Just one event remains on the PGA Tour for the 2018 calendar year, a 12-month segment that saw myriad great victories and enticing drama. That one event tees off this week, and it is a favorite of many players on Tour: the ninth annual RSM Classic, held at Sea Island Golf Club in the underrated golf haven of St. Simons Island in Georgia.
Hosted by the legendary Davis Love III, a remarkably deep 156-man field will be fighting for a final taste of success in 2018 which they can turn into significant momentum heading into 2019.
1. AUSTIN COOKE DEFENDS
Austin Cook was a rookie during the 2017-18 season, but he looked nothing like one in the early going. His victory at last year’s RSM Classic came in just his fourth start, and he showed tremendous composure in being able to convert a 54-hole lead into a victory – something that most golfers fail many times before notching their maiden career title.
After a bogey on his second hole in Sunday’s finale, the then 26-year-old went blemish-free, holding off several challengers before exploding to the finish line, carding birdies on three of his final four holes.
For the week, Cook led the field in birdies while bogeying just two holes. He ranked fourth in driving accuracy and second in greens in regulation. It was an all-around phenomenal effort.
Cook failed to add a second win in his rookie season, but it was an undeniably successful campaign as a whole. He made 24 of 29 cuts, including 10-straight starts in July, August, and September. Among his best finishes for the remainder of the season were a T6 at the FedEx St. Jude Classic, and a T5 at The Greenbrier. He also enjoyed his first taste of success in a major when he sat on the periphery of the top 10 through three rounds at The Open Championship before fading with 75 on Sunday. Going into that final round, Cook was just two strokes behind eventual winner Francesco Molinari.
Statistically, Cook’s rookie season was superb as he ranked 22nd on Tour in driving accuracy, 25th in scoring average, and did his best work on the greens – where he finished 37th on Tour in strokes gained: putting, and 10th in putting from inside 10 feet. His irons were inconsistent, but for the most part, he displayed a strong all-around game, which gives the impression that he will be a force on the Tour for some time.
2. FIRST-TIME WINNERS?
Cook’s impressive victory at last year’s RSM kept alive a recent trend of champions nabbing their first career PGA Tour victory. The last four winners: Cook, Mackenzie Hughes, Kevin Kisner, and Robert Streb had zero career titles heading into the week of their championship. In fact, among that foursome, only Kisner has won an event outside of this tournament.
With the year winding down, getting that first victory to add to the career resume could be an enormous pick-me-up before the Tour resumes in January. It could completely change how they prepare for these events.
There are many players in the RSM field that have never won a PGA Tour title, but here are five of the most notable.
Over the past two seasons, Spaun has been fantastic in the fall series. He has been especially productive later on, posting finishes of T10, T14, 2 in his final three starts last year respectively, and going into the RSM this year, Spaun’s three most recent finishes have been T10, T15, T3 respectively.
That solo-second position from last season occurred in this event, as the 28-year-old exploded up the weekend leaderboard with final rounds of 62 and 66. Among this year’s field at Sea Island, Spaun’s Vegas odds (22-1) are lower than everyone except for Webb Simpson and Cameron Champ, showing that people are recognizing how well he’s played of late. At last week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, Spaun finished T3, co-leading the field in birdies and ranking T2 in greens in regulation.
The best player on Tour from Chinese Taipei, Pan made early waves on Sunday at last week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic when he played his front nine in 6-under. He was not able to stay anywhere near as hot on the back, but his 5-under 66 was his fourth straight round in the 60s and good for a T16 finish.
Off the strength of his great iron game, Pan has made his last 12 cuts on Tour and has been knocking on the door of victory No. 1. He came very close twice in the summer, finishing T2 at the Wyndham Championship, and perhaps more impressively, finished T4 at the elite-field Dell Technologies Championship, the second leg of the FedExCup playoffs.
Harold Varner III
The man born in the same city (Akron, OH) as Lebron James and Stephen Curry does not quite have the profile of those two superstars, but since July, Varner III has been consistently strong in his sport.
His last five events of last season included finishes of T5, 6, and T17, and he has stayed in prime form early in the new season, posting top 15 finishes in three of four starts. At El Camaleon last week, the 28-year-old started and finished with rounds of 65, finishing fourth in the field in birdies despite lagging way behind in driving accuracy.
The Chilean sensation is no longer a teenager, as Niemann celebrated his 20th birthday last Wednesday. The following day, he showed his usual great form in Mexico, shooting a round 1 5-under 66.
He played poorly the rest of the week to finish T60, but few deny that he is one of the best young talents on Tour, and will likely enjoy a PGA Tour career with many victories. He contended several times last year, including posting top-6 finishes in three of his first five starts after he turned professional in April, and was especially close at The Memorial Tournament and The Greenbrier Classic.
Ryder has posted some great results in the fall swing, including a T4 at the Safeway Open and a solo-third at the Shriners Hospitals For Children Open.
The 28-year-old Stetson University product has been especially impressive statistically since the new season began, as he ranks inside the top 38 of every strokes gained category, including fifth in strokes gained: tee-to-green and third in strokes gained: total. He finished T2 at last year’s John Deere Classic, and is looking to finish one spot better at Sea Island.
3. WEBB’S WORLD
This year’s RSM Classic boasts a field deep in talent, but there is no debate who the favorite is: reigning PLAYERS Champion Webb Simpson. At No. 20 in the world, Webb is the highest-ranked player in the field by a considerable margin, which is reflected in his 9-1 Vegas odds, by far the lowest in the field.
The 33-year-old former U.S. Open champion has made Sea Island a regular stop on his PGA Tour schedule, participating in six of the eight years the event has been held. He has yet to land in the RSM winner’s circle, but he has enjoyed success in the event, finishing runner-up in a 2011 playoff, in addition to a T12 in 2010 and a T7 in 2013.
At last year’s event, Simpson opened with rounds of 67 and 68 before withdrawing to be with his terminally ill father.
Webb was in something of a slump from the 2015-2017 seasons, but 2018 was one of the best of his career. His four-stroke triumph at THE PLAYERS put an end to a four-plus year winless drought, and his nine top 10s were his second most ever. He earned $5.4 million, the most since his two-win, three runner-up 2011 season, and he finished 7th in the FedExCup standings.
Statistically, he was fourth in scoring average, ninth in strokes gained: total, and most impressively, he finished sixth in strokes gained: putting, despite his flatstick being the worst part of his game in the years following the Tour’s ban on anchored putting. He turned his biggest weakness into his biggest strength.
At the dismay of the field, Simpson is coming in hot. He posted finishes of T6 and T4 in the last two legs of the FedExCup playoffs, was one of the only American players to actually show a pulse at the Ryder Cup, and in his 2018-19 season debut, he shot four rounds in the 60s to finish T15 at the Shriners Hospitals For Children Open.
4. KISNER’S CHANCES
Easily the most dominant performance in the history of the RSM Classic was Kevin Kisner’s six-stroke romp in the 2015 edition, one of just two times the event has been decided by more than one stroke.
Off the strength of a 64-64 weekend, Kisner reached a tournament record 22-under par. It was the first victory of his career, which was an enormous relief for a man who had posted three runner-ups the year prior. It was not his only strong week at Sea Island either; he finished T4 last year, shooting four rounds of 68 or better.
The RSM Classic will be Kisner’s second start of the new season. At last week’s Mayakoba Golf Classic, he shot rounds of 71 and 70 to surprisingly miss the cut by three strokes, something he had done just twice since May.
Kisner is coming up one of the more up-and-down seasons of his career, leaving considerable doubt about the state of his game at Sea Island. He had just four top-10s in 2018. Two of those top 10s were at elite field events, the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and The Open Championship, but in both those events, he played very poorly on the final day to cost him a shot at his third career victory.
Similarly, Kisner opened with rounds of 67-64 at the PGA Championship, reaching second place at the 36-hole mark before fading on the weekend to finish T12. He has a penchant for showing up at big-time events, but has struggled to close.