Coming into last week’s RSM Classic, four of the last five tournament winners had scored their first ever PGA Tour victories at Sea Island Golf Club.
After Sunday’s final round, make that five of six.
Former U. of Arkansas golfer Austin Cook became the second straight rookie to win the RSM Classic, holding off a mild challenge by second-year PGA Tour pro J.J. Spaun before sprinting to the finish with three late birdies to score a 4-stroke victory.
Cook finished with a 21-under 261 total with Spaun taking second at 265. Veteran Brian Gay claimed outright third at 266 when he holed out from 161 yards for eagle on the par-4 18th, adding some last-second fireworks to a mostly excitement-free final round.
A trio of Georgia Bulldogs – two former RSM champions and a St. Simons island resident – tied for fourth at 268 and another pair of Georgia residents finished T8. Former champions Kevin Kisner and Chris Kirk joined Brian Harman, the low local finisher, at 268, with Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor and Zach Johnson, the runner-up in the battle for low local, next at 269.
Cook led the tournament after an 8-under 62 on Seaside in the second round gave him a slim one-stroke lead over Gay at 128. He expanded his lead to three over Kirk after 54 holes with a third round 66, giving him the tournament 54-hole scoring record at 18-under 194. He was even par in the final round through 14 holes and two shots in front of Spaun, but birdied 15, 17 and 18 to pull away at the finish.
It was just the fourth start of Cook’s rookie season on the PGA Tour, but he had played 10 previous PGA Tour events, most of them in 2015 when he first drew some attention as a pro with some Patrick Reed-like Monday qualifying prowess.
Cook made it into seven events that year and finished T22 or better in five of them, including a pair of top 10s and a T11 in Houston, where he contended for most of the tournament after Monday qualifying.
The 26-year-old Cook, a native Arkansan who graduated from Arkansas in 2013, qualified for the PGA Tour by placing 15th on the Web.com Tour money list in 2017. He recorded eight top 10s, with his best finishes a tie for third in Mexico and a tie for second in Utah, where he finished one shot behind the winner after a final round 65. He was 43rd on the tour’s money list in 2016 as a rookie.
Cook played four times in the SEC Championship on the Seaside course, and had placed in the top 25 in two of his three PGA Tour starts as a rookie in recent weeks. He went to the front with 14 birdies and no bogeys the first two days, shooting a 66 on Plantation on Thursday to trail Kirk by three.
Kirk, who won the RSM Classic in 2013, went out in 5-under 31 on Plantation and eagled the 18th for his opening 63. It was Cook’s turn to go low on Friday, and he shot 4-under on both nines on Seaside, running off four straight birdies on the back nine beginning at the 13th and closing out his round with three birdies on the last five holes on the front side. Kirk short even par 70 on Seaside to drop into a tie for third, five shots off Cook’s lead.
Cook took control of the tournament with another 4-under 31 on the front Saturday before making his first bogey of the tournament at the par-4 14th, the most difficult hole on Seaside for the week. A birdie at the par-5 15th, Seaside’s easiest hole, gave him a 66 and a 3-shot lead over Kirk, who closed the gap with seven birdies and a 64, including 2’s on all four of Seaside’s par 3s.
Gay, who stayed close to the lead the entire tournament, was third after 54 holes at 14-under 198, and played in the final group Sunday with Cook and Kirk, making for an all-SEC pairing matching Arkansas, Georgia and Florida (Gay).
Cook lost one shot of his lead when he went from bunker to bunker on the second hole for just his second bogey of the tournament and only one in the final round. Kirk closed within a shot of the lead with a beautiful tee shot on the par-3 sixth that led to birdie, but made bogey on the par-5 seventh when his pitch shot rolled past the hole and off the green and he was unable to get up-and-down for par.
When Cook chipped to 3 ½ feet for birdie, his lead was back to three, but Spaun challenged with four birdies in a 5-hole stretch beginning at the fifth, getting within one of Cook with back-to-back birdies at 9 and 10. But Spaun drove into a fairway bunker at the par-4 11th and was unable to reach the green in two and made bogey.
After Spaun failed to birdie the par-5 15th, Cook reached the green and two-putted to expand his lead to three shots, but Spaun birdied the 16th to cut his deficit to two. Spaun missed a 6-footter for par after hitting his tee shot in a bunker on the par-3 17th, and Cook wrapped up his victory by holing a 14-footer on the hole, the only 2 on his scorecard the entire tournament.
Both Spaun and Cook birdied 18, with Cook holing another 14-footer to close out his first PGA win in style.
Cook collected $1.16 million from the $6.2 million purse, and moved up from 88 to 3 in the FedExCup standings and from 302 to 144 in the World Golf Rankings. The win gets him into the 2018 Tournament of Champions, Masters, Players Championship and PGA Championship.
Of the three ex-Bulldogs who tied for fourth, Kirk was the most frustrated and Harman the most satisfied among the trio.
Kirk, who had struggled for all of 2017 after a strong showing at the outset of the 2016-17 season, had a chance for a runner-up finish after a birdie at the 15th got him to 16-under. But he bogeyed 16 and 17 after hitting his tee shots into bunkers on both holes and shot 1-over 71 the final day to drop into the tie for fourth.
Harman shot 4-under on the back nine for a final round 65, matching the low score on a moderately blustery day. Harman posted scores of 69-68-66-65 to collect his third top-10 finish in three fall starts, the first two in Asia.
“I tend to fade out at the end of the year,’ Harman observed, “so I’m proud of how I played this fall. It’s been a great year. Doesn’t mean it can’t get better.”
Kisner, who won the RSM Classic in 2015, scored his third finish of fourth or better in the tournament over the last four years with scores of 67-68-65-68. He was six shots off Cook’s lead at the start of the day and never got closer than four, parring his last seven holes. It was his first start since his President’s Cup appearance in late September.
Taylor and Johnson, who were paired together two groups in front of the leaders, shot 68 and 67 respectively in the final round to tie for eighth. A bogey at the 17th cost Taylor a slightly higher finish, while Johnson shot 64-67 on the weekend after being well back in the pack after 36 holes.
Results of other Georgians in the tournament:
St. Simons resident Michael Thompson played consistently with scores of 68-68-67-68 to tie for 17th at 271. Duluth’s Stewart Cink shot 69-69-68-67 and was T25 at 273. St. Simons residents Matt Kuchar and Hudson Swafford tied for 29th at 274. Kuchar was a late entrant into the field and shot 69-68-68-69, while Swafford fell back after an opening 65 on Plantation, finishing just 1-under over three rounds on Seaside.
Tying for 37th at 275 was St. Simons resident Trey Mullinax and Chesson Hadley, like Cink and Kuchar a former Georgia Tech golfer. Hadley came into the tournament off three straight finishes of fourth or better, but withdrew because of an illness before the final day of play in the previous week’s tournament in Mexico. During the RSM Classic, he was honored as the Player of the Year on the 2017 Web.com Tour.
Coming off his win in Mexico four days prior to the RSM Classic, St. Simons resident Patton Kizzire tied for 45th at 276 after opening with a 66 on Seaside, just one shot off the best score of the day on the course. Kizzire remained first in the FedExCup standings heading into the 6-week break before the start of the 2018 portion of the schedule.
Recent UGA graduate Greyson Sigg of Augusta received a sponsor invitation to the tournament and tied for 49th at 277 in his first PGA Tour start. Also receiving a sponsor exemption was former Augusta State standout Henrik Norlander, who lost in a playoff in the tournament last year. Norlander and former Georgia Bulldog and St. Simons resident Keith Mitchell were T54 at 278, and ex-Bulldog Bubba Watson was 67th at 280 in his first ever start in the RSM Classic.
Among those missing the cut, which fell at 3-under 139, was Ollie Schniederjans (140); Charles Howell and Monday qualifier David Skinns of Suwanee (141); Jonathan Byrd and Jason Bohn, who made it into the field as an alternate (143); tournament host Davis Love III, who is about to undergo hip replacement and will be out of action for at least three months, and Jonathan Byrd (145); slumping Harris English (146); and Dunwoody CC head pro Kyle Owen, the Georgia PGA representative in the field (147). After shooting 76 on the Plantation course the first day, Owen was 3-under after eight holes the next day on Seaside, winding up with a 71.
Brandt Snedeker tied for 29th at 274 after missing five months due to an injury. Scott Simpson withdrew after being tied for 12th at 135 after 36 holes due to the poor health of his father, and Luke Donald withdrew with an illness prior to the start of the tournament.