Spencer Ralston’s mental approach had been steady. The senior captain of the Georgia men’s golf team knew he wanted to fulfill his life’s dream by turning pro after playing in the NCAA championship in May.
The coronavirus pandemic forced him to rethink his plans. Ralston’s last three regular season tournaments and all postseason championships were canceled by decisions made by the SEC and NCAA in mid-March — while Ralston was competing in a Canadian PGA Tour qualifier in Dothan, Alabama.
Georgia men’s golf head coach Chris Haack called Ralston on March 13 after news broke of the cancellations. The two kept in touch while Ralston weighed the possibility of returning to Georgia in the event he was granted eligibility relief by the NCAA.
Ralston waited three weeks to pick up another golf club.
“It was just kind of a weird place to be in,” he said.
The NCAA’s decision on March 30 to grant spring-sport athletes an extra year of eligibility forced Georgia athletes approaching the end of their college careers to face a question they hadn’t considered before the COVID-19 outbreak: Will I spend another year in Athens?
PGA event cancellations caused Ralston to put off his goal of playing professional golf in favor of staying at Georgia for another year. As of press time, the PGA isn’t set to return until June. All tournaments to that point have been canceled, including the RBC Heritage in Hilton Head, South Carolina, where Ralston planned to compete.
“There’s just a lot of uncertainty in the professional golf world right now,” Ralston said. “They don’t know when they’re going to play, if they’re going to play.”
Ralston isn’t alone in his decision to extend his college career. Victoria Powell, a graduate transfer sprinter in her final year with Georgia track and field, said she felt certain she was ready to end her track career and move onto a career in sports communications before the coronavirus pandemic. She’s since had a change of heart and plans to sprint in next year’s outdoor season.
“It was definitely like a second chance kind of thing,” Powell said. “If things had proceeded as normal, I would’ve been done.”
Georgia equestrian senior Ali Tritschler wasn’t offered eligibility relief, as equestrian didn’t fall under the NCAA’s spring-sport umbrella. Despite the ruling, she still had the option to compete another year since she redshirted the 2016-17 season.
Tritschler hadn’t planned on using her extra year until the coronavirus pandemic canceled SEC and National Collegiate Equestrian Association championships. She wanted closure.
“I had this extra eligibility just sitting there, and with the job market right now and everything, I just realized that the thing I thought was such a burden in my life, my freshman year, actually turned out to be the biggest blessing now,” Tritschler said. “It just took a national pandemic — a worldly pandemic — to prove it.”
Tritschler, Powell and Ralston are adjusting to a new normal within the limitations of virtual team meetings, online classes and social distance restrictions. Tritschler meets with her coaches weekly on Zoom. Powell works to find ways to exercise despite the closure of tracks at her alma mater The Lovett School in Atlanta.
Ralston has made it back to the golf course. He plays in his hometown with his 14-year-old brother, Brigham, at Chattahoochee Golf Club in Gainesville. The course is still open, though precautions are in place. Golfers can’t touch the flagstick, and the golf ball doesn’t go all the way in the hole — all to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.
“It’s a different game than I feel like I normally play,” Ralston said. “But it’s kind of fun to get out of the house a little bit [and] spend some time with my family.”
Tori Heck contributed to this article.