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Tour events take long view with amateurs

The Waste Management Phoenix Open hardly struggles for storylines

The Waste Management Phoenix Open hardly struggles for storylines. The hooks span environmental efforts to a rowdy stadium hole. A college player undeniably added something different to that hype this winter, though, when he brought a quirky swing and a PGA Tour-readiness to his debut in the national spotlight.

Sometimes, such as in the case of Oklahoma State sophomore Matthew Wolff, an amateur invitee steals the show. It’s becoming more common in regular-season events, as more PGA Tour tournaments make way for amateurs, whether that’s by extending a sponsor exemption directly, or by creating a way for a player to qualify, such as by winning a major amateur or college event. Wolff, for example, did that by winning this spring’s Valspar Collegiate, which offers the top finisher a spot in the following year’s championship. That was weeks after his Tour debut in Phoenix in January, however, and was a different situation. He was hand-picked for the latter.

In the eyes of Chance Cozby, Phoenix’s 2019 tournament director, Wolff checked a lot of boxes as a nationally acclaimed player who allowed the event to look to the future and perhaps begin a relationship with someone who would honor that commitment for years to come. Rickie Fowler, the 2019 champion, got a similar exemption while at Oklahoma State in 2009. This year’s victory marked Fowler’s 11th consecutive start in the event.

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Rickie Fowler, who got an exemption to the 2009 Phoenix Open while still in college, has returned for 11 consecutive years and won the tournament earlier this year.

Wolff possesses the kind of flair that Fowler had as a college player. An unorthodox swing honed by swing coach George Gankas made its Tour debut on Phoenix Open week to much acclaim as Wolff made the cut and finished in the top 50.

“Truth be told, I thought he could win the event; I don’t think that was out of question,” Cozby said. “Obviously he didn’t, but he opened with a 67 and he was relevant in our golf tournament for a long period of time. That’s unique to be able to give a spot to an amateur that I truly felt like he could contend for the golf tournament.”

Interestingly, another young Gankas-coached player made his PGA Tour debut on the opposite coast seven weeks later. That was Akshay Bhatia, the 17-year-old high-school junior who has said he likely will skip college in favor of going directly to professional golf. The Valspar traditionally has offered a sponsor exemption to an amateur, and Bhatia, Golfweek’s No. 1-ranked junior, is the latest to reap it. He missed the cut, but a month later Monday-qualified for a Web.com Tour event in which he did make the cut.

Bhatia has been trying to get tour experience for months by playing Monday qualifiers, so the Valspar exemption was perhaps a well-earned break, courtesy of Valspar tournament director Tracy West.

“She saw the potential in me and she gave me a spot, which was really nice,” Bhatia said the week before competing.

Some professional events are just known training grounds for up-and-comers. Six amateurs are welcomed to the Masters each year, and a handful of carefully selected female amateurs are traditionally part of the ANA Inspiration, the LPGA’s first major of the season. The U.S. Amateur champion finds no shortage of PGA Tour invites waiting for him in the year after his title. Viktor Hovland, an Oklahoma State junior, has made four PGA Tour starts since winning the U.S. Am in August. He’s in the rare position to test his game that way, potentially for a premature leap to professional golf before his senior year of college.

Those opportunities, perhaps more than any, show that the road from amateur golf to professional golf is becoming more direct. There is a never-ending supply of talent – such as Wolff, Hovland and Bhatia – that can cross over smoothly.

Still, despite a tournament director’s best intentions to pave the way for the future, it sometimes can be difficult to justify granting one of a limited number of sponsor exemptions to an amateur. The Phoenix Open struggles with that reality, having a limited 132-player field that includes just five sponsor invites, of which only three are unrestricted. Wolff was their first amateur invite since Fowler.

For some events, however, awarding an amateur exemption fits the tournament mission. That was the case at the Symetra Tour’s season-opening SkyiGolf Championship, in which 14-year-old amateur Alexa Pano contended strongly before tying for eighth. Pano first made an impression on tournament director Ben Herring at the 2011 North Florida PGA Championship. She was a 6-year-old playing up in the 12-and-under division, and she shot even par. So, when the championship was born in 2019, Herring knew just who would fit as a sponsor exemption. (Pano also lives in Lake Worth, Fla., which is across the state from the tournament site in North Port.)

“Because we had that relationship, it was a no-brainer,” Herring said.

With Pano in the field – and vying for the title – tournament officials had to add extra crowd-control volunteer positions for the final round. Roughly 170 people stood on the first tee for her opening drive, up from the usual 15-20. The tournament gained national media exposure.

“We want Alexa to look back and say, The SkyiGolf Championship and what those gentlemen and that company did for my career was a good steppingstone for us,” Herring said. “They had a nice impact and a positive impact on where I am today.”

But as Herring notes, any time an amateur is invited, the expectation is that the amateur will play well – and ideally bring a few more headlines. Extending a hand to the future can be a major benefit in the present.

Julie Williams covers amateur golf for AmateurGolf.com. She is a former college golfer and Golfweek writer who coaches a high school girls golf team in Cocoa Beach, Fla. Email: hello@beyondthesundaydriver.com; Twitter: @BTSD_Jules