UGA golfer Spencer Ralston copes with lost chance to play in RBC Heritage

Georgia's Spencer Ralston during the NCAA Championships at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., on Sunday, May 26, 2019. (Photo by Steven Colquitt)
Georgia's Spencer Ralston during the NCAA Championships at Blessings Golf Club in Fayetteville, Ark., on Sunday, May 26, 2019. (Photo by Steven Colquitt)

Spencer Ralston, a senior and captain of Georgia’s men’s golf team, was playing in a PGA Canadian Tour qualifier in Dothan, Ala., last Thursday when the world as we know it started falling apart.

One of his playing partners from Alabama said he’d just gotten an email from his coach saying the next week’s Linger Longer Invitational at Lake Oconee was probably going to be canceled. A little while later, while still playing their round, they heard that the Players Championship that was being conducted in Ponte Vedra, Fla., without fans present was probably going to shut down, too. By the time they completed their rounds, pretty much every ongoing sport on the globe had stopped.

But it wasn’t until Tuesday of this week that Ralston got the gut-punch he was hoping wouldn’t come. The PGA Tour, which already had canceled its next four events, announced that it was pulling the plug on four more.

That included the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head, S.C.

That meant Ralston’s first shot at playing in a PGA event was gone with the wind. Whether or not it blows back his way, he won’t know for a while.

“Once they canceled the Players Championship and the four events afterward, I started thinking about it,” said Ralston, who’d earned an exemption into the Heritage by winning the Players Amateur last summer. “The first event back was going to be the Heritage. So, I was thinking there was still hope.”

Ralston learned via Twitter it was not to be. At that point, he really wasn’t all that surprised.

But disappointed? Yes, very.

“I talked to my dad on the phone after I saw the news,” said Ralston, speaking by phone from his home in Gainesville. “As we started seeing things kind of spiral down and events getting canceled, I became less hopeful it was going to be played. But, I mean, it’s the right decision. You’ve got to keep people healthy and take the necessary precautions to get through this time that we’re going through right now.”

Ralston is one of dozens of UGA athletes and thousands of collegiate athletes nationwide who have had dreams dashed due to the coronavirus pandemic. He is a senior and the captain of the Bulldogs’ nationally-renowned team. He’s a first-team All-SEC player that has qualified for every tournament Georgia has played the last four years.

Now Ralston is just another UGA student finding himself stuck at home trying to keep up with his classes online and not knowing what the future holds.

Men’s golf, like all other NCAA sports, has been shut down for the rest of the season. The Bulldogs carried a national ranking of No. 21 coming into this week. That’s somewhat down for a prestigious program that has won two national championships and 26 SEC titles.

But the team was hopeful of making a run again this season. That can’t happen now.

“I haven’t picked up a club since I got back from Dothan last Friday night,” Ralston said Wednesday. “I’m just kind of taking this week off because we’d been so busy traveling to Puerto Rico and Las Vegas, then the four-day Q-school last week. So, I decided to just kind of stay home and take the right precautions hoping everything will turn around sometime soon.”

Ralston’s future, like many seniors in spring sports, is even more uncertain than most athletes. The NCAA has preliminarily approved another year of eligibility for seniors who lost their final seasons. But Ralston had planned to turn pro as soon as his college season ended.

Now he’s not sure what he’s going to do on that front. Another year of college is appealing for Ralston, who will have still three courses to take to complete his degree requirements after spring semester ends.

But then playing professional golf is his dream, like most in his sport.

“That’s something I’m having to talk to Coach (Chris) Haack and my parents about,” Ralston said. “I know when I start back practicing next week or whenever it is, I’m just going to take the mental approach that, ‘hey, I’m turning professional and have to be serious and focus.’ But I don’t know what I’m doing yet. ... That’s just the mental approach I’m having to take until more details come out.”

Remarkably, the PGA Canadian Tour qualifier Ralston was competing in last week chose to continue. It concluded Friday. He finished 30th, which brings with it “conditional status” on the Canadian Tour.

The truly remarkable chapter of Ralston’s story, though, is what he did to qualify for the spot in the RBC Heritage. Ralston shot a 63 in the final round of the Players Amateur to wipe out a whopping 11-stroke deficit on the last day and win the tournament and the exemption that came with it.

Ralston started the final round at Berkeley Hall Club in Bluffton, S.C., “playing decent” at 9-under par, but thinking he had no realistic hope of winning the tournament.

“We just kind of went out there with no expectations,” Ralston said of he and his caddie, cousin Sims Griffith. “I felt like I was playing well; I just needed to put it all together. I went out and birdied the first hole and just felt really good about how I was hitting it. I had some putts drop early and just kind of took the momentum and went with it.”

Ralston was actually sitting at 10-under-par coming to the final hole. He bogeyed, signed his card and then retired to the clubhouse to grab a bite for lunch.

“I’m sitting there and a rules official comes over and says, ‘you might want to go hit some balls; you’re about to be tied for the lead,’ ” Ralston recalled with a laugh.

Before he could even get warmed up, the co-leader three-putted the last hole and Ralston was declared the winner. After handing Ralston the winner’s trophy, tournament director Steve Wilmot said, “see you in April.”

When Spencer Ralston (R) posed with Steve Wilmot and the winner's trophy at the Players Amateur last July, he thought playing in the RBC Heritage Tournament in April was a done deal. But the PGA canceled that tournament along with seven others this week. (Family photo)
When Spencer Ralston (R) posed with Steve Wilmot and the winner's trophy at the Players Amateur last July, he thought playing in the RBC Heritage Tournament in April was a done deal. But the PGA canceled that tournament along with seven others this week. (Family photo)

That was last July. Since then, Ralston has operated with the prospect that he’d be teeing it up with PGA professionals at the famous Harbour Town Golf Links April 16-19. Though he has played in many big tournaments as a junior and collegian, he’d never gotten to go toe-to-toe with the pros.

Now Ralston might actually be a pro before he gets that opportunity.

“I really don’t know,” he said of whether the invitation would be extended at a later date if the tournament is re-scheduled. “I actually haven’t talked to anybody about that yet. I’m just hoping everything will turn around soon.”

The bigger decision now is whether to turn pro now or accept another year of college and the perks that come with remaining a high-ranking amateur.

“The thing that’s somewhat comforting through all this is Coach Haack has been with me through all this,” Ralston said. “He’s seen me play for years and kind of knows my game and what I’m going through. He’ll help me make the best decision for me and not just what’s best for the program.”