HARTFORD, Conn. – John VanDerLaan and Zach Zaback will have at least partial status on the PGA Tour’s developmental tour in 2020.
VanDerLaan shot 18-under-par 268 for 72 holes to tie for seventh in the Korn Ferry Tour qualifying finals at Orange County National’s Crooked Cat course in Winter Garden, Fla. VanDerLaan, whose 194 at New Haven Country Club in 2018 shattered the Connecticut Open scoring record by six shots, was one of 12 players to earn exempt status for 12 guaranteed starts on the PGA Tour’s developmental tour next year.
VanDerLaan made sure to sign up for the first-stage qualifier at the home course of Florida Southern in Lakeland, Fla. He won the 2018 NCAA Division II individual title and earned the Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year Award at Florida Southern a year after he and younger brother Mike became the first siblings to be part of a national championship team.
VanDerLaan, who finished 143rd on the Korn Ferry Tour money list this year, was a combined 40 under par in the first and second qualifying stages, the latter he played at another familiar course in Brooksville, Fla. The 23-year-old won the second stage by eight shots over Broc Everett, the 2018 NCAA Division I medalist, and felt a culture of winning at Florida Southern helped shape him as he worked his way to a professional career.
“No matter how far you go, you have to win if you want to be successful,” said VanDerLaan, a graduate of Pomperaug High School in Southbury. “I kind of had a little bit of it, but it definitely molded me more into that when I was there.”
Growing up in Connecticut didn’t afford year-round golfing opportunities for VanDerLaan and his brother, but their grandfather took matters into his own hands, constructing a makeshift hitting bay in the basement of their home in Southbury with a net from the floor to the ceiling. There also was a putting course set up with cups from the kitchen cabinets laid on carpet or hardwood as the usual targets.
John fondly recalls the time that he and his brother, a senior at Florida Southern, spent in the basement trying to pass time during the blustery months in the northeastern United States.
“We would swing in the basement as much as we could,” John said. “We weren’t going anywhere anyway because it was snowing so we might as well go swing the club a few times. It was better than nothing.”
VanDerLaan started hitting plastic balls when he was 2, and when his father John and guest Jerry Pepe won a flight of a member-guest tournament at New Haven Country Club, his dad took his pro shop credit and invested in a set of U.S. Kids Golf clubs for his son. U.S. Kids Golf allows youngsters to swap for more advanced clubs as they grow, and the younger John has used them to catapult to a memorable trend.
VanDerLaan notched his record-setting Connecticut Open victory, which included a tournament record-tying 62 in the second round, a week after finishing in a tie for 31st in his PGA Tour debut in the Barbasol Championship.
“It’s kind of ridiculous to get my first pro win here, on a course I really like, in front of the guys I grew up playing with,” VanDerLaan said in the aftermath of tearing apart the renowned New Haven CC course. “It’s really hard to put into words. It’s amazing. It’s pretty cool that this is where it all started and has special meaning to me. I probably didn’t hit it as well the final day as I did the first two days, but I made some good putts and some that I didn’t really expect to. Sometimes when it’s going to happen it’s going to happen.”
VanDerLaan’s Division II national title qualified him for the Barbasol Shootout among all national champions that he also won at Scioto Country Club in Upper Arlington, Ohio, a suburb of Columbus, where Nicklaus learned to play. Meeting The Golden Bear was an eye-opening experience that was difficult for VanDerLaan to put into words.
“He’s arguably the greatest to ever play the game,” VanDerLaan said. “To just be around him and talk to him for a few minutes was pretty incredible.”
The Shootout victory qualified VanDerLaan for the Barbasol Championship, where he won $21,700 after beating PGA Tour players such as Davis Love III, Stuart Appleby, Ricky Barnes, Aaron Baddeley, Tim Herron, John Huston, Chad Campbell, Robert Allenby, 2013 Travelers Championship winner Ken Duke, 1998 Greater Hartford Open champion Olin Browne and 2003 PGA Championship winner Shaun Micheel.
“It was a really good experience for me to get to know what a whole week is like for those guys,” VanDerLaan said. “To play well and play the weekend and get all that experience was definitely valuable for me going forward.”
Zaback, 25, a University of Connecticut grad, shot 12-under 274 to tie for 30th in the Korn Ferry Tour finals and earn eight guaranteed starts next year after he finished 42nd on the MacKenzie Tour Order of Merit with $17,154 in 11 starts to retain status on that tour through the 2020 season. He also played on the MacKenzie Tour in Canada in 2018 and on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica in 2017.
Zaback’s biggest claim to fame is joining Cody Paladino (2013) as the only players to win the Connecticut State Golf Association’s Russell C. Palmer Cup and Amateur Championship in the same year in 2016. He won a second Palmer Cup title by six strokes over Corey Birch, another UConn grad, and then notched a 9-and-7 victory over Birch in the scheduled 36-hole final a month later. That win began with the best shot in the tournament’s 114-year history, a hole-in-one on the 330-yard, par-4 first hole at Wethersfield Country Club. It also was the first recorded ace on the first hole of the course that hosted the PGA Tour’s annual stop in Connecticut from 1952 to 1983.
When Zaback, who lives in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., after playing out of TPC River Highlands in Cromwell, home of the Travelers Championship, birdied the 72nd and final hole in Korn Ferry Tour finals, it bumped him to 12 under, effectively moving the cutoff for status right up with him. It was potentially year-changing for the 12 players who were sitting at 11 under with an outside chance.
Curtis Thompson and former NCAA Division I champion Braden Thornberry shared medalist honors at 21-under 265 to become the only players to earn fully exempt status for 2020. Thompson is an older brother of LPGA Tour standout Lexi Thompson, who is 10th in the Rolex Ranking and was the only female to play in the QBM Shootout hosted by Hall of Famer Greg Norman last weekend at Tiburon Country Club in Naples, Fla.