The RSM Classic will be played this week with likely the strongest field in its history, largely due to an influx of international players, (mostly from Europe), who are making the trip from Augusta to St. Simons Island after competing in the Masters last week.
This is the 11thyear for the PGA Tour tournament, which is being held from Nov. 19-22 on the Seaside and Plantation courses at Sea Island Golf Club. Like almost all the PGA Tour events that have been conducted since play resumed in mid-June, there will be no spectators on the course this week, but fans watching on Golf Channel will be treated to the natural beauty of the two courses along with a quality field with a strong international flavor.
There are 33 players in the field among the top 75 in the World Rankings, 17 from overseas and 16 from the Americas. A total of 40 players who qualified for last week’s Masters are competing at Sea Island GC this week, including Chile’s Joaquin Niemann, who was unable to play in Augusta after testing positive for Covid-19.
Heading up the international entrants are top-30 players Tyrrell Hatton (10), Tommy Fleetwood (16), 2020 Masters runner-up Sungjae Im(18), Matthew Fitzpatrick (21), and major champions Louis Oosthuizen (20), Justin Rose (28) and Shane Lowry (30).
Other international major champions competing this week include Jason Day, Danny Willett, Henrik Stenson, Graeme McDowell and Charl Schwartzel, along with veterans Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter and Alex Noren, and youngsters Dylan Frittelli and C.T. Pan, both of whom posted top-10 finishes last week in Augusta and won on the PGA Tour in 2019.
Hatton, Im and Stenson have all won tournaments on the PGA Tour since the start of the 2019-20 season, with a total of 16 tournament winners during that span in the field. The number would have been 18, but St. Simons Island resident Michael Thompson withdrew last weekend, and was joined by Brian Gay.
As usual, the American contingent is headed up by Webb Simpson, who has a history of close calls in the RSM Classic. Simpson lost playoffs in 2011 to Ben Crane and last year to Tyler Duncan, and finished one shot out of a playoff in ’18 won by Charles Howell. Simpson is the 6thranked player in the world, and along with No. 25 Jason Kokrak, one of four 2020-21 winners in the field this week, are the only Americans in the field ranked among the top 30.
Most of the top American players competing in the RSM Classic either live on St. Simons Island or are former members of the Georgia golf team, and some fit into both categories. The local contingent includes Matt Kuchar, the token Georgia Tech grad on the island, and ex-Bulldogs Harris Englishand Brian Harman, with non-island residents Kevin Kisner, Brendon Todd and Russell Henley all former UGA golf team members.
Kisner and ex-teammate Chris Kirk are past RSM Classic champions along with Augusta native Howell. St. Simons resident Hudson Swafford and Duluth’s Stewart Cink, like Kuchar a former Georgia Tech standout, are among the 2020-21 winners in the field along with Kokrak and Scotland’s Martin Laird.Gay, who won a few weeks ago in Bermuda, was a late withdrawal.
Bill Haas, who finished as runner-up in the first RSM Classic in 2010 behind Atlanta area resident Heath Slocum, also was a late withdrawal after testing positive for Covid-19. He was replaced by recent Georgia Tech golfer Vincent Whaley, who is in his second season on the PGA Tour.
Otherlocalresidentsin the field include two-time major championZachJohnsonand 2019 PGA Tour winners J.T. Poston and Keith Mitchell, with Mitchell one of 11 ex-Bulldogs and 12 locals in the field. There is also a current UGA golf team member in the tournament — seniorDavis Thompson, who has recently taken over the No. 1 spot in the World Amateur Golf Rankings. Thompson, the son of RSM Classic Tournament Director Todd Thompson, also an ex-Bulldog golfer, earned his spot in the field by winning the Jones Cup, a top amateur event played annually at Ocean Forest.
In its first 10 years, the RSM Classic has ended with five playoffs and has featured a number of surprise winners, with five of its 10 champions scoring their only PGA Tour victory in the tournament. Recent winners included a pair of players in their rookie seasons — Mackenzie Hughesin 2016 and Austin Cook in 2018, and two in their third PGA Tour seasons – Duncan last year and Robert Streb in 2014. Howell is the only veteran among the recent crop of RSM Classic champions.
Eight of the 10 tournaments at Sea Island GC have been decided in playoffs or by one shot, with three of the first four winners finishing one ahead of the runner-up. Four of the last six have gone to playoffs, with the other two ending with winning margins of six (Kisner in 2015) and four (Cook in ’17).
Duncan was one of the more unexpected winners in RSM Classic history, with his best PGA finish prior to his victory a pair of ties for fifth. He shot 61 Friday on the Seaside course to take a 2-shot lead after 36 holes, but parred all 18 holes on Saturday to fall four shots behind Todd, who fired a 62 to take a 2-stroke lead into the final round.
Todd, who won the previous two tournaments in Bermuda and Mexico, finally ran out of gas in the final round and fell out of contention, needing a late pair of birdies to shoot 2-over 72 and finish fourth at 16-under 266.
That left a 3-way battle down the stretch between Duncan, Simpson and Sebastian Munoz,who won the PGA Tour event in Mississippi two months earlier. The three were briefly tied at the top late in the final round before Simpson took the outright lead with birdies at 15 and 16. Duncan needed birdies at 17 and 18 to pull even with the leader, rolling in a 25-footer on the 72ndhole to force a playoff at 19-under 263. Munoz took third at 264.
Duncan won the playoff on the second extra hole, holing a 15-footer for birdie. He shot 5-under 65 Sunday to erase a 4-stroke deficit, beginning the final round with his only bogey of the tournament.
This will be the sixth year the tournament will utilize both the Seaside and Plantation courses, with all 156 competitors playing one of the first two rounds on Seaside and the other on Plantation. All those who make the cut will play Seaside on the weekend. Utilizing both courses the first two days enables tournament officials to increase the field, avoid battles on Thursday and Friday to finish before dark, and provide some wiggle room in case there are any early weather delays.
Plantation plays to a par of 72, making par for the tournament 282. Seaside, which is listed as 55 yards shorter than Plantation, barely tops 7000 yards and plays as a par 70. Plantation was renovated last year by Tournament Host Davis Love, who is not playing due to an injury, and his brother Mark Love, the Executive Director for the RSM Classic.
The changes made by the Love brothers did not appreciably impact the difficulty of the layout, which plays slightly easier in relation to par than Seaside. Plantation was previously renovated by Rees Jones in 1998, combining the original nine designed by Walter Travis in 1928 and nine by Dick Wilson in 1960. Seaside was renovated in 1999 by Tom Fazio, who combined the 1928 Colt & Allison nine with one designed by Joe Lee in 1973.
The most prominent alteration to Plantation by the Loves involve holes 14, 15 and 16, which all changed par, as the former 14thand 15thwere essentially combined into a par 5, and the former par-5 16thsplit into a par 4 and par 3.
With modest length and generous fairways, Seaside and Plantation have yielded consistent low scores to the PGA Tour pros who visit Georgia’s coast each fall. The winning scores the first five years of the tournament were between 264 and 266, and have gone even lower since Plantation joined the rotation. Kisner shot a tournament record 260 in 2015, with Hughes’ 265 total the next year the highest winning score since. Cook’s 261 in 2017 almost matched Kisner’s record, with scores of 19-under 263 the last two years required to get into playoffs.
Neither course tends to favor power hitters, with Seaside having only two par 5s and no monster par 4s and Plantation featuring only a handful of holes with serious length with two short-ish par 3s and five par 4s under 400 yards. Of the 10 tournament champions, Howell is the closest to a big hitter, with quality iron play and a hot putter the two most prized attributes.
Tee times run from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m. off holes 1 and 10 on both courses Thursday and Friday, with the Golf Channel broadcast 1-4 p.m. all four days.Tee times will be about the same Saturday and Sunday with two-tee starts on Seaside.
Players will be competing for a $6.6 million purse, with $1,188,000 and 500 FedExCup points to the winner. With only one PGA Tour event left in 2020 (the Mayakoba Classic in two weeks), and just a handful of European Tour events remaining before the end of the year, players near 50thin the World Rankings will be looking to get inside the top 50 and qualify for the 2021 Masters.
Among the players in the field around the top 50 bubble are Westwood (46), Poulter (47), Chez Reavie (50), Kevin Streelman (51)Matt Wallace (53) and Henley (58).