The PGA Tour returns to the Georgia coast next week, with the annual RSM Classic scheduled for Nov. 15-18 at Sea Island Golf Club.
This will be the ninth time the tournament has been played on St. Simons Island, and there have been several significant changes to the event since it was first played in the Fall of 2010.
The event has changed names (it was originally the McGladrey Classic) and dates (moving from midway through the Fall schedule to becoming the last official event of the calendar year the week before Thanksgiving), added a second host course (Plantation) and increased both its purse (originally $4 million, now $6.4 million) and field size (132 to 156 players).
The tournament has also become a part of the FedExCup , offering the same amount of points as all other non-major, non-WGC PGA Tour events, with the winner earning an invitation to the Masters the following April.
The tournament’s major changes occurred between 2013 and 2015, with the event settling into a routine the last few years. It has become the final official event of the PGA Tour’s Fall schedule, a group of eight events that start the wraparound schedule, which begins in October and will end in August for the first time next year in Atlanta at the Tour Championship,
The 2019-20 PGA Tour schedule will start several weeks earlier next year, with two tournaments moving to September dates (Houston and Greenbrier) and a new tournament in California reportedly being added.
The RSM Classic is the final official event before the PGA Tour takes a break of about seven weeks, resuming in early January in Hawaii for the Tournament of Champions, followed by the first full field event of the calendar year, also in Hawaii.
Adding a second course has enabled the tournament to both expand its field and avoid the Thursday/Friday battle of getting the entire field to finish before dusk with a.m.-p.m. starts. Now all players tee off later in the morning on Thursday and Friday, with half the field playing Seaside one day and Plantation the next, and the other half playing Plantation on Thursday and Seaside on Friday. Seaside remains the host course for the weekend, with all four rounds broadcast live on Golf Channel, which has cameras on both courses the first two days.
Over its first eight years, the tournament has had a variety of winners, split evenly between players born and raised in the Southeast and those from other parts of the U.S. and North America. The tournament has relied on the sizeable presence of PGA Tour players who live on St. Simons Island for much of its star power, with the four Southern winners all living within easy driving distance of the Golden Isles – two from Georgia and two from South Carolina.
The two most prominent winners of the tournament are a pair of ex-Georgia Bulldogs who were teammates on UGA’s 2005 NCAA championship squad. Chris Kirk, a Georgia native who grew up in the Atlanta suburb of Woodstock, resided on St. Simons Island for a few years and now lives in Athens, won the tournament in 2013, with UGA teammate Kevin Kisner, a lifelong resident of Aiken, S.C., scoring an impressive victory two years later.
Kirk and Kisner will be part of the field for this year’s event, which as usual has a strong local and state flavor. There are at least a dozen local players among the 156 contestants, with about one-fifth of the field having ties to Georgia.
There will be at least nine Georgia Bulldogs and eight Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets in action at Sea Island GC, including several players from both schools who are new to the PGA Tour.
The tournament is hosted by Davis Love, a long-time St. Simons resident who continues to compete on the PGA Tour into his mid-50s. Love has played in all eight tournaments at Sea Island GC, nearly winning in 2012.
In one of the more memorable Sunday finishes at Sea Island GC, South Carolinian Tommy Gainey, a veteran mini-tour player best known for his habit of wearing gloves on both hands, making for a recognizable nickname (Two Gloves),shot a course record 60 to take down major champions Love and David Toms.
Gainey’s comeback from seven shots back after 54 holes is the biggest in tournament history, but it has two pretty close rivals. Ben Crane came from five back in 2011 with a final round 63, defeating Webb Simpson in a playoff, Robert Streb matched that feat three years later, also coming from five behind Sunday before taking a 3-way playoff.
Those were two of the three RSM Classics decided in playoffs, with the third coming in 2016, when Canadian rookie Mackenzie Hughes survived a five-man playoff that included Billy Horschel, Camilo Villegas and Henrik Norlander, one of the standouts on Augusta State’s back-to-back national championship teams in 2010 and ’11.
Three other tournaments were decided by one shot, starting with the first RSM Classic in 2010, when Atlanta area resident Heath Slocum scored the last of his four PGA Tour victories. Gainey and Kirk also won by one-shot margins,
The only two tournaments at Sea Island GC that did not go down to the wire were Kisner’s 6-shot runaway powered by back-to backs 64s on the weekend, and rookie Austin Cook’s 4-stroke triumph last year that was highlighted by a second round 62 on Seaside.
Cook, who played his college golf at Arkansas, led a mostly SEC leader board, with Brian Gay (Florida) third, ex-Bulldogs Kirk, Kisner and Brian Harman fourth along with Cook’s fellow Razorback Andrew Landry, and Bud Cauley (Alabama) eighth. Also tying for eighth were St. Simons’ Zach Johnson, Augusta’s Vaughn Taylor and William McGirt, one of a number of players from the Carolinas who have played prominent roles in tournament history. San Diego State’s J.J. Spaun provided some geographic diversity among the leaders, placing second.
With his victory last year, Cook became the fifth RSM Classic champion over the last six years to score his first PGA Tour victory on the Georgia coast (Kirk is the lone exception).
That could happen for a sixth time in seven years, or there could be a fourth player with Georgia ties to join Kisner, Kirk and Slocum as an RSM Classic champion.
Johnson and Harman are among the contingent of St. Simons residents looking for a hometown win along with Harris English, Hudson Swafford and Patton Kizzire, and a group of PGA Tour newbies headed up by second-year tour member Keith Mitchell.
English, Swafford and Mitchell are among the group of ex-Bulldogs in the field along with Kirk, Kisner, Harman, Russell Henley and rookies Sepp Straka and St. Simons resident Joey Garber.
Stewart Cink is the veteran of the Georgia Tech contingent, which includes fellow Atlanta area resident Roberto Castro, Chesson Hadley, Cameron Tringale and a quartet of young PGA Tour pros who were teammates at Tech several years ago – Ollie Schniederjans, Anders Albertson, Seth Reeves and Richy Werenski, the lone member of the group who did not grow up in the Atlanta area.
Two other prominent Georgians in the field are Augusta native Charles Howell, who has a history of success in the tournament, and long-hitting Luke List, who recently returned to the state and is living in Augusta.
One notable Georgian missing from the field is St. Simons resident and former Georgia Tech standout Matt Kuchar, who is playing in Australia the following week as part of the U.S. duo competing in the World Cup.
The Georgia PGA will be represented by Peter Jones, the Director of Instruction at Cherokee Town & CC. Jones placed third in the Player of the Year standings behind former tour players Paul Claxton and Sonny Skinner, both of whom will be playing next week in qualifying tournaments for the 2019 Champions Tour.
Simpson is the most prominent player in the field without Georgia ties, and has the higjest world ranking (20) followed by Kisner (32). Former major champions Jason Dufner and Lucas Glover, a former St. Simons resident, are also playing, along with the veteran trio of Jim Furyk, Graeme McDowell and Retief Goosen, also former major champions.
At the other end of the age spectrum are Joaquin Niemann, who played his way onto the PGA Tour last year as a 19-year old Chilean, and Cameron Champ, 23, who won the recent PGA Tour stop in Mississippi as a rookie and is already drawing attention as arguably the longest hitter in golf. List and Champ are currently ranked 1-2 in driving distance, with Reeves also in the top 10.
The one change to the host courses that spectators will recognize is the par-10th on Plantation, which has been shortened considerably and is now a drivable par 4. An expansion to the practice area and some new cottages have replaced the old 10th tee, which was located a matter of yards from the ocean. The hole, which played 450 yards for the pros, is now 300 yards, reducing the total yardage of Plantation from around 7,050 to a little over 6,900.
Plantation, which plays to a par 72, is now shorter than Seaside, a par-70 layout that tops out at just over 7,000 yards. Scores in the tournament have been lower the last three years, not entirely due to the introduction of Plantation as a second host course. The winning score the first five years was in the 14-to-16-under range, but the last three years, the winners have shot 22, 17 and 21-under for 72 holes, with Kisner’s 260 total in 2015 the lowest in tournament history.
Tournament week begins on Monday with a pro-am sponsored by BMW, with Brunswick CC hosting a qualifier that will determine the final four spots in the field. The full Yamaha Pro-Am is scheduled for Wednesday, the first day spectators are allowed on the course, with admission free of charge that day.
A “Taste of the Golden Isles” is scheduled for Friday, with Saturday’s events including a concert following play by country singer-songwriter Jon Pardi at the St. Simons Island airport.
For more information on the tournament, visit rsmclassic.com.