After a “less than successful” sophomore season, University of Wisconsin-Madison golfer Sam Anderson found himself at a crossroad.
Anderson — who as a freshman held the lead at the Big Ten Championships for 27 holes — was stretched out between athletics, academics and maintaining an active social life. On top of this plight loomed an important question: would he pursue a professional career in golf or, like most college athletes, find a job after graduation?
“I needed to figure some stuff out in my life,” Anderson said. “I was trying to have a really good social life, do well in school and play high quality golf. And in college athletics, you can only be good at two of those [things].”
Following extensive talks with head coach Michael Burcin and his father, Anderson “committed” to golf as his number one priority. And with that came a change in perspective. After years of working with a swing coach, short-game coach and sports psychologist, Anderson has reaped the benefits of his hard work by posting stronger performances, including three top-10 finishes in NCAA-certified tournaments over the past two years.
Now a senior, Anderson will wrap up his college career in the coming months and look to continue his momentum and progress in the professional ranks. While the PGA Tour is the ultimate goal, Anderson, like most aspiring golfers, must prove himself on smaller qualifying tours in order to make it to the big show.
Evolution and growth
Fellow UW golfer Nick Robinson first met Anderson at a high school tournament five years ago and immediately saw the potential in his future teammate. He took particular notice of the long ball flight of Anderson’s drives, a coveted skill at any level of golf.
“You could see the raw talent was there,” Robinson, a redshirt senior, said. “He could do things with the golf ball that you knew he definitely had a future in the game. But like most athletes, he wasn’t anything close to a finished product.”
Robinson’s scouting report suits Anderson, a self-described “late bloomer” who has experienced most of his success in the latter stages of his career. Burcin agreed, noting that Anderson, originally from nearby Stoughton, was on UW’s radar early on in high school, but did not garner much interest until his junior and senior year.
“I told him that ‘we’re not bringing you on for what you could do now, but I’m confident in what you can do in the future,'” Burcin said.
Inconsistency defined the beginning of Anderson’s career at UW. He would follow up good weeks with bad and mediocre performances. It warranted enough attention for Burcin to sit Anderson down and advise him to make significant changes to how he approached golf and life if he wished to turn professional.
“He came to that meeting with a journal, and he was taking notes and I [thought] that was different,” Burcin said. “I thought, ‘you know, we may have something here.’”
From that point on, Anderson hunkered down and became honest with himself about his game and “immersed himself” in the process of improving, according to Robinson. Burcin added that the changes to Anderson’s life directly correlated to his production on the golf course, making him a more reliable and dependable player.
But Anderson’s improvements in his skills, mindset and body did not come alone. Rather, Anderson for the past four years has enlisted the assistance of a cadre of coaches dedicated to helping him reach the next level.
Swing coach Justin Parsons and putting coach Ramon Bescansa work with Anderson on basic set-up and ball position techniques, among other technical skills. Dr. Morris Pickens, a sports psychologist, helps Anderson develop mindsets on how to prepare for tournaments and how to cope with sliding back and forth on the leaderboard. And strength coach Alex Bennett teaches mobility exercises so that changes to Anderson’s golf swing can be made with ease.
The group uses the Coach Now application to collaborate by posting videos on the forum after each lesson so coaches and Anderson can analyze what improvements must be made.
“He’s incredibly detail-oriented now,” Robinson said. “Sam does a really good job of setting a purpose for whatever he’s going to do, and he’s done a good job of breaking down every aspect of his life and figured out how to put himself in a position to play golf after school.”
While Robinson pointed to the fluidity of Anderson’s swing as his most notable improvement, Anderson believes it’s his overall confidence and how he mentally approaches the game — which has been reinforced by the work he’s put in.
“Knowing I was doing the right things, knowing my swing was in a good spot as well as my putting stroke. I never had any doubts,” Anderson said. “It’s more just like ‘go out and play golf without worrying.’”
As Anderson enjoyed a successful junior season that featured a ninth-place finish at the Badger Invitational and a second place showing at the Musketeer Classic, COVID-19 disrupted the NCAA golf season in the spring. However, Anderson still kept busy.
He participated in some non-NCAA sponsored tournaments last fall and won a couple events. Anderson spent the winter in Florida — where he plans on moving full-time after graduating — training with his support team and frequented TPC Sawgrass, a course teeming with professional golfers, where he competed and picked the brains of golf’s best.
Moving forward, Burcin predicted a bright future for Anderson, calling him one of the most athletically gifted players he’s ever coached. His “zero fear” and workhorse attitude toward golf will propel him to new heights.
“He’s nowhere close to maxing out. His best golf is yet to come,” Burcin said. “He’s got a lot of good things going for him.”
“Minor Leagues” of golf
Most sports fanatics accustom themselves to Minor League Baseball and the NBA G League as the primary farm systems in professional sports.
But golf also maintains a similar hierarchical structure.
The PGA Tour offers three international sanctioned circuits — PGA Tour Canada, PGA Tour China and PGA Tour Latinoamérica — that serve as the “Double-A Baseball” equivalent in golf. Holding various tournaments across the world, established professionals and amateurs like Anderson can participate in tour events.
Golfers who earn the most money on the smaller tours advance to the Korn Ferry Tour, or the “Triple-A Baseball” parallel in the sport. Players can also gain status through the Korn Ferry Tour's "Qualifying School," a four-part event that provides membership to the tour for all golfers who reach the school's final stage.
Since 1990, the Korn Ferry Tour acts as an intermediary for golfers seeking to move up to the PGA Tour and for those who failed to accrue enough Fed-Ex Cup points to stay on the PGA Tour. At the end of the year, the top 25 highest earners on the Korn Ferry Tour regular season receive their PGA Tour membership cards for the next season with an additional 25 cards doled out to top performers following the Korn Ferry Tour Finals, a three-tournament event held at the end of the golf year.
For some golfers, the path to the PGA Tour takes little time. But most players spend years climbing the ladder all the way to the top. Some professional golfers make their PGA Tour debut in their forties, according to Anderson.
But in March, Anderson took his first step toward realizing his dreams by participating in a tournament on the PGA Tour Canada’s Mackenzie Tour. Competing against other amateurs and professional golfers, Anderson held his own and finished tied for sixth place, shooting seven-under par.
Consistent play — shooting a combined five-under par the last two days — and staying true to fundamentals played key roles to Anderson’s performance. But his unwavering confidence and competitive mentality pushed him over the top. While not every hole and not every round went according to plan, his preparation and work ethic enabled him to keep focus in order to play at a high level.
“I like being in big moments, so I brought a different gear [to the tournament],” Anderson said. “I told my caddy ‘if you have butterflies, you know you should be there, [but] if you’re nervous, you’re not prepared enough.’”
Anderson remains unsure of when his final collegiate season will end. He hopes the Badgers will advance to regionals and ultimately the NCAA tournament. But once he turns professional, his schedule and life will change. Starting this summer, Anderson plans on competing on smaller tours to gain recognition, and he also said he wanted to participate in some PGA Tour Canada tournaments.
In addition, Anderson will sign up for “Monday Qualifiers” — mini-tournaments held at the beginning of the week of a Korn Ferry Tour or PGA Tour event. The top finishers receive entry to participate in the actual tournament later in the week.
With many appearances in professional tour events on the horizon, Anderson’s drive to prove he belongs stems from his “late bloomer” persona and he continues to grow and learn from tournament to tournament.
“I never really had much success in golf until recent years, so that has always kept me hungry,” Anderson said. “I’ve seen bits and pieces of success here and there and for me personally, that brings me back and makes me want more because when I see success, I believe I can do this full-time and be more successful than once every two months or once every three or four tournaments.”
A huge UW fan growing up, Anderson and his family always attended Badger football and men’s basketball games. But after playing golf for his hometown team, a “dream” of his, the opportunity to represent his school at the highest levels honors him the most.
“If I were able to represent the University of Wisconsin on the PGA Tour, I would say that would be one of my greatest accomplishments,” Anderson said. “I’m not really sure how much more you could ask for.”
Burcin said Anderson would hit his stride around 25 or 26-years-old, an optimal time for any professional golfer to piece it all together. While his path to the big leagues will take time and the route may not be clear at the moment, his support team at UW believes the sky is the limit.
“I think [Anderson] can be a PGA Tour winner without a shadow of a doubt in my mind, and I think he would tell you the same thing,” Robinson said. “Sam has a belief that he truly feels like he was meant to play professional golf. It’s going to be impossible to stop him.”