PGA Tour Closes Out Fall Schedule on Georgia Coast
After changes to its dates, placement on the PGA Tour schedule, status relative to the FedExCup, official name and the addition of a second host course, things have been pretty stable the last few years for the annual PGA Tour stop at Sea Island Golf Club.
The tournament on the Georgia coast began as the McGladrey Classic in early October of 2010. It was part of the “Fall Series,” a group of 5-to-7 tournaments that followed the Tour Championship at East Lake, which had moved from its late October/early November date with the creation of the FedExCup Playoffs to precede it.
When the first McGladrey Classic was played, the tournament was not part of the FedExCup. The money earned by the players from its $4 million purse was official, but as it was played after the Tour Championship, it did not award FedExCup points, and the tournament winner did not receive an automatic invitation to the Masters.
Prior to the 2013 tournament, things changed significantly, as the PGA Tour altered its schedule to elevate the fall tournaments to equal status with those played earlier in the calendar year. The Tour went to a wraparound schedule, with the new season beginning shortly after the Tour Championship concluded.
Instead of being close to the middle of the fall portion of the schedule, the McGladrey Classic moved to early November just after the Tour’s brief swing through Asia, with its purse increased to $5.5 million and the tournament winner getting an invite to Augusta.
A slight shift in dates moved the tournament back in front of the Asian events in 2014, but the big changes occurred the next year, starting with a new name. The tournament became the RSM Classic, with the title sponsor taking the name of its global network partner.
The RSM Classic moved back four weeks on the calendar to the week before Thanksgiving, making it the last official PGA Tour event before a 6-week break until the Tournament of Champions the first week of the year in Hawaii.
With a later date and fewer hours of daylight, it was decided to utilize a second course for the first two rounds of the tournament, with Sea Island Golf Club’s Plantation layout added to the Seaside course, which remained the sole host for weekend play.
That enabled the tournament to increase its field from 132 to 156 players without having to wage a dawn to dusk sprint Thursday and Friday to get the first two rounds in before darkness halted play.
There haven’t been any major alterations to the tournament the past two years, although there was a behind the scenes change with the hiring of Todd Thompson as the new Tournament Director, taking the place of Scott Reid. Thompson is known in Georgia golf circles as the founder and operator of the Southeastern Junior Golf Tour, which is based in Auburn, Ala., and as the former Tournament Director of the Georgia PGA.
The eighth RSM Classic will be played Nov. 16-19, with 156 players competing for a purse of $6.2 million, the fifth straight year it has increased. Because of its date on the calendar, most of the PGA Tour’s marquee names will be missing from the tournament field, with almost all of the most prominent names who will be teeing it up at Sea Island GC either residing on St. Simons Island or living elsewhere in the Southeast within relative proximity to the Georgia coast.
The RSM Classic is hosted by long time St. Simons Island resident Davis Love III, with Love’s Foundation the primary beneficiary of tournament proceeds. Love will be one of a sizeable number of PGA Tour pros playing in the event who also live on the island, with that group including Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Brian Harman, Hudson Swafford, Harris English, Patton Kizzire and Jonathan Byrd. Chris Kirk, a former RSM Classic champion, lived on St. Simons after completing his college career at Georgia before returning to the metro Atlanta suburbs shortly before his victory in 2013.
Tournament week begins with a pro-am sponsored by BMW on the Seaside course on Monday. But spectators are not allowed on the course either Monday or Tuesday. The Yamaha Pro-Am will be held on both courses Wednesday, along with some junior-oriented events in the afternoon, with admission free.
The non-golf highlight of tournament week is a concert by country music star Jake Owen, and will be held Saturday evening at the St. Simons airport, which is across the street from Seaside and Plantation and adjacent to the club’s Retreat course. A Taste of the Golden Isles event will take place near the island’s pier at 5 p.m. on Friday.
The tournament tees off Thursday morning on both Seaside and Plantation, with players going off the first and 10th tees on both courses. The field will be cut to the low 70 and ties after two rounds, with the final two rounds played on Seaside. Golf Channel will provide live afternoon coverage all four days.
While the field is largely populated by players with Southern roots, there has been a geographic balance to the seven tournament champions – two from Georgia, two from South Carolina and one each from the Midwest, Pacific Northwest and Canada.
Mackenzie Hughes became the tournament’s first non-American winner last year when he won a 5-way playoff that did not conclude until Monday morning. Play was halted Sunday afternoon after two playoff holes, with Hughes needing only one hole Monday morning to win with a par on the par-3 17th.
Hughes, a rookie on the PGA Tour at the time, won the playoff against Camilo Villegas, Henrik Norlander, Blayne Barber and Billy Horschel, with Horschel eliminated after a bogey on the first playoff hole and the other three making bogeys on the 17th Monday morning.
All seven RSM Classic champions will be in the field, with Hughes joined by Georgia residents Kirk and Heath Slocum, South Carolinians Kisner and Tommy Gainey, Robert Streb and Ben Crane.
Kisner, who will be part of the U. of Georgia contingent in the field, is the highest ranked player from the 2016-17 FedExCup standings competing in the RSM Classic (12th), and along with fellow ex-Bulldog Harman and former Georgia Tech star Kuchar, are the only players in the field in the top 30 of the World Golf Rankings.
Kuchar, ranked 14th in the world, was a late addition to the field along former UGA golfer Bubba Watson, who will be making his first ever start in the tournament, and Brandt Snedeker, who has been out of action for five months with an injury.
Harman, Kisner and Kuchar will be among the players to beat, along with Augusta native Charles Howell, who has one of the best track records in the tournament along with Kirk.
Macon native and former Georgia Bulldog Russell Henley, who placed in the top 10 in the RSM Classic the past three years, was a late scratch from the tournament along with long hitting Luke List, who is off to a hot start in the 2017-18 season, and former U.S. Open champion Lucas Glover. Henley and Glover are former St. Simons residents
With two major titles on his resume, Johnson is one of the most accomplished players in the field, but has not enjoyed a great deal of success in the event. Tournament host Love made one run at victory in the RSM Classic, sharing the 54-hole lead with Jim Furyk in 2012, but was steamrolled the final day by Gainey’s record-breaking 60 in the final round.
Georgia Tech will also be well represented in the field, and sports the hottest player on the 2017-18 PGA Tour. Chesson Hadley finished the Web.com Tour 2017 season strong with a win and a playoff loss in the four-event Finals series to earn Player of the Year honors. He got of f to a sizzling start in his return to full-time status on the PGA Tour with finishes of T3, second and T4 in his first three starts this season, missing by one shot of getting into a playoff in Las Vegas.
Joining Hadley in the field are fellow former Yellow Jackets veteran Stewart Cink of Duluth and Ollie Schniederjans of Powder Springs, who tied for sixth last year in his tournament debut.
The highest ranked players in the field without ties to Georgia are Scott Simpson and Bill Haas, both from the Carolinas. Haas was runner-up to Slocum in the first RSM Classic in 2010, and Simpson lost in a playoff to Crane the next year.
The field will also include a veteran international quartet of multiple major champions – Fiji’s Vijay Singh, Ireland’s Padraig Harrington and South Africans Retief Goosen and Ernie Els, another late entrant. Ireland’s Graeme McDowell, a former U.S. Open champion, is also playing.
The Georgia PGA will be represented by Dunwoody CC head pro Kyle Owen, who competed with players like Johnson and Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor during his years on the mini tours in the late 1990s and early 2000s. Tim Weinhart was the GPGA’s representative five of the last seven years, missing the cut by just two shots in each of the first three RSM Classics and shooting either 1 or 2-over for 36 holes in four of his first five appearances in the event.
The field will be competing on adjoining courses that are both in the 7,000-yard range but differ in both par and design style. Seaside, a par 70, is just over 7,000 yards and Plantation, a par 72, is only about 50 yards longer at 7,058.
While Seaside is located amid the marshes and dunes on the southern tip of St. Simons, Plantation is more of a parkland layout, with the 10th tee the only part of the course that is directly along the coast, and just a few holes on the front nine bordering the marshes.
With some reachable par 5s, a mostly short-ish group of par 4s and two short iron par 3s, Plantation offers more scoring opportunities than Seaside, but scores on the two courses have not been that different, with last year’s really low scores on Thursday and Friday shot on Seaside.
Plantation features more hazards in play than Seaside, with water a factor on about half the holes, mostly on the par 3s and par 5s. Three of Plantation’s par 5s present risk/reward opportunities, especially the 18th.
With Seaside sporting only two par 5s, neither of which is easily reachable, and only one par 4 of serious length, it is not a course that tends to favor longer hitters. But with mostly ample fairways, its absence of length will yield plenty of short iron approaches for all players.
The greens complexes are a little more challenging on Seaside, but despite its lack of serious length and less demanding nature around the greens, the speculation that the tour pros might have a field day on Plantation has not proven to be accurate.