So you want to play golf in college without all the added pressure of the Varsity League? Joining a club golf team may be the easiest transition to continue your golf career. Club golf is a nationally booming alternative and can be some of the most fun you’ll have in college.

There are both pros and cons of pursuing the NCAA/Varsity Track.

There are many obstacles and restrictions that young golfers face when searching for the perfect school with the right golf program. For students whose #1 goal is to play in the NCAA, patience and determination are big factors in the recruiting process. It is a common myth that qualifying to play varsity golf in college is a fair process. It’s reasonable to assume that if you are playing high-level tournaments with excellent scores that getting recruited would be easy, but it can get complicated and sometimes emotional. Matt Ariza, who played at Division I Lamar University for two years before transferring to Division III Piedmont, says that advocating for yourself can help. Ariza would go to the coach if he thought he deserved a shot he wasn’t getting. “It showed that maybe I cared more than some of the other guys who just accepted that the best number always plays. Sometimes you gotta fight for it,” he says.

One of the most common challenges that DI golfers face is balancing their academics with the vigorous athletic schedule. If you’re looking at a school’s academic catalog thinking you can take whichever classes you want, get ready for disappointment. At a competitive Division I program, the practice schedule makes it nearly impossible for golfers to take certain classes. For example, classes that require labs are often not possible to take because labs are usually in the afternoons, conflicting with most practice schedules. Because of this, golfers typically don’t major in sciences. At less rigorous programs, players have more flexibility, but not without difficulty.

It is not only hard to pursue a vigorous academic track, but it may also be a challenge to maintain a “social life”. College athletes have a constant struggle to “pick only two: school, sports, or a social life.” Golfers who want to party will find a way to do so, but many teams have rules about drinking and engaging in leisure activities. For example, teams often have group dinners before a tournament to make sure that everyone was staying in for the night and are focused on the day to come. Like other dedicated athletes, golfers have limited off-days to socialize. Team camaraderie is one of the great things about collegiate golf, but it means spending a lot of time with the same people.

As a junior golfer, you get comfortable doing what you think is best, but in college, golf is mostly a team sport. Players learn to transition their mentality to one of a team, especially when they realize that having other players around makes them better. This pursuit of good golf is a less lonely endeavor when you accept that collaborative mindset.

College freshmen often show up just hoping to play a few tournaments among a roster of juniors and seniors. However, you might be surprised to find out that sometimes those upperclassmen are winding down their golf careers in an attempt to put more time and effort into their academic and professional futures. A roster with first-year players and sophomores might represent a more competitive team in which to earn their spot.

Considering the Club Golf alternative?

For some, foregoing the varsity track and pursuing a club golf spot might be a better option, overall. The beauty of college is that there’s always an extracurricular activity to match your interest. If you want to play golf, but you’re not a strong enough player to make the varsity team, or if you decide you just don’t want golf to consume your life, playing in a club league could be the solid choice. It gives students a chance to be part of a team in what they will consider to be a home away from home. It allows for making new friends with other students in different majors, and helps keep your “golf career” going without a big time commitment.

Even though club golf is not as demanding, that doesn’t mean it is not competitive. Over 350 colleges across the United States have club golf teams of all shapes and sizes. However, if you show up to your dream school and they don’t yet have one, you can start your own! Zach Van Dorn was a student enrolled at Northwest Missouri State when he realized his school did not yet have a club golf team. He was able to create his own opportunity to compete by making deals with local courses, recruiting through the school’s club fair, and handing out fliers at the student rec center. From there, he spent a whole semester getting the Northwest Missouri club golf team up and running. Alexandra Hatsios and Lydia Merck have a similar story having established a women’s team at the University of North Carolina that designs merchandise and volunteers in the community. The NCCGA even offers to help students market these new teams, and give advise on how to secure proper financial backing from their university sports or rec departments. The NCCGA is owned by the PGA of America and has tournaments on Saturday afternoons and Sunday mornings.

Since the pandemic, club golf has gained popularity with more than 8,000 entries into events last year and teams in all 50 states. Students pick their own individualized golf schedule just like they pick their classes. Two to three regional tournaments culminate in a two-day, 36-hole stroke-play national championship with the top 25 teams vying for team and individual titles.

Club golf may be more relaxed and leisurely, but it doesn’t negate the general costs of being a golfer and entering tournaments. The Cal-Berkeley Golf Club costs $300 a semester and Grand Canyon University in Phoenix can be between $1,400 to $2,200 for the year. To show gratitude towards the financial support of their universities, some teams like UNC, ask their golfers to volunteer at other sporting events such as basketball or football games. Some teams are more informal, and others are more structured. Cal-Berkeley Golf Club entices its players to practice with internal competitions like the team’s Alvarado Cup, which is awarded on a FedEx Cup-style points system.

The talent that has been shown from club golfers can be truly astounding. Last year’s winner of the national individual title, George Eubank Jr. from the University of Tampa, shot rounds of 67 and 69. He was a former varsity player who joined the Tampa golf team while in the second year of his MBA program. He found that a more relaxed environment was ultimately more beneficial for his game. Ryann Breslin was a varsity hopeful who hedged by making sure to look at the club golf programs of schools that closely aligned with her academic profile. She ultimately chose club over varsity and is now has time for more personal ventures, such as, being president of the UNC club golf team, playing on the club tennis team, assisting with her sorority’s recruitment, and pursuing her business major.

Could Club Golf be used as a stepping stone to joining a Varsity Team?

Rui Chang, student at the University of Virginia, played on his club team before rising to varsity. During the 2023 U.S. Amateur at Cherry Hills, Chang made it to the round of 16. Kris Hart, Sr. Director of Growth and Ventures for the PGA of America says, “many of the best college programs don’t even offer tryouts and instead use the club as their JV team. Win the club tourneys, and then they’ll give you a look.” But don’t assume that by playing in a club, coaches will be coming to you hoping you would join their varsity teams.

When deciding which path makes the most sense for your collegiate future, take a look back at how you balanced your time in high school. If you were training everyday and tend to need that structure, pursuing varsity golf may be the better choice. If you tend to have other interests and want to use the time in college to branch out into different things, perhaps club golf sounds more intriguing. The choice is up to you where you divert your time and energy. We hope the information shared above can help you on your college golf journey!

Source: Greg Gottfried and Keely Levins for Golf Digest

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