COLUMBIA — It would seem like Jace Long is putting Missouri men's golf coach Mark Leroux in a difficult situation.
There's a possibility that Long, a senior golfer for Missouri, won't join the Tigers for the spring season. Instead, he could be on the PGA Tour.
Those who are familiar with Long's game say they would not be surprised to see him on the tour. That includes Leroux, who said the situation is a good problem to have.
"If he does well and goes pro, that's good for the program because we can sell that to recruits," Leroux said. "It's beneficial both ways."
Long begins the first leg of his journey to play on the PGA Tour on Wednesday.
On Tuesday, he and the rest of the Tigers golf team won the Golfweek Conference Challenge in Burlington, Iowa. Long shot 9-under par 208 over 54 holes to win the tournament then went on a nearly six-hour car ride with his mother to ArborLinks Golf Course in Nebraska City, Neb., where he will play in the first of a four-stage qualifying process usually known as Q-school.
Long is one of five golfers competing as amateurs, which means that if he doesn't advance out of pre-qualifying Wednesday, he would be able to rejoin the Tigers and most likely re-enter Q-school next year. Although next year, because of PGA rules changes, he would only have the chance to qualify for the lower-level Web.com Tour.
No matter how it goes, he will have support from his hometown of Dixon, a town of 1,600, where the residents have known about Long's talent on the golf course for a while.
It was common for golfers playing at nine-hole Oak Hills Country Club in Dixon to see Long walk over from his house near the ninth tee box. Lynn Whitten of Dixon, a golf coach and family friend of the Longs, said he thinks that Long will pay back the course he learned the game on once he is in pro golf.
"We might re-name the course for him. At the very least, we'll put up a big sign for him. This is the biggest thing since John Brown," said Whitten by phone referring to the former Missouri men's basketball standout, who is also from Dixon.
Blaine Mathis, the general manager at Oak Hills, said it was routine for Long to hit a handful of balls on the greens of the two par-3 holes, fix his ball marks and get out of the way of other golfers, if there were any.
"We're a small course. That gave Jace the freedom to practice," Mathis said by phone. "Everyone knew him."
Long told Golfweek Magazine that not having strict rules at Oak Hills helped him develop as a golfer. When he did play by the rules, he once shot 13-under par over 18 holes.
Mathis said one time he was closing up the clubhouse when he saw headlights shining on the practice green. There was Long night-putting.
"They'd pretty much let me do whatever I wanted there," Long said.
Leurox said that Long's short game is the strength of his game. He's seen Long start making all the putts he's supposed to. It's no secret to golfers that putting saves strokes. Long has made that the focal point of his preparation for Wednesday.
"He's pretty good," Leroux said. "He'll be on the PGA Tour eventually."
Long said he didn't realize he's familiar with ArborLinks until a practice round a few weeks ago helped him remember he played a tournament there when he was 17. He said he doesn't remember that tournament specifically but played well enough to advance.
For Long to advance out of Nebraska City again, he'll have to finish in the top 20. If he advances to the next tournament he'll need to play in two more before he knows his status on the PGA Tour. If Long can get to and finish in the top 25 of the final qualifying stage this year, he will have earned his tour card.
Leroux said that Long isn't the type of player that usually lets pressure affect his game.
"It's no big deal. There have been tournaments that meant more to me that got me ready for this," said Long referring to this past summer's U.S. Amateur Public Links Tournament.
"I'm ready to do it. I'm willing to take the jump to professional golf and feel confident I can."