ANCASTER, ONT. - Kent State University men's golf coach Herb Page got "goosebumps" watching four of his former players during their RBC Canadian Open practice rounds this week.
It wasn't because all four, including Canadian amateur Mackenzie Hughes, were competing in a top-tier professional tournament. They also had all earned something increasingly rare among PGA Tour golfers: a college degree.
As it is their last chance to take the fast track to the pros before new qualifying rules are implemented in 2013, U.S. college coaches are nervously eyeing their star athletes, wondering how many will abandon school.
Under the new rules, it will take at least a year of grinding it out on the Web.com Tour before a player can qualify for the big show. By contrast, the three-stage PGA Tour qualifying tournament – so-called Q-school – is extremely competitive (only the top 25 players advance), but only takes a few months.
"A lot of kids are going to try just because they are changing the rules," said North Carolina State head coach Richard Sykes, who has Albin Choi of Toronto and Mitch Sutton of London, Ont., on his roster.
Page, a veteran U.S. NCAA coach who grew up in Markham, Ont., said none of his current athletes are making the leap, but others have, including 20-year-old Patrick Cantlay (University of California, Los Angeles), a former world No. 1-ranked amateur. "Summer is still going … there could be more."
It's easy to cite examples of golfers who have bypassed postsecondary education and wound up high on the money list.
Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose have thrived; Tiger Woods and Rickie Fowler put in a year or two and moved on. Their names have been held up by critics as proof the best way to get ahead is to practice full time – not get distracted by the books.
"There's no doubt the U.S. college system is holding young players back," Andrew (Chubby) Chandler, the influential European agent, told The New York Times in 2009. "Kids now go to college over here and learn to go out drinking and girls and whatever and it's a nice experience. But from a golf standpoint, your golf stands still."
But the vast majority of the players don't have the chops to hack it in the pros, coaches warn.
"I think it's folly on the part of those kids to sacrifice their degrees," said Matt Thurmond, coach of the University of Washington men's golf team.
Canada produces only about one female player every five years with the talent to skip the U.S. college level, said Derek Ingram, coach of the Canadian national men's team. The number is about half that for men because the tour is so brutally competitive.
"There's a lot of child prodigies," Ingram said. There are plenty of those in the "bone yard," too.
Eugene Wong of North Vancouver, who finished his senior year at the University of Oregon this spring, and is now embarking on a pro golf career, said he's glad he took the NCAA route.
He was showered with accolades during his four years in the competitive Pac-12 Conference. Now, he's sponsored by apparel maker Nike, represented by sports agency IMG, and made the cut in his professional debut at the Canadian Tour Players Cup in Winnipeg this summer.
"I liked playing college, because I got more experience and I felt more comfortable when I got out here," Wong said before hitting the putting green at Hamilton Golf and Country Club.
Thurmond said he expected a lot of players to keep their amateur status while going through Q-school this fall. That way, if they are among the many who don't qualify, they could at least resume their studies.
Page added he expects professional tours in Europe and Asia will become more attractive after the rules change take effect. While those tours are less prestigious, players can earn points on the world rankings, which is another way to get invited to PGA Tour events.
Sykes said the new, drawn-out qualification process could benefit young golfers.
"I'm not so sure that going through this Web.com Tour is a bad thing because it gives them experience and maturity," he said.
Many top college players are displaying some of that maturity already and staying in school.
"The tour will always be there," Page said. "If you're good, you're good."