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WINTER GARDEN, Fla. – Exactly 40 players left Orange County National on Sunday afternoon counting on at least eight guaranteed starts to begin the 2020 Korn Ferry Tour season. Two of them – co-medalists Braden Thornberry and Curtis Thompson – locked up full status.
Even those who failed to finish among the top 40 earned conditional membership, so the 12 players who got bumped to T-41 after Zach Zaback’s 72nd-hole birdie Sunday can still count on a good chunk of early starts to potentially improve their limited status. (Last year, Zac Blair and Patrick Sullivan each finished a shot outside the top 40 at Q-School; Blair played 24 events and finished 10th on the regular-season money list while Sullivan made 18 starts despite missing seven of his first eight cuts of the season.)
But the further down the leaderboard a player finished, the less likely those starts will come, which means players such as Ollie Schniederjans (T-53), Brandon Wu (T-61) and Chase Koepka (T-69) may get into a few early events but the likes of Derek Ernst (T-105), Daniel Summerhays (T-126) and Michael Weaver (T-143) may not. (Last year, Ben Griffin tied for 100th at Q-School and made just one start before mid-May, finishing the season with just eight total starts.)
So yes, everyone who finished 72 holes this week at final stage has some sort of status, but the uncertainty of starts for players with conditional status made finishing inside the top-40 cutoff an important achievement.
Here are some of the players who did so – and their stories:
India bounces back
Arguably no player on the Korn Ferry Tour experienced a more heartbreaking moment on the course this season than Vince India.
The 30-year-old Illinois native was a par away from securing a spot in the Korn Ferry Tour Finals and keeping his card, but he double-bogeyed his final hole at the Portland Open and finished 83rd on the points list, which meant he’d be going back to final stage of Q-School for a seventh straight year.
“I took about a month off to decompress,” India said. “There was a lot of emotional stuff going on.”
India opted to play three straight weeks in Latin America this fall, but even after a pair of top-10s, “I decided I wasn’t ready to play golf again.”
He took another month off before starting his Q-School prep. He spent five weeks in Orlando before teeing it up at Orange County National, where he shot 12 under to share 30th and clinch eight guaranteed starts by a shot.
“[Q-School is] just an unnecessary week; it’s so much stress,” India said. “I don’t wish this upon anybody. Seven years in a row here is not fun. You just don’t want to have to do it. It’s a grind.”
India hopes this time was the last at Q-School. Coming off his best season ever on the Korn Ferry Tour, India is once again looking forward to another crack at getting to the PGA Tour.
“The clock is ticking,” India said. “… but I know my window is still coming up.”
Whitney flying high again
Tom Whitney graduated from the Air Force Academy in 2010 and spent four years in active duty. But in May 2014, he couldn’t ignore the pull of pro golf.
“Had golf not been a passion and a dream of mine, I’d still be in the Air Force,” Whitney said. “But I don’t think I could’ve lived with myself if I didn’t give myself a chance to do this.”
Whitney earned his PGA Latinoamerica card in 2016 and finished 11th on the money list to earn a trip to final stage. He then spent two seasons with conditional status on the Korn Ferry Tour, getting only 15 and 11 starts in 2017 and ‘18, respectively.
Those two years were demanding on Whitney – lots of Monday qualifiers, 3 p.m. calls on Wednesday telling him he’d gotten into the field, no calls at all despite making the trip to a tournament.
“I basically spent two years in that purgatory of being on the bubble or having to qualify,” said Whitney, who spent this past year back in Latin America. “It’s brutal. You expend so much energy playing a practice round on a different course and then playing in the Monday, and then you either make it or you miss it and you hope you get in on your number. It’s so emotionally and physically fatiguing.”
Now 30 years old and a father of three, Whitney will finally have guaranteed starts on the Korn Ferry Tour – 12 of them, to be exact, after he tied for third at final stage. At 20 under, he was just a shot shy of earning full status.
“The way I’m playing lately,” Whitney said, “I’m fairly confident 12 will be enough to keep me in the mix and give me a full year out there.”
And keep him out of purgatory.
“This stuff is real-world,” Whitney said. “The money we earn goes straight to mortgages and healthcare costs and all that kind of stuff. There’s real pressure attached to the dollar signs that I’m earning.”
Universal points system? Maguire, Pope in favor
Final stage of Q-School was less dramatic for Jack Maguire this year.
Last year in Arizona, Maguire had to birdie each of his final four holes to avoid conditional status by one shot. This time around, the 25-year-old Florida State product closed with three straight rounds of 68 to tie for 27th and earn eight guaranteed starts for next season on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Maguire is coming off his third season of at least 18 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour, though he finished No. 122 in points and had to go back to first stage of Q-School this fall.
“I feel a lot more confident this time,” Maguire said. “Last year, I made my first cut and then missed nine in a row. I didn’t prepare well. This year, I’m going to make sure I get off to a good start.”
Two years ago, Maguire appeared to be on a much different career trajectory. After qualifying for the Finals his rookie season on the Korn Ferry Tour, Maguire was having a solid start to his 2017 campaign when he earned a spot in the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. He tied for 42nd that week and earned $44,975.
But he also had to miss the KFT stop in Nashville that week. He ended up falling less than $15,000 shy of keeping his card.
Trying to play catchup ever since, Maguire is a major advocate for a universal points system across all of the PGA Tour’s circuits.
“Right? Something,” Maguire said. “It sucks. I made almost $50,000 that week and it was worth absolutely zero on the Web[.com Tour]. I actually dropped on the money list; it’s tough. In a perfect world, we’d have that week off. … Or technically, they have a points system now, the points could transfer over. It should count double, but anything would be better than losing ground that week.”
Andy Pope, who has played in four U.S. Opens and also regained his Korn Ferry Tour card Sunday via Q-School, agrees.
“It’s kind of a Catch-22, but that’s the business of the beast,” Pope said. “I don’t see it happening, but I think it would be a great thing. Even if not full points, at least partial points.”
Pope continued to brainstorm: “I also think that if you win a Korn Ferry event, I’d like to see you get into the PGA Tour event the next week. If it’s a stepping-stone thing, that’s what they should do. Same thing if you win a Latin event, you get into the next week’s Korn Ferry event.”
In 2020, the U.S. Open at Winged Foot coincides with the Korn Ferry Tour’s Wichita Open, the fourth time since 2016 that the KFT has not had an off week during the U.S. Open.
Full speed ahead for Ruffels
When Ryan Ruffels turned pro, almost four years ago, the sky seemed to be the limit for then-17-year-old Australian prodigy. He tied for 43rd in his pro debut at the 2016 Farmers Insurance Open and garnered the Tour maximum of seven sponsor exemptions that year.
However, Ruffels fell just short of qualifying for the Korn Ferry Tour Finals and instead of staying in the U.S., he opted to head to Latin America, where he notched four top-7s in six starts. He recorded two runner-up finishes the next year on PGA Tour Latinoamerica, but the third year didn’t produce nearly the same success. Ruffels failed to record a single top-10 in 13 worldwide starts.
“I’m a really good golfer when I do what I do best, and that’s pull out the driver, hit it where I want to hit it, be aggressive,” Ruffels said. “For a while, I was trying to chase accuracy, trying to be a little straighter off the tee. I went down that path because I was around people who hit it a little straighter. I changed a few things that didn’t work out.”
This year, Ruffels, now 21, has gotten back to the bombs-away strategy that works so well at the highest levels of pro golf. He added membership on the Mackenzie Tour and recorded two top-3s in Canada this summer. He also played another full schedule in Latin America, finishing in the top 7 five times and ending up seventh on the money list.
That effort got him an exemption into final stage at Orange County National, just 10 minutes or so from his home course of Isleworth. Ruffels put an exclamation point on his strong year with a T-21 finish to lock up eight guaranteed starts to begin his rookie season on the Korn Ferry Tour.
“That was the longest day of golf that I’ve ever partaken in,” said Ruffels of his final-round 70, which included an unplayable on the first hole and bogeys on the third and fifth holes. “I was slipping down the board and knew I had to keep it together. Just trying to get it to the house, and I did.”
Humphrey overcomes broken wrist, confidence
Theo Humphrey’s year began with a slip down the stairs. The fall at his condo in February, down a flight of some four steps, broke Humphrey’s right wrist, put him in a soft cast and kept him sidelined for more than a month.
He returned to action in late March, receiving sponsor exemptions into the PGA Tour’s event in the Dominican Republic and the Korn Ferry Tour’s stop in Nashville, but he missed the cut in both.
“Definitely started losing some confidence,” Humphrey said. “When I came back after [the injury] I had no feel, no touch and was really pretty bad for the first half of the year.”
The 23-year-old second-year pro out of Vanderbilt turned things around during the summer in Canada, making nine of 12 starts on the Mackenzie Tour with two top-10s. However, he came within a shot at the tour’s season finale of earning an exemption into second stage of Korn Ferry Tour Q-School.
Nonetheless, Humphrey advanced to final stage for the first time and shot 13 under to tie for 27th at Orange County National and earn eight guaranteed starts for the upcoming Korn Ferry Tour season.
Humphrey, who was an All-American for the Commodores and semifinalist at the 2017 U.S. Amateur at Riviera, hopes his stay on the Korn Ferry Tour is a quick one.
“It’s not fun seeing guys that you beat in college or guys who you were competitive with in college on the PGA Tour and doing great,” Humphrey said. “I’m like, ‘Oh my god, that kid’s three years younger than me.’ I played with Matt Wolff a couple weeks ago, he’s 20 years old and already won a PGA Tour event. Just seeing guys do that gives you the confidence that you can [do the same thing], but it also can beat you down a little bit when you’re not.”
No more Mondays for DeMorat
There are few players at Q-School who don’t understand the grind of Monday qualifiers and mini-tours. Despite beginning his pro career by making the cut in the 2018 U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills, Mickey DeMorat isn’t one of them.
The 24-year-old Liberty product from Merritt Island, Florida, cut his teeth on one-day qualifiers and minor-league events for much of the past year and a half. He Monday-qualified into three Korn Ferry Tour events last season, tying for seventh at one of them to earn another start.
But he ended up playing just five times on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2019.
“Sleeping in airports at night after missing Mondays is not fun,” DeMorat said. “It’s great to know I don’t have to do that.”
Most of DeMorat’s success has come locally. He was runner-up at this year’s Florida State Open and won the Florida Elite Golf Tour’s Tour Championship in April at Orange County National, the same place where he locked up 12 guaranteed starts for the 2020 Korn Ferry Tour season with a T-5 finish at Q-School’s final stage.
“[The past year] has prepared me really well,” DeMorat said. “You’re always feeling pressure. … You can’t relax and make pars; you gotta keep making birdies because guys are going low. It taught me a lot of lessons I used out here in Q-School.”
DeMorat also takes plenty of notes back at his home course, Suntree Country Club in Melbourne, Florida, where the membership includes Marco Dawson, Nicholas Lindheim, Caroline Masson, Amy Yang and Vicky Hurst.
“We always have pretty good games out there,” DeMorat said. “Marco, I’ve played with him a couple of times; he hasn’t beaten me yet. And Nick. I’ve gotten a lot better playing out there with him.”