The RSM Classic, the PGA Tour’s annual excursion to picturesque St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia, is notable for its place on the Tour schedule as the final event of the calendar year.
For each of the past three years coming into this season’s RSM, that “last” tournament has served as a first career victory for an overjoyed PGA Tour player, and after another 72 holes, the tradition has held true again.
Tour Rookie Austin Cook, was able to do what so many other inexperienced players have been unable to do in his position in the past: transmuting a first career 54-hole lead into a first career victory.
Holding the lead like a 20-year Tour veteran, Cook was extraordinarily composed, and carded just one bogey in a round of 3-under 67, to win by four strokes over J.J. Spaun.
Cook was especially remarkable down the stretch, putting away his challengers by adding birdies on three of his last four holes, and reaching 21-under over the four days.
FINAL TOP 10
1 Austin Cook -21
2 J.J. Spaun -17
3 Brian Gay -16
T4 Brian Harman -14
T4 Kevin Kisner -14
T4 Andrew Landry -14
T4 Chris Kirk -14
T8 Ben Silverman -13
T8 Bud Cauley -13
T8 William McGirt -13
T8 Vaughn Taylor -13
T8 Zach Johnson -13
T13 Aaron Wise -12
T25 Stewart Cink -9
T29 Brandt Snedeker, Matt Kuchar, Retief Goosen -8
T37 K.J. Choi, Chesson Hadley -7
T45 Patton Kizzire, Hunter Mahan -6
T54 Martin Laird, Padraig Harrington -4
T61 Braden Thornberry -3
67 Bubba Watson -2
T70 Beau Hossler E
HOW COOK DID IT
The 26-year-old PGA Tour Rookie, Cook, held a three-stroke lead after three rounds, largely off the strength of a phenomenal 8-under 62 on Friday, which was a somewhat uncomfortable lead given that it was his first time in that position.
A shaky bogey 5 on the par-4 2nd hole gave early hope to his challengers, but that bogey ended up being his sole blemish in an otherwise solid round.
Finishing his first nine with six pars and a bogey, Cook never looked close to wilting, even when former Tour winner Chris Kirk closed the gap to one.
After the turn, Cook notched another five pars, and then sprinted to the finish with three birdies over his final four holes, including an impressive 20-foot birdie putt on 18 to put an exclamation point on the round.
Cook only bogeyed two holes the entire week, while leading the field with 23 birdies. He was accurate off the tees, finishing T4 in fairways hit, and took advantage of the consistently good placement, hitting 83.3% of his greens in regulation, the second best total in the field.
WHAT IT MEANS FOR COOK
Cook acquired his 2017-18 PGA Tour card by finishing 15th on the Web.com Tour money list. Now, after winning in his 14th career Tour start, he has his card secured for the next three years.
The Arkansas native also receives exemptions to The Masters, THE PLAYERS Championship, and the PGA Championship, three elite tournaments he has yet to compete in. He’ll also be in the field for the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in early January to kickoff the 2018 regular season.
Cook will end 2017 in third place in the FedExCup standings, nearly assuring a deep playoff run next September.
Sunday was all about Austin Cook, but he was not the only one who looked good in the last official tournament round of 2017. J.J. Spaun squandered a late lead two weeks ago at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, but showed impressive resiliency by finishing T14 in last week’s OHL Classic at Mayakoba.
Spaun was even better at Sea Island, riding a final round 4-under 66 to a finish of solo-second place, his best result as a professional. The 27-year-old San Diego product looks close to notching his career victory No. 1.
Three players shared Sunday low-round honors with a 5-under 65. One of those players, Brian Harman, used a hot 4-under back nine to finish in a tie for 4th place at -14.
Harman is now 3-for-3 in top 10 finishes for the new season, as he posted a T5 and a solo-8 in his past two tournaments.
One of the other 65s resulted in a 26 spot jump on the final leaderboard for David Hearn, who went bogey-free on the day, and played his final four holes in 4-under (eagle, birdie, par, birdie).
Hearn did most of his damage on the greens, gaining nearly four strokes on the field with his putting, which allowed him to finish in a tie for 17th place, by far his best finish of the new season.
LIMPING TO THE LINE
The players closest to Cook to begin Sunday was Chris Kirk, a four-time Tour winner. A win would have been huge for Kirk, who has faded a bit over the past two seasons, notching no wins and just six-top 10s in 56 events.
The 32-year-old Georgia native got off to a steady start, getting within one of the lead early on, but he went cold after a birdie on 6, immediately bogeying 7, and was unable to do better than par on any of his next seven holes. A birdie on 15 was quickly made irrelevant by bogeys on 16 and 17, and a final round 1-over 71 dropped Kirk into a tie for 4th place.
Matching Kirk’s disappointing 71 was last week’s winner, Patton Kizzire, who failed to perform magic for a second straight tournament. Kizzire still leads the FedExCup standings, but his T45 finish is by far his worst result in his past four starts.
Hunter Mahan, desperately trying to get his old form back from when he was one of the best on Tour for the better part of a decade, was one worse than Kirk and Kizzire. A 2-over 72 caused a 20-spot plummet down the leaderboard, into that tie for 45th.
Mahan’s resurgence, if it’s going to happen at all, will need to wait until at least 2018.
FINAL ROUND HIGHLIGHTS
“It was definitely exciting; real brutal with the wind. I got off to a slow start but I was able to keep my head level and know there was a lot of golf to be played. With the wind and those conditions, a lot could happen.”
– Austin Cook, RSM Classic Champion