However, 19 players — including River Ridge’s Savannah Freeman — did not have the chance many feel they deserved after a change was made to the qualification rules during an executive meeting by the Georgia High School Association on April 14. The change, made effective immediately, altered the way individuals qualified for the state tournament in the state’s top five classifications.
Last season, the low-scoring player from a non-qualifying team advanced directly to the state tournament, provided they shot a specified qualifying score.
Under the new rule, only the low medalist — if they are from a non-qualifying team — advances to the state tournament. The low scorer, if they are not the medalist, must play in the sectional and produce a top score in order to advance to the state championship.
Every player from a team that qualified for the sectional tournament bid did not advance to the state tournament would also be competing for a spot. The number of individuals who qualify out of a sectional varies by classification and is based on how many players qualified directly from the region tournaments by being medalists from non-qualifying teams.
Jamie Henck, golf coach at Luella High School in Henry County, hosted the Class AAAAAA boys sectional in McDonough. One of his players, Drew McCullers, shot 84 in his region tournament, for the lowest score by a player from a non-qualifying team.
“He thought it was going to state,” Henck said. “I only knew the rules, because I received an email, because I was hosting the sectional. No one else from my region, or at our sectional, knew the rule, including my player, who was absolutely devastated that he didn’t qualify.”
Henck said he spent a lot of time on the phone with coaches at other sectionals trying to get the rules figured out.
Among those affected by the rule change were two players in Class AAA, five in Class AAAA, seven in Class AAAAA and eight in Class AAAAAA.
In many of the classifications, players who would have previously made it to state did not advance through the sectional.
For example, under the old rule, six boys in Class AAAAAA would have gone to state, but following the sectional, only one qualified. The other spots were taken by players from teams that advanced to the sectional, but not on to state. The story was the same for the girls in Class AAAA, where four would have qualified, but after the sectional, just one moved on.
Freeman and Chamblee’s Jonathan Moore were also casualties of the new rules. According to River Ridge athletic director Mike Baker, Freeman didn’t even know she had to compete in the sectional until three days before it took place.
Chamblee coach Kurt Koeplin shared a similar story.
“That is exactly what happened,” he said. “I was not aware that the rule changed so suddenly.”
The bylaws published on the GHSA website still cite the old rule, saying “the low medalist will advance to the state tournament, even if his team does not advance to the sectional or state tournament.”
It goes on to say: “The lowest-scoring individual (boy and girl) whose team does not qualify out of the region/area tournament shall advance to the state tournament, provided the player posts a qualifying score … ”
Steve Figueroa, media relations director for the GHSA, said to understand the intent of the rule, one must look at two separate sections of the bylaws. When presented with the wording of the rule, Figueroa admitted it needs to be changed.
“We are talking about one person,” Figueroa said. “We are talking about the low medalist in the region. … When it says ‘the lowest-scoring individual,’ to me, it means the lowest scorer. To make it more clear, it should say the ‘low medalist.’ That needs to be changed for next year. We just didn’t word it correctly.”
Figueroa went on to say that the four lowest scorers from each sectional whose teams did not advance went on to state, which didn’t happen either.
“In the April 14th meeting, the executive committee came up with another rule that is effective immediately, meaning, in the state tournament we are in now,” Figueroa said.
In the end, the rule states that there will be eight male and eight female individual players in the state tournament for each classification. The number that qualified from each sectional was eight, minus however many had already qualified by being the medalist from their region, but were not a part of a team advancing to state.
“When they say they are playing for eight spots, they aren’t actually playing for eight, because some of those spots have already been taken,” Henck said.
Figueroa admits it isn’t easy to figure out.
“It’s complicated, but in the end, it’s all about getting more individuals to state,” Figueroa said. “I think what we really have is a work in progress here.”
For this year, the result wasn’t more individual golfers going to state. It was fewer.
For example in the Class AAAA girls competition, where Freeman would have competed, five girls qualified at the sectional. Under the old rules, Freeman and two others would have advanced directly from their region tournaments, while six more would have been added at the sectional. Four of the five girls came from teams that competed in the sectional, but failed to advance to state.
In the Class AAAAAA sectional McCullers was a part of, four boys qualified as individuals. Under the old rules, five, including Woodstock’s Kevin Burns, would have moved from their region into the state tournament, while six more would have been added at the sectional for a total of 11, rather than this year’s eight.
“Once we added the sectional, we saw things that needed to be tweaked to get the rights kids to the state tournament,” Figueroa said.
Henck doesn’t know of any other sport that makes major rule changes during the season.
“That would be like, in the middle of baseball, deciding there are going to be four outs instead of three,” Henck said. “In this case, it would be like (Major League Baseball) deciding to cancel the wild card, because that is what this is. They canceled the wild card for these kids and said they were going somewhere else instead.”
A few coaches, such as Woodstock’s Kelley Burke said they were aware of the change. Burke said that with it being her first season as the school’s boys golf coach, she didn’t want to miss anything.
Burns was the low-scoring, non-attached golfer from the Region 5AAAAAA tournament, then went on to win his sectional.
“My assumption was just that he went to the next round,” Burke said. “In this case, it was to the sectional.”
Even though none of his players were affected, River Ridge boys coach Mark Markley didn’t object to the change, just to the timing of it.
“It makes no sense to me,” he said. “If they make a rule change, it should be for the following year and not for the next week. That is a little off the wall. The season was two-thirds over.”
GHSA assistant executive director Gary Phillips, who is in charge of bylaw interpretations for cross country, golf and track and field, defended the rule change, saying that the golf advisory committee, composed of 12 or 14 coaches, recommended it.
“We had some rule alterations in September and then realized that everyone wasn’t complete and there had to be changes in the April meeting,” Phillips said. “These men really know the game and know what’s best for it.”
Phillips said the rule change was passed on to the sectional directors, but each coach was responsible for checking the GHSA website to see if any changes were made. The minutes from the executive committee meetings are made available to each school.
Freeman’s mother, Lynn, said the state tournament was a sensitive topic in her house.
It was announced at school that Savannah Freeman would be the first person in school history to play in the state golf tournament. A girl Freeman beat in the Region 7AAAA tournament advanced to state, while she did not.
“Savannah got robbed,” Lynn Freeman said. “So did some other kids out there, too.”