By Dan Reardon
While all the attention is focused on this week’s Tour Championship and the forthcoming Ryder Cup, players on the cusp of PGA Tour status are going through a series of events to try to earn their cards for next year. Big names will compete for $10 million in Atlanta, no-names just hope for a place in the room.
Earlier this year a couple of players who started 2016 as amateurs turned professional after splashy showings in the year’s first two majors. Former U.S. Amateur champion Bryson DeChambeau exited his amateur career after the Masters, and Spain’s Jon Rahm made the same move after the U.S. Open.
Both bet on the level of their games, hoping to play their way into full-time status on the PGA Tour by earning enough money through sponsor exemption to finish in the Tour’s top 125 and skip the current qualifying series. Each ended up following a different path, but the outcome has been the same.
Rahm had topped of the world amateur rankings for more than a year and made his final unpaid appearance at Oakmont and the U.S. Open. After a struggling opening 76, he posted three solid rounds to finish T23 and low amateur.
Four days later he was the professional first and second-round leader at the Quicken Loans National and played well enough on the weekend to secure a tie for third. That huge payday positioned him for a solid shot at climbing into the exempt 125 group.
After two weak performances, he bookended a couple of 67s around two useful middle rounds to move his finish up to T2 at the RBC Canadian Open. Those two top 10s gave him special temporary membership on Tour and a pass into events the rest of the way in 2016.
Rahm added a T25 at Travelers to a T14 at John Deere, and with just over one million dollars earned in seven professional starts, he was safely inside the top 110 and secure for a full season in 2017. He became the first player since Bud Cauley in 2011 to go directly from amateur to PGA Tour player without end-of-the-year qualifying.
DeChambeau had that same can’t-miss look as Rahm when he showed up for the Masters in April. Following his U.S. Amateur win, he embarked on what he termed his professional internship, using invites to play as an amateur in professional events in the U.S. and around the world.
He paired a charismatic presence built around a quirky set of clubs, a distinct cap and quotability in the interview room with some impressive finishes, including a runner-up at the Australian Masters.
At Augusta he garnered a lot of pre-tournament conversation and justified it with an even-par standing going into the weekend. A 5-over 77 on Saturday derailed a chance to be in one of the final groups on Sunday, but he concluded his amateur career in the same fashion as Rahm, with a T21 and the low amateur honors.
As Rahm would do, DeChambeau made it look easy in his professional curtain-raiser at the Heritage. A final-day 68 left him tied for fourth and bankrolled early for a run at Tour status. Unlike Rahm, he veered off course almost immediately. In his next four times out, he broke par only once and missed the cut each time.
Despite a top 20 at Oakmont, the remainder of DeChambeau’s sponsored exemptions produced little financial return, placing him outside the top 150. He had only one path to the 2017 Tour, the Web.com series.
His Tour earnings got him into the Web.com signature event, the DAP Championship, and DeChambeau seized the opportunity immediately with an opening 64. He came back to the field over the next three days, but emerged from a four-player, two-hole playoff for his first professional win. That assured him of a slot on Tour in 2017.
“Oh my gosh, it’s amazing. It’s beyond my wildest dreams. I’m just so ecstatic about today,” he said afterwards. “All these guys out here could play on the PGA TOUR no problem. It’s just about getting it done, staying patient, executing shots, and that’s luckily what I was able to do this week.”
Rahm and DeChambeau, who started 2016 as amateurs, are now names to watch on the PGA Tour. Both will likely join a guy named Tiger Woods in the first event of the wraparound season, the Safeway Open in California in early October.
Dan Reardon has covered golf for radio station KMOX in St. Louis for 32 years. In that time, he has covered more than 100 events, including majors and other PGA, LPGA and Champions Tour tournaments. During his broadcast career, Reardon conducted one-on-one interviews with three dozen members of the World Golf of Fame. He has contributed to many publications over the years and co-authored the book Golf’s Greatest Eighteen from Random House. Reardon served as Director of Media relations for LPGA events in both St. Louis and Chicago for 10 years.