We can debate whether eight tournaments is enough to try and dissect any trends as it pertains to who wins the RSM Classic. But there are two lessons I’ve learned from covering the Isles’ PGA Tour event in six of its eight years — watch out for a weekend comeback and take note of golfers who haven’t won on Tour when they’re near the top of the leaderboard.
The comeback trend didn’t lead to victory this year, through J.J. Spaun’s surge up the leaderboard the final two rounds to a solo second-place finish did help reinforce that notion. It was trumped by another peculiar stat.
The first-timers trend started with an intersection into the comeback trend. Tommy “Two Gloves” Gainey’s final round 60 in 2012 is one of the most impressive feats I’ve ever witnessed in person. He went from seven shots down heading into the final round to a one-shot win for his first Tour victory.
After Chris Kirk’s win in 2013, the RSM became dominated by golfers seeking their first win. Robert Streb in 2014, Kevin Kisner in 2015 and Mac Hughes in 2016 got to hoist their first trophies on Tour on the 18th green of Sea Island Golf Club’s Seaside Course.
Austin Cook’s four-shot win over Spaun made it four-in-a-row for first-timers, and marked the second-straight Classic that was won by a Tour rookie.
How did Cook do it, other than the obvious fact that he’s really, really, really good at playing golf? The stats show the process for putting together a Classic-winning formula.
1. Take advantage of Plantation: Golfers only get one round on the Plantation Course but if this year’s leaderboard is any indication, those who want to win need to go really low.
The leaderboard after the first round this year was almost entirely made up of golfers who played Plantation first. That included Cook, who was 7 under in his first round on Plantation. A par-72 course as opposed to Seaside’s par-70, Plantation has two more par-5 holes. That means two more reasonable birdie opportunities, and maybe even an eagle for the longer hitters, that can help clean up a mistake on a golfer’s card.
2. Don’t fall apart on Seaside: After starting on Plantation, moving to the more difficult Seaside can be a challenge. Jason Kokrak, like Cook, was 7 under after his first round on Plantation, but carded a 76 for his second round on Seaside and missed the cut.
Cook, on the other hand, was Kokrak’s polar opposite. He thrived on Seaside in the second round with an 8-under 62 that allowed him to take a one-shot lead into the weekend. It was also his best round of the week.
3. Successful scrambling: In the most obvious golf statement ever made, it’s important to limit the amount of bogeys in the round.
Cook only had two bogeys for the entire tournament, and it took him 50 holes to suffer his first blemish. His ball striking, putting and greens in regulation were solid for pretty much the entire tournament. But after missing just three greens in regulation in the first two rounds, that amount tripled over the final two rounds.
So how did Cook stay bogey free for so long? He scrambled at a rate that made up for his rare mistakes on the course.
Cook was 11 of 12 when it came to scrambling, a stat that measures a chip shot or putt from less than 50 yards with an additional one putt on the green resulting in a score of par or better on a hole. That is a shade under 92 percent when Cook was averaging around 62 percent heading into the RSM and the current stat leader Rickie Fowler is at 80 percent.
4. Never assume your lead is safe: OK, so far we’ve got a golfer who played well on the easier course, didn’t fall apart when he played the harder course and made up for his rare ball-striking mistakes with good touch and putting around the green. What’s left?
All of those things will get you in contention, maybe even the lead in most tournaments. What ties it all together is staying in the moment.
Comebacks happen every year at the RSM. Sometimes the person wins, sometimes they just wind up with more prize money instead of the trophy, but whoever has the lead going into the final round better expect someone outside the final group to make a run.
How the leader responds to the pressure often determines the winner.
Cook knew Spaun was hot on his heels. After a uncharacteristically mild start in the final round, Spaun had pulled to within one shot of Cook. The leader knew that because he admitted in the post-round press conference that he was “terrible” with scoreboard watching.
He responded to the run with three birdies on his last four holes. That’s how you answer a challenger to the throne.
Consider this, Cook saw on the scoreboard that Spaun birdied his final hole to get to 17 under for the tournament. Cook was on the 17th green eyeing a birdie attempt. He promptly sank the birdie putt, and added another on his 72nd hole for good measure.
In truth, Cook was probably safe without the birdie on the 17th. He wins by two shots even if he pars the final two holes, but he didn’t leave it up to chance. He took out the possibility of something fluky happening on the 18th. Maybe a 20-plus mph wind gust blows his drive off course, landing out of bounds and leading to a disastrous double bogey. Then he’s staring at a sudden-death playoff against a golfer on the upswing.
Even though he’d never been a Tour champion, Cook rose to the occasion like one and closed out the tournament with his 22nd and 23rd birdies of the week.
That is how you win your first PGA Tour event. TNS