The difference between college athletics and the pros is to compare street cars with Indy cars. The professional game is way bigger and goes miles faster. And while it’s rare for professional athletes to excel without first being accomplished college players, it’s no guarantee that greatness in college will translate to equal or greater success in the pro game.
Just look at Ryan Leaf, who was selected No. 2 in the 1998 NFL draft behind Peyton Manning and turned out to be one of the biggest draft busts in NFL history. Or Mark Sanchez, a star quarterback at Southern Cal who enjoyed early success with the New York Jets but has been little more than a backup in his last five seasons. Or Adam Morrison, who scored 28 points a game for Gonzaga in his junior year in 2006 but washed out of the NBA. Or Mateen Cleaves, who led Michigan State to the 2000 NCAA title but failed to stick in the NBA.
College golf, which culminates in the next two weeks with the women’s and men’s NCAA Championships, has been a reliable but not guaranteed predictor. In fact, Aaron Wise, who won the AT&T Byron Nelson on Sunday (scores), led Oregon to the NCAA title two years ago as the individual champion.
But Wise, who is only 21, was not considered one of college golf’s top stars when he won the NCAA. Playing on the Ducks’ home course at Eugene Country Club, he beat highly-regarded players such as Jon Rahm of Arizona State, Beau Hossler of Texas, Lee McCoy of Georgia, Robby Shelton of Alabama and Thomas Detry of Illinois, all of whom finished in the top 10.
© GOLFFILE/KEN MURRAY
Aaron Wise, the 2016 NCAA medalist, adds the AT&T Byron Nelson title to his growing list of accomplishments.
It was a bigger shock that Wise won the AT&T Byron Nelson at Trinity Forest in Dallas. Before the past weekend, Wise had made only 10 of 17 cuts, with one top-10 finish. Two weeks ago at the Wells Fargo Championship, he stayed near the lead all day on Sunday and tied for second.
He wasn’t eligible for the Players Championship but built upon his newfound confidence and shot 65 in the final round of the Nelson to earn his first PGA Tour victory.
It wasn’t, however, his first title as a professional. He won on the Mackenzie Tour in Canada after leaving college in 2016 and was a winner on the Web.comTour in 2017, finishing 18th on the money list and graduating to the PGA Tour.
Since 1970, NCAA individual champions have included John Mahaffey, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Curtis Strange, Jay Haas, Gary Hallberg, Jay Don Blake, Billy Ray Brown, Scott Verplank, Phil Mickelson, Justin Leonard, Tiger Woods, Charles Howell III, Luke Donald, Ryan Moore, Kevin Chappell and Bryson DeChambeau – all of whom have won on the PGA Tour.
But the list also includes Warren Schutte, Nick Gilliam, James Lepp and Jonathan Moore, players whom you likely couldn’t pick out of a lineup today.
Schutte won the individual title for UNLV in 1991, ultimately preventing Mickelson from winning four straight NCAA championships. Schutte, a South African, was the first foreign-born winner of the NCAAs and was thought to be a can’t-miss pro. But he couldn’t get his feet on the PGA Tour, playing in smaller events around the world, and today has a golf school in Arizona.
Gilliam won the title for Florida, which also won the team title in 2001. At 6 feet 5 inches, Gilliam seemed to have all the tools for professional golf. But he washed out as a pro, regained his amateur status and now works for Acushnet, as a rep for FootJoy.
Lepp won in 2005 for Washington, and the Canadian was headed toward what was thought to be a successful pro career. But he tasted little success, lost interest and wound up as a runner-up on Golf Channel’s “Big Break.” He also started two shoe companies.
Moore, from Oklahoma State, was the winning individual in 2006 and left school early to turn pro after scoring the winning point for the 2007 U.S. Walker Cup team. After toiling on the mini-tours for a couple of years, Moore has been a regular member of the Asian Tour.
The intangibles, especially in golf, often make the difference between failure and success, because the woods are full of players with physical talent. Go up and down the line on the range at even a Web.com Tour event and you wonder why each player doesn’t win every week.
Mental strength is a requirement to play big-time golf, and successful players own that trait. And even those who own it can be fragile. It’s the nature of the game.
Sometimes it’s even those players who love the lifestyle of tournament golf who make it where others don’t. If you don’t like traveling from city to city, living in hotel rooms out of a suitcase for weeks on end, you’ll likely not make it on any tour.
And no matter the level of success in college golf, there’s no way to measure the intangibles of any college golfer, even an NCAA champion, until he is dropped into the deep end of the pool.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf