ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Laura Baugh waited outside the entrance to the men’s locker room at Sea Island Resort to hug and kiss her son, Eric Cole, on the cheek and congratulate him on a fast start Thursday at the RSM Classic. Baugh, who was the 1973 LPGA’s Rookie of the Year, smiled and said, “Good playing, honey.”
Fifty years after his mother won her award, Cole is one of the top contenders for Rookie of the Year honors on the PGA Tour. Of the chances of there being two award winners in the same family, he said, “I think it would be very cool. I don’t know if that’s ever happened before, so it’s something that would be really special and something that it would be a cool thing to share with her.”
Cole’s dream rookie season on the Tour is off to a good start for a happy ending. He made eight birdies during the rain-delayed opening round to shoot 6-under 66 at Sea Island Golf Club’s Plantation Course as he seeks his first Tour title at the final of 54 events during the 2022-23 wraparound season.
Eric Cole waits on the 16th hole during the first round of the 2023 RSM Classic on the Plantation Course at Sea Island Resort in St Simons Island, Georgia. (Photo: Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Cole, whose father, Bobby, played on the Tour in the 1970s and won one time, didn’t make it to the Tour until this season at age 35. He even took a break from competitive golf for a while, teaching and caddying occasionally for friend Sam Saunders, the grandson of Arnold Palmer.
“When I was teaching I realized like if I don’t ever make it to the PGA Tour and have success, then my life is still going to be OK, it’s no big deal,” he said. “So it almost took a little pressure off me taking a step away and being like if I make it, great, but if I don’t, my life will still be OK.”
Last year, Cole graduated from the Korn Ferry Tour, where he earned $221,637, by finishing in the top 25 on the season-long points list. He has made up for lost time, earning nearly $5 million in his rookie campaign while recording 13 top-25 finishes. Cole nearly won in February at the Honda Classic, losing in a playoff, and has three top 4s in his last four starts.
Cole has been a birdie machine this season. He already has set a record for circles on his card in a single season, increasing his total to 534 on Thursday.
“I think I tend to play pretty aggressively, so I make a decent amount of birdies, and then I’m just trying to not make too many bogeys,” he explained.
In the first round, he limited the bogeys to two – at Nos. 4 and 17 – but finished with birdies on four of his final five holes to share the early lead with Cameron Young and Davis Thompson. For Cole, his birdie on 15 was the highlight of the day after a loose drive at the par 4.
“Had to wedge it over the trees and hit it close to a back pin, so that was kind of a bonus birdie,” he said.
The start of the first round was delayed for more than an hour and a second delay cleared the course at 1:45 p.m. ET in the middle of the round. Play resumed at 4:18 p.m. ET and was called for the day at 5:17 p.m. ET due to darkness with only 65 players having completed their rounds.
Cole isn’t only hoping to pad his case to be Rookie of the Year. He entered the week No. 48 in the Official World Golf Ranking and the top 50 at the end of the year earn invites to the Masters. Cole’s mom lived in Augusta, Georgia, while she taught at a nearby course, but he has never been on property yet.
“I’ve driven past the front entrance, but that’s it,” he said. “It’s something that if I keep doing those little things right, then hopefully that will be the result.”
The first round is scheduled to resume at 8 a.m. ET. Second round tee times have been pushed back from 8 a.m. to 9:15 a.m. ET.
Russell Knox of Scotland hits a tee shot on the 15th hole during the first round of The RSM Classic on the Seaside Course at Sea Island Resort on November 16, 2023 in St Simons Island, Georgia. (Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images)
Russell Knox is a native of Scotland, so he grew up playing plenty of golf in less-than-ideal conditions, but even he didn’t enjoy the wet stuff, which marred the first round of play at the RSM Classic.
“I mean everyone hates playing in this, let’s be honest,” he said. “It rained a couple times out there as hard as it’s ever rained on a golf course, I think. It was a long day. My feet are tired and ready to have a hot shower.”
Cameron Young complained that he got the worst of it on the 623-yard par 5 fourth hole on the Plantation Course.
“I hit about as good a drive as I can and about the best 3-iron I could have to still have like 125 yards in, which doesn’t happen all that often,” he said. “That hole was playing about 750 probably.
“Yeah, it’s hard. When it’s off and on, it’s tricky just because you go take your rain jacket off and you’re so focused on keeping everything dry, all of a sudden it stops and you put all your stuff away. You just have to be patient with it. There’s nothing you can do and everybody’s kind of playing it. Yeah, it can be a little annoying, but I don’t really mind it.”
Davis Thompson plays his shot from the 16th tee during the first round of the 2023 Wyndham Championship at Sedgefield Country Club in Greensboro, North Carolina. (Photo: Logan Whitton/Getty Images)
Davis Thompson made birdie on the final three holes to shoot a bogey-free 6-under 66 at the Plantation Course.
That’s old hat for the 24-year-old Thompson, who grew up playing at Sea Island Resort. His father, Todd, is the RSM Classic tournament director.
Thompson entered the week at No. 76 in the FedEx Cup Fall standings, and was pleased with his start.
“We don’t really play it in this condition out there throughout the year,” he said. “Usually when we play, the weather’s great and just go out and make a lot of birdies. You know, the greens are faster, the fairways are cut tighter, so it’s definitely more of a challenge than when we just come out and play.”
Ludvig Aberg of Sweden selects a club on the ninth fairway during the first round of The RSM Classic on the Plantation Course at Sea Island Resort on November 16, 2023 in St Simons Island, Georgia. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
Ludvig Aberg played as a pro for the first time at a course where he’s already played before and just kept rolling. He posted and eagle and three birdies and shot 5-under 67 at the Plantation Course.
“It’s nice,” said Aberg of the familiarity of playing at Sea Island Resort, where he missed the cut last year as an amateur. (As the winner of the Jones Cup, he received a sponsor exemption.) “It makes Monday through Wednesday a little bit easier, definitely…It’s just the comfort of kind of knowing what the pins are going to be like, kind of knowing obviously what the holes look like, especially a week like this where we play two golf courses.”
Aberg is a fan of the Premier League’s Liverpool Football Club – his favorite player is Dominic Matteo – and when the questioning shifted to what he thought the chances were of next week’s matchup with Manchester City, he perked up.
“Obviously I have full belief in our team, I think we’re gonna do good, but Man City has been too good, and it annoys me a little bit, but I think we’ll be fine,” he said.
Told that he was more excited for the soccer questions than those about his round, he said, “I know, my eyes were just like…”
Matt Kuchar of the United States hits a tee shot on the ninth hole during the first round of The RSM Classic on the Seaside Course at Sea Island Resort on November 16, 2023 in St Simons Island, Georgia. (Photo by Alex Slitz/Getty Images)
When last we saw Matt Kuchar, he was a bit shellshocked after watching his two-stroke lead with three holes to go vanish as Erik van Rooyen raced past him to win the World Wide Technology Championship.
Kuchar’s runner-up finish likely sewed up a spot in the “Next 10,” Nos. 51-60, which will earn him an exemption into two signature events early next season. So why did Kuchar, a former resident of the area, elect to tee it up this week?
“I love coming back here, this is an amazing place,” he said. “It certainly has a special place in our heart and so to come back, it kind of feels like home. It’s different, I don’t have a house here anymore, but certainly really enjoy being here. This place is hard to beat, it’s a special place.”
Kuchar shot 5-under 65 on Thursday, the lowest score of those who finished on the Seaside Course, which traditionally is the harder of the two courses. Kuchar is bidding for his 10th career Tour title.