When the McGladrey Classic was played for the first time at Sea Island Golf Club in 2010, the tournament was part of the PGA Tour’s Fall Series, which consisted of a handful of events played after the Tour Championship but not part of the FedExCup.
The Fall Series winners received a sizeable check and a spot in the next season’s PGA Tour opening Tournament of Champions in Hawaii, but no FedExCup points and no invitation to the Masters.
When the PGA Tour altered its schedule last year to end its season with the Tour Championship and begin the next season a few weeks later, the McGladrey Classic was one of several tournaments to benefit from the change.
All the former Fall Series events became part of the FedExCup, awarding points as part of the season long competition leading to the Tour Championship in Atlanta, and the McGladrey winner was rewarded with a larger check, but more importantly, a trip to Augusta the following April.
“That eliminated any confusion the casual golf fan may have had about the Fall Series,” McGladrey Classic Tournament Director Scott Reid said. “And now that our winner gets a Masters invitation, that’s a big plus.
“Combining those two things helps elevate our event with other PGA Tour events. It’s going to take a little time to see what it does to our strength of field, but we’ve always had a strong field for the Fall.”
Last year was the first for the PGA Tour’s new schedule, which begins in the Fall instead of early January.
“With the number of guys who are good players living here, we’ve always had a good field,” Reid said. “We’re hoping to get more other players, but they’re still trying to figure out what they’re going to do in the Fall.”
The McGladrey Classic, which had been played in early or mid-October its first three years, was pushed back to early November last year. The later date was no problem — the weather was beautiful as it had been the three previous years – but the new spot on the calendar placed the tournament the week after a World Golf Championship event in China.
As a result, almost all the game’s top players elected not to make the long trip from Shanghai to St. Simons, leaving the McGladrey Classic with just a modest number of marquee players, many of whom were St. Simons Island residents.
This year, the fifth McGladrey Classic will be played a few weeks earlier (Oct. 23-26), one week before a limited field PGA Tour event in Malaysia and two weeks prior to the HSBC Champions in China. That will give the players who have qualified for the WGC event the opportunity to play at Sea Island Golf Club’s highly regarded Seaside layout with a break in between.
“Everybody’s different in how they prepare for big tournaments,” Reid points out. “Some may go over early for Malaysia, and some may want to play here before they travel.”
Leading the field for this month’s tournament is defending champion Chris Kirk, who lived on St. Simons Island following his graduation from Georgia in 2007 before returning to the north Atlanta suburbs just prior tohis victory last year.
Kirk was the second Atlanta area resident to win the McGladrey Classic, joining Heath Slocum, who won the inaugural tournament in 2010. Both Slocum and Tommy Gainey, the 2012 winner, have struggled since winning the tournament, and 2011 champion Ben Crane did not play especially well after his victory until winning in Memphis earlier this year.
That has not been the case for Kirk, who went on to enjoy his best-ever season in his fourth year on the PGA Tour, winning the Playoffs event in Boston and ending up second on the FedExCup points list. Kirk’s stellar season started with his win on St. Simons.
“For me personally, Davis Love and his family have meant so much to me,” Kirk said just prior to his 4th place finish in the recent Tour Championship at East Lake. “He’s my number one mentor, and for me to win there, which I still consider a home game, is as meaningful as any win I could have.”
Kirk won the opposite event in Mississippi as a rookie in 2010, but that was his only PGA Tour victory until he captured what amounted to a head-to-head duel with veteran Briny Baird in the final round.
The two players were tied after 54 holes, and no one seriously threatened the lead until Tim Clark birdied the last three holes for a 62 and a 13-under 267 total.
Baird took an early lead the final day with a pair of birdies before Kirk pulled even with birdies at 7 and 9. Kirk moved two in front with birdies at 11 and 12, but Baird answered with birdies at 13 and 14, taking the lead when Kirk had to scramble to save bogey after an errant tee shot at the 14th.
Kirk rolled in a 15-footer for birdie at 17 to pull even, and came away with the win when Baird drove into one of the left fairway bunkers at 18 and hit his second shot in the water well short of the green. Baird holed a 25-footer for bogey, but Kirk two-putted for par and a final round 66, winning by one over Baird and Clark at 14-under 266.
Augusta native Scott Brown, who lives in nearby Aiken, S.C., tied for 4th at 12-under after a final round 66 with Brian Gay and John Senden, who both closed with 67.
U.S. Ryder Cuppers Matt Kuchar and Webb Simpson shot 66 in the final round and tied for 7th at 10-under, with Savannah native and St. Simons resident Brian Harman T10 at 8-under.
Sea Island Golf Club’s Seaside course plays to a par of 70 and measures 7,055 yards for the tournament. In its four years as the host venue, Seaside has favored players known more for the quality of their ball striking and their skills with the putter as opposed to players who rely more on power.
Slocum, Crane and Kirk all fit that description, as do Simpson, David Toms, Clark and Baird, the runners-up the last three years. Gainey, who rode a final round 60 to victory two years ago, is the lone exception, but several players known as big hitters have played the course well.
Bill Haas was second in the first McGladrey Classic, with Angel Cabrera 6th in 2011 and tournament host Love tying for 4th in 2012. Last year, however, was pretty much a complete sweep of precision over power at the top of the leader board, with no bombers among the top 10.
Augusta native Charles Howell has the best record among players known as big hitters, tying for 6th in 2010 and for 7th two years later. Almost all the other players who have more than one top finish at Seaside, however, are not power players.
Slocum, one of the game’s most accurate drivers, has a pair of top 20 finishes since his victory. Simpson, who lost to Crane in a playoff in 2011, also has finishes of 12th and 7th. Toms was 3rd in 2010 and 2nd in 2012, with Jim Furyk recording back-to-back finishes of 11th and 3rd in 2011 and ’12. Like Slocum, Brendon de Jonge has placed 16th or better three times at Seaside.
Although Kirk was the first player with close ties to St. Simons Island to win the tournament, most of the PGA Tour players who live there have had at least one strong showing in their home event.
Zach Johnson was 12th in the first McGladrey Classic, with Kirk placing 15th while still a member of what is now the Web.com Tour. Lucas Glover was 15th in 2011, with Love 4th and Harris English 15th in 2012.Kuchar(7th) and Brian Harman (10th) both had top-10 finishes last year, with Slocum, Johnson and Atlanta’s Brendon Todd, Kirk’s teammate on Georgia’s 2005 NCAA Championship team, all tying for 16th.
The tournament will feature a 132-player field with eight players receiving sponsor exemptions. Jonathan Byrd, who has lost his exempt status for the first time in his career, will get one, and fellow St. Simons resident Hudson Swafford will get one of the two spots reserved for players from the 2014 Web.com Finals if he needs it.
Sonny Skinner, the 2014 Georgia PGA Player of the Year, will get the Section’s spot in the field and will make what could be his last appearance in a PGA Tour event. Skinner spent some 15 years playing full time on either the PGA or the Web.com Tour from 1990-2004, and made occasional Web.com starts before turning 50 in 2010. Skinner has made 22 Champions Tour starts over the last five years, but has not played a PGA Tour event other than the PGA Championship since the last year the tour visited TPC Sugarloaf.
The tournament will be televised live from 2-5 p.m. all four days by Golf Channel
The McGladrey Classic will start a busy two-week stretch for the St. Simons-Jekyll Island-Brunswick area. Georgia-Florida week immediately follows the tournament, and Reid expects some of those who annually stop along the coast before the game may come a little earlier this year to catch the tournament.
“It doesn’t make that much difference, but we’d rather be before the game,” Reid said.
The highlight of McGladrey Classic week other than the tournament will be a concert by Darius Rucker on Wednesday evening. Rucker also performed before the tournament in 2011, and will play in the pro-am earlier that day with tournament host Davis Love.
“It’s a great community event,” Reid says of what has become an annual pre-tournament concert. “It gives people a feel for the PGA Tour.” The concert, which is billed as “Live under the Oaks,” is held on the first hole of the adjacent Plantation course, which otherwise sites idle during tournament week