Georgia’s Spencer Ralston teeing up with big boys after all

Georgia's Spencer Ralston during The Carmel Cup at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif., Aug. 31-Sept. 2. (Photo by John Weast/UGA Athletics)

Georgia's Spencer Ralston during The Carmel Cup at Pebble Beach Golf Links in Pebble Beach, Calif., Aug. 31-Sept. 2. (Photo by John Weast/UGA Athletics)

Rory McIlroy and Spencer Ralston each played practice rounds at Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head, S.C., on Wednesday in advance of this week’s RBC Heritage PGA tournament. We’re assuming McIlroy didn’t also have accounting homework to complete afterward.

That is, in fact, what Ralston was doing Wednesday evening following his final preparations for Thursday’s first round. He tees off with the final group of the day at 2:22 p.m.

“Played earlier this morning, practiced a little bit, got some lunch, just got back to the house and now I’m doing homework for the rest of the day,” said Ralston, an amateur who’s still a student at the University of Georgia. “Played a lot of golf the last few days, but still have get my schoolwork done.”

Ralston, a senior on the Bulldogs’ golf team, earned an exemption into the 150-player field through qualifying when the tournament was originally to be played back in April. But the RBC Heritage, like all PGA tournament stops at the time, was postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. Ultimately, some tournaments canceled altogether. But the Heritage opted to resume and was slotted for this week.

The PGA Tour returned to action -- without fans in attendance and with only essential support staff in place – last week at The Colonial in Fort Worth, Texas.

That was particularly good news for Ralston, who has starred for Georgia's golf team the past four years but has never played in a PGA Tour event. He thought he had lost his chance when the sports dominoes began to fall in March, with events getting shut down one after another.

Ralston was resigned to just control what he could, which was completing his school work and then deciding whether to return to UGA for the final season he’d just lost or go ahead and turn pro.

For the record, he has opted to come back to Georgia for another year. That was great news for the Bulldogs, who have won two national championships and more SEC titles than any team in the league. After the pandemic cut short the season, Georgia has since learned that seniors Will Chandler and Trevor Phillips are also coming back, as well as other the returning underclassmen and three newcomers.

“Spencer was our team captain the last couple of years, so being able to have him come back gives us really good leadership and a veteran, stabilizing guy that’s always good to have around,” Georgia golf coach Chris Haack said. “I was excited that he wanted to come back. And I thought with his situation, where he had some school left to finish, it was a perfect opportunity for him to graduate instead of trying to do it while he’s trying to get a pro career going.”

As it is, Ralston had to fill out paperwork beforehand declaring whether he was entering as a professional or an amateur. He chose the latter, which means even if he bests McIlroy and the rest of the pros in the field, there will be no check from the $7.1 million total purse coming his way.

The last amateur to win on the PGA Tour is Phil Mickelson, who won the Northern Telecom Open on Jan. 13, 1991, in Tucson, Ariz., by a shot over Tom Purtzer and Bob Tway. Mickelson was a student at Arizona State at the time. He turned pro a year later.

Before Mickelson, six other amateurs had won on the PGA Tour, none this century

“I’d love to add my name to the list,” said Ralston, who joins teammates Davis Thompson and Trent Phillips in playing in a PGA Tour event as an amateur.

By all accounts, Ralston is playing well. He said he took off for five weeks following the collegiate sports shutdown in mid-March. Since then, he has played regularly and often with his fellow Bulldogs playing on the PGA tour. Last week he played a few rounds at Athens Country Club with UGA alum and PGA regular Brendon Todd. This week he has played practice rounds at Harbour Town with Todd and UGA alums Harris English and Keith Mitchell.

In fact, there are nine current or former Bulldogs in the Heritage field, including Brian Harman, Kevin Kisner, Russell Henley, Sepp Straka and Bubba Watson.

Ralston said all of them have been extremely welcoming and quick to offer advice when asked. That and the fact that there will be no grandstands or spectators of any sort at the tournament has Ralston feeling inordinately at ease on the eve of his first PGA event.

“It kind of feels like a college tournament since there’s not all that many people out there,” Ralston said. “I’m playing really well. This break was frustrating at first, but in retrospect, it’s been good, and now you can kind of see a schedule ahead that you can prepare for. So that’s good.”

The biggest difference is even Ralston’s family can’t come out to the course and watch him play. They have rented a condominium at Port Royal, about five miles down the road in the Sea Palms area of Hilton Head. Ralston’s mother, father, two brothers and sister are all there together, along with his maternal grandmother.

But none of them are allowed on the tournament grounds, per PGA Tour safety protocols. Not even Haack can come down to watch his star pupil compete. It will be only Ralston and his caddie – friend and former Clemson player Bryson Nimmer – taking in this unique challenge.

“Heck, maybe that will play to his advantage,” Haack said. “Maybe he’ll think he’s in a regular, ol’ amateur event and not have quite the butterflies he’d otherwise have.

“But when you’re on that first tee and you hear the names called and you know what they’ve accomplished, it’s probably going be kind of hard not get a little nervous.”

Said Ralston: “Well, this is the first (PGA) event I’ve played in and, with the first one only being played last week, I don’t really know what to expect. … There’s a lot of houses out there, and I’ve seen a lot of people watching from their back porches and stuff. I’m sure it will be exciting once it gets going.”

With any luck, the only homework Ralston will be doing this weekend will involve his golf game after making the cut.