they’re going to be losing an opportunity, that it’s going to be hard for them to keep their card if they miss those tournaments at the beginning of the year.”
In the inaugural Q-Series, four of the five exempt players via the college rankings earned LPGA membership – all were seniors, though Wake Forest’s Jennifer Kupcho and Arkansas’ Maria Fassi chose to defer while UCLA’s Lilia Vu and Alabama’s Lauren Stephenson did not. The Tide also lost senior Kristen Gillman, who started at second stage, to the pros that winter.
The fifth exempt player, UCLA sophomore Patty Tavatanakit, received Symetra status during an emotional week in which she admitted not wanting to be there and opted to return to school. She turned pro that summer and ended up winning three times while earning her LPGA card via the Symetra’s money list.
“I thought it was the longest two weeks of my life,” Tavatanakit said of her Q-Series experience. “And I was in the middle of midterms and stuff, too, so I was not having it, and it was raining, it was cold, depressing. So, yes, I hated it. … I left [school] on good terms because I finished out the year and played Symetra half the year. But for people who leave the team in the middle of the season, I mean, I have nothing against them, but like, it's a decision: Do you choose your career, or do you want to finish out college and help your team?”
The LPGA then tweaked its exemption criteria for 2019 Q-Series, the most recent before this month’s edition, by offering the top five college players – and additionally, the top five world amateurs – only tickets straight to second stage. Still, five college players ended up qualifying for Q-Series, and all five turned pro before the spring semester. That group included Stanford seniors Andrea Lee and Albane Valenzuela, USC junior Jennifer Chang, Florida senior Sierra Brooks and Florida State sophomore Frida Kinhult. (To be noted, four of those players were back at Q-Series this year.)
This year, seven collegians made it through, with the Hou sisters being joined by Duke senior Gina Kim, Arkansas senior Brooke Matthews, Florida State senior Beatrice Wallin, Houston sophomore Karen Fredgaard and Alabama senior Polly Mack. So far, no other players have confirmed their intentions besides the Hous and Mack, who is returning to school after missing the 72-hole cut. Kim and Matthews finished inside the top 45 and ties to earn their LPGA cards, as well, and both planned to sit down with their inner circles this week. Wallin and Fredgaard have Symetra status and are still weighing their options, too.
That group doesn’t include South Carolina’s Pauline-Roussin Bouchard and Arizona State’s Linn Grant, both rising juniors who turned pro this summer before earning LPGA status at Q-Series. Otherwise, it could’ve been a record exodus.
“On the women’s side, you can go straight to the LPGA tour, so it’s not like you have to go to Q-School to get to a tour to get to a tour that you want; you can get right there,” said Oklahoma State head coach Greg Robertson, who lost his best player, junior Maja Stark, to the pros this past summer, too. (Stark failed to advance out of second stage but has Ladies European Tour status after winning twice on that tour in the fall.)
“For those that have the money and are good players, I can see why it’s pretty enticing to just go out and give it a shot because you have nothing to lose if you have a fallback plan with college. But the problem with that fallback plan is it’s decimating some of these teams. … I don’t know what the solution is – I’ve got my ideas – but if nothing changes, we’re just going to keep seeing this every year.”
Robertson is hopeful that with new leadership at the LPGA – Mollie Marcoux Samaan took over for Mike Whan as commissioner earlier this year – a new line of communication can be made between the tour and college coaches, including TCU head coach Angie Larkin, the current president of the Women’s Golf Coaches Association. While the interests of the players should remain a top priority, the implications for the college game can’t be ignored, either.
“We need to reopen that door,” added Ianello. “Whatever the LPGA is doing with college right now is not a good system.”
When asked about the LPGA’s current relationship with the college game, Marcoux Samaan told GolfChannel.com that she has had conversations on the matter with Daly-Donofrio and that they planned to revisit Q-Series’ rules and requirements this offseason to “see if something different would make sense.”
But the former Princeton athletics director stopped short of addressing any specifics.
“I think there's been a lot of time spent on that over the years, and I think we've changed our policy a couple times,” Marcoux Samaan said. “But I think it's important to think through opportunity because this is such a big opportunity. So, to think through all levels of how someone gets their card to be on the LPGA because it's such a coveted place to be. So, we'll go back during the offseason and look at that and evaluate it and see if there's a better way than what we're doing.”
That, of course, begs the question: Is there a better way?
Can the LPGA still make it easier for the top college players to forge their paths onto its tour while allowing them to finish college and, at the same time, ensuring that college teams aren’t left scrambling to remain competitive and, perhaps more seriously, maintain the graduation rates needed to stay postseason eligible?
“We’ve all thought about it,” Duke head coach Dan Brooks said. “There are just no easy answers.”
One potential solution is a program that resembles what the PGA Tour has done on the men’s side. PGA Tour University, unveiled last season, offers pathways to the Korn Ferry Tour and the Tour’s other international circuits for the top-ranked seniors each summer. Following the NCAA Championship in June, the top five players in the PGA Tour U’s Velocity Global Ranking receive KFT status for the remainder of the summer and a ticket to the final stage of Q-School later that year. Nos. 6-15, meanwhile, get status on an international tour (likely Canada or in last summer’s case, the U.S.-based Forme Tour, a Canada replacement) and an exemption into second stage. (Of the inaugural 15 grads, seven have guaranteed KFT starts locked up for 2022.)
An LPGA equivalent would also be open to only seniors and could offer some sort of summer status on the LPGA and/or Symetra tours, plus Q-School exemptions. Is it possible for the LPGA each summer to give the top three to five college seniors status for the remainder of the season followed by a ticket to the following Q-Series? How about another handful of seniors earning Symetra status and a second-stage exemption later that year?
“I don’t see why not,” Ole Miss head coach Kory Henkes said. “It’d be nice to give the players a better option to finish college. I think that’d be a nice end goal for people to get their degree.”
An LPGA Tour U, in lieu of any of the current rankings exemptions for amateurs, would incentivize players to graduate, which as Robertson points out, is essential – and maybe overlooked – considering how few LPGA pros, especially the ones who played college golf, can live off their earnings after retirement. Since the 2004-05 college season, just 29 first-team All-Americans have earned more than $1 million in career earnings on the LPGA. When it comes to honorable mentions during that span, just one player (Caroline Masson) is above the seven-figure mark.
“There’s a pretty darn good chance regardless of who you are that you’re going to have to have a job after playing at some point in your life,” Robertson said. “That’s why, to me, it’s not about protecting our game and our interest as coaches but looking out for the best interests of our players. What can help these ladies out when they’re done playing professional golf?”
Sure, the Roussin-Bouchards of the world aren’t likely to stay in school for four years anyways, if they go to college at all – all but five of the current top 25 in the Rolex Rankings went straight from the junior ranks to the pros. But players such as Kim and Matthews, talented seniors whom the LPGA would love in its fields as soon as possible, could finish their college careers out, earn their degrees, have a chance to keep their LPGA status that summer and if not, would have yet another shot at Q-Series. Meanwhile, an LPGA Tour U would eliminate midseason headaches for college programs and boost the overall college product, ensuring more stars at the televised NCAA Championship.
"If we could establish that relationship with the LPGA, and the commissioner, with her background in education and college athletics, I’m hoping she sees the importance of that and what it’s done in her career – this would be brilliant and be awesome for the sport," Larkin said. "Players are still going to have the option to leave early, but if it encourages even one player to stay one more year and earn her degree, I think that speaks volumes.
"As a tour, I understand they want the best young players. I would hope they’d also want the best young players who have a college education."
In this scenario, the players may have to wait longer to start their pro careers, but they'd also be getting two cracks at an LPGA card instead of one – and a degree.
“If you could promise college seniors that, I think for sure they’d stay,” said Ianello of the idea.
For now, though, it’s just that – an idea.