Rookie Austin Cook holds 54-hole lead, but faces experienced chasers at RSM Classic

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Rookie Austin Cook holds 54-hole lead, but faces experienced chasers at RSM Classic

PGA Tour

Rookie Austin Cook holds 54-hole lead, but faces experienced chasers at RSM Classic

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Austin Cook, the 54-hole leader at the RSM Classic, can peer over his shoulder to view his chasers and he sees a seasoned group. There are players who own multiple PGA Tour titles, past RSM champions, and even a couple who have excelled on the Presidents Cup stage.

Cook has a pretty good grasp of the picture.

As for those doing the chasing? Honestly, they might not yet know the challenge they will have Sunday in trying to run down, and catch, Cook, who for 54 holes has been mightily impressive. At 26, he’s a feisty, smart and confident competitor who shot 4-under 66 on Saturday at Sea Island’s Seaside Course to stretch his lead to three shots. His total of 194 is the lowest 54-hole total on Tour this season, and set a tournament scoring mark.

Does Cook, a rookie who is making only his 14th PGA Tour start, feel he has the adequate tools to win on Sunday? The Jonesboro, Ark., native doesn’t blink. We’ll take that as a big “you bet.”

In 2015, Cook was a Monday qualifier at the Shell Houston Open who played his way into contention, beginning the final round only one shot out of the lead. He’d tumble on Sunday and tie for 11th, but he walked away with a valuable learning experience to be utilized in his next foray into such a heated spot.

And here he is. Cook says he feels pretty ready.

“I’m a little more comfortable in this situation than I was at the Shell,” said Cook, who has made only one bogey in three rounds. “I think my game is just a notch better now than it was then as well. (I’m) a little more confident.”

Cook stands at 18 under, three shots ahead of 2013 RSM champion Chris Kirk, a former Sea Island resident, and two shots better than Brian Gay, who has rebounded from a neck and thumb injuries that sidelined him for 16 months in 2015-16. Kirk, 32, is a four-time winner on Tour, having last won at Colonial in 2015; Gay, 45, is seeking his fifth PGA Tour victory – and first since the 2013 Humana Challenge.

“Being out for a year and a half,” Gay said, “I really didn’t know … it was a lot harder than I thought it would be. You can feel great at home, but when you come back out to these tournaments trying to beat these young studs, it can be pretty hard.”

Gay, who bogeyed the final hole to shoot 69, long has been one of the better putters on the PGA Tour, but he was held back a little on Saturday when he three-putted two times. (“It’s not like me to three-putt,” he said. “If I don’t do that, it’s a solid day.”)

Kirk’s solid play this week (he shot 6-under 64 on Saturday) has been credited in large part to some very good putting, especially in his first and third rounds. Bored when his beloved Georgia Bulldogs were being routed in football by Auburn a week ago, he walked into his basement, where he has a putting area, and happened to grab his old Scotty Cameron center-shafted Laguna 1.6 putter, the one he used in 2010 to graduate from the Web.com Tour onto the PGA Tour. He’d last used it as a PGA Tour rookie.

“Somewhere halfway through the third quarter (of the Georgia game), we were getting beat so bad, and I got a little bored,” Kirk said. “I have a little putting mat in my basement, wandered back there, and happened to grab that one out.

“It was like, ‘This feels all right.’ I have some really good memories with it, and have had some success with that putter. Hopefully I can get one more good day out of it.”

Catching Cook won’t be easy. His ballstriking has been good all week, he’s been clutch with the putter, and when he has missed a green, he’s 7-for-7 in scrambling for pars, the last up-and-down coming on his final hole on Saturday, as he saved par from a tough spot short and left of the green.

Cook has a lot of things going for him. When he made his first bogey of the week at the par-4 14th, three-putting from 82 feet, he came right back with a birdie, roasting a 3-wood onto the green into the wind at the 559-yard 15th hole, and two-putting for birdie.

He knows he will have to hold back some nerves come Sunday, but he certainly has the tools, and also has an experienced caddie on his bag to help him. Caddie Kip Henley formerly worked for Gay, and was on the bag for all four of Gay’s Tour victories.

“I think him being out here and just helping me stay in the moment, I think that will help out a lot,” said Cook, who said he’ll try to keep from getting ahead of himself and thinking about all the perks that victory can deliver.

It won’t be easy. Not only will he have to play well, but those chasers plan to come chasing.

“Austin is playing great, but it’s the first time for him being in this position, so it’ll be tough,” said Gay, who owns 510 more Tour starts than Cook. “It’ll be tough for everybody. I think I’m hitting the ball good enough, and the putter has been pretty good, so I look forward to getting out there tomorrow and giving it a run.”

Latest

More Golfweek
Home