There have been some memorable final rounds in the relatively brief history of the RSM Classic, but Sunday’s finish at Sea Island Golf Club may have been the most dramatic in the tournament’s nine-year history.
Augusta native Charles Howell scored his first PGA Tour victory since 2007, dominating the tournament for 54 holes before a remarkable Sunday finish that began with an early disaster and ended with a succession of clutch shots and equally clutch putts. The last one was for birdie on the second hole of sa playoff to defeat Patrick Rodgers.
It was the fourth playoff in tournament history, with two of the other three consisting of multiple players, including a five-man battle in 2016. There was also the stunning 2012 comeback by journeyman Golf Channel legend Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey, who took down major champions David Toms and Davis Love, the tournament host, with a final round 60 after beginning the day seven shots behind Love.
The final round dramatics Sunday featured a compelling cast beginning with Howell, whose career of almost two decades has produced $37 million in earnings but only two previous victories in more than 525 starts.
Rodgers, who came out of college in 2014 with the same hoopla that greeted Howell when he turned pro 14 years earlier, was looking for his first PGA Tour win. He almost got it after posting the lowest final 36-hole total in tour history.
Howell and Rodgers shared the starring roles Sunday, but there were several other players who made a major impact on the twists and turns of the final round plot.
Cameron Champ, who has already won just a few months into his rookie season with a power game that has reached a new level in the increasingly length-oriented sport, began the day one shot off Howell’s lead in the final pairing with him.
Also in the last group Sunday was 44-year-old Jason Gore, who has taken up selling insurance after a career of more than two decades that includes the most wins ever on the Web.com Tour (seven), but just one on the PGA Tour victory more than 13 years ago. Gore was added to the field as a sponsor exemption, a reward for his reputation as one of the most well-liked players in the game.
The other feature player was Webb Simpson, the highest ranked player in the field, who has been the tournament’s strongest supporter among those with no ties to Georgia or the Golden Isles. Simpson was also part of one of the other most memorable finishes in RSM Classic history, losing in a playoff to Ben Crane in 2011, the second year the tournament was held.
Howell began the final day at 16-under 196, one ahead of playing partners Champ and Gore, with Simpson three back in the next-to-last group. Rodgers was five off the lead in a tie for seventh in the group ahead of Simpson’s pairing.
When regulation play ended, Howell and Rodgers were both at 19-under 263, arriving at that total in entirely different fashion. Simpson was third at 264, with Champ’s potential rise to the top of the FedExCup list at the end of the Fall schedule stalling Sunday. He spun his wheels the entire back nine and finished sixth, three out of the playoff.
After three days in a starring role, Gore’s reappearance in the spotlight proved too much for him to handle, and his final round 72 matched the highest score of the day by the other 76 pros who made the 36-hole cut. He faded to a tie for 15th, but left with a check for almost $93,000 with some more sponsor invites in his immediate future.
For the first three days, the tournament took its title from the lame ‘80s sitcom “Charles in Charge.”
Howell grabbed a 2-shot lead after the opening round with an 8-under 64 on the Plantation course, and expanded his lead to three with another 64 on Seaside. Some near-flawless play and better-than-usual putting produced 14 birdies and no bogeys in chilly, sometimes windy conditions the first two days, with Champ and Gore tied for second at 131.
The three were paired together in the third round n Seaside, and Howell carded four more birdies on the opening nine against his first bogey of the tournament to expand his lead to five. But Howell’s deft putting touch over the first 45 holes suddenly left him, and both Gore and Champ closed their deficits. After consecutive 64s, Howell settled for a 68 on a day when the average score was 67.5. Both Champ and Gore shot 66, with Gore closing with a back nine 30 that included an eagle on the par-5 15th.
Howell’s lead was gone Sunday by the time the final threesome had played the first hole. He drove in a fairway bunker, barely advanced it and made bogey. Meanwhile, Champ hit his approach shot inside five feet and Gore matched Champ’s opening birdie when he holed a 25-yard pitch shot from the rough.
That dropped Howell one behind his playing partners, and things got worse for him at the second hole. He again drove it right off the tee with less than driver and found the hazard. He appeared headed for another bogey, but missed a 4-foot putt, leaving him with a double bogey 6 on his scorecard and three shots behind Champ and Gore.
Gore gave up his share of the lead when he three-putted the par-3 third, and fell out of contention with bogeys at 6 and 7, the latter when he hit his third from 100 yards on the par 5 into the native area just behind the green.
Champ held at least a share of the lead the rest of the front nine, with Simpson puling eventwith birdies at 5 and 8. Champ briefly held the lead outright after hitting his tee shot on the par-3 sixth to 4 feet, but failed to birdie the par-5 seventh.
With Champ stuck on 16-under on the front nine (he bogeyed the fifth), Howell was presented the opportunity to get back into contention if he could shake off his awful start. After missing from 12 feet for birdie on the fourth, he hit his approach inside 10 feet on the fifth following an aggressive tee shot to close within one of the lead, and holed a 21-footer for birdie at the sixth to match Champ.
Howell briefly tied Champ and Simpson when he rolled in a 24-footer at the 10th, but Simpson claimed the outright lead with a birdie at 11 after hitting his approach inside 4 feet.
Rodgers worked his way into contention with birdies at 7, 9 and 11, the latter two with putts of 45 and 21 feet. He then holed an 85-foot bomb at the 12th and found himself in a 4-way tie at the top when Simpson hit his tee shot on the long par 3 into a greenside bunker and made bogey. Rodgers took the lead for the first time when he hit his second at the 14th within 6 ½ feet and reached the par-5 15th in two for his sixth birdie in nine holes to move two in front.
Simpson, Champ and Howell also hit the 15th in two and made birdie, and Simpson and Howell caught Rodgers with birdies at 16, with Howell rolling in an 18-footer with his reclaimed putting touch.
Rodgers went back in front with a birdie at 18 from 7 feet, but Howell again fought back after a superb tee shot within five feet for birdie at the par-3 17th.
Simpson had a chance to tie Rodgers in the clubhouse at 19-under, but just missed his birdie try from 9 feet at the 18th. Howell had a 22-footer for birdie at 18 to win outright, but his putt died right at the end.
Howell again had a chance to end it with a birdie on the first playoff hole, but his effort from the fringe on the 18th was just off. He got another chance from 15 feet to win on the second extra hole, and this time he came through, ending more than 12 years of frustration since his last win in early 2007 in Los Angeles, where he won in a playoff over Phil Mickelson.
“The way I started today, I just honestly thought I shot myself in the foot again,” Howell said after his stirring comeback victory. “I thought that it was pretty much over. I had seen this movie before and I know how it ends.”
This time, Howell flipped the script, playing the next 16 holes in 6-under without a bogey, including a vital double sandy par at the ninth.
Of his determined effort to survive his potentially fatal stumble in the final round’s opening act, Howell said, “I thought I had it in me. But I had never seen me do it to prove it to myself. “
Howell closed with a 67 after his bogey-double bogey start, while Rodgers shot a final round 62 after a sensational 61 on Saturday. His weekend total of 123 was the lowest score for the final 36 holes in PGA Tour history, and was made possible when he birdied the par-5 18th on Friday to make the cut on the number at 2-under 140.
Simpson was third after a final round 64, with playing partners Ryan Blaum and Luke List tying for fourth at 265. List, who grew up in north Georgia and recently moved to Augusta after marrying a native of the Augusta area, played his last four holes in 4-under beginning with an eagle at the 15th, while Blaum hung close to the lead all day.
Champ was sixth at 266 after a nondescript 69 in the final round, with former RSM champion Kevin Kisner and St. Simons Island resident Zach Johnson among four players tying for seventh at 267. Kisner’s final round 65 was highlighted by an eagle at the 15th, while Johnson carded seven birdies in a 66 Sunday.