ST. SIMONS ISLAND, GA. | Austin Cook said he’s a “terrible” leaderboard-watcher.
By that he means obsessive. While some players stay in their own little world, Cook wants to know what’s going on around him.
That’s why the University of Arkansas graduate never felt comfortable during a chilly, windswept final round of the RSM Classic on Sunday at the Sea Island Club Seaside Course, despite the fact he never surrendered the lead. With four past PGA Tour winners in the mix — including two in his threesome, Chris Kirk and Brian Gay — relaxing or not staying informed were never options.
And when J.J. Spaun birdied the 16th hole to draw within one shot. Cook knew it.
“I was definitely aware,” Cook said. “I was watching them. I saw what he [Spaun] was doing.”
Then Cook, who had played even-par for the day through 14 holes, made his move.
He drained birdie putts on three of his last four holes, including 14-footers on the final two, and with a 67 won his first PGA Tour title by four shots over Spaun at 21-under-par 261.
Gay (68), broke out of a five-way tie for third when he made an eagle-two on the final hole, using a 9-iron from 161 yards out, and finished at 16-under.
Past RSM winners Kirk (71) and Kevin Kisner (68), Brian Harman of St. Simons Island (65) and Andrew Landry (67) tied for fourth at 14-under. Jacksonville resident Bud Cauley (66) was among the players tied for eighth at 13-under.
Cook became the second rookie to win the RSM Classic in a row, following Mac Hughes’ title last year. Hughes had to survive a five-way playoff and a Monday finish but Cook took any drama out of the proceedings with his two closing birdies.
He earned $1,116,000, 500 FedEx Cup points to move to third on the season list, and earned exemptions into The Players Championship, the Sentry Tournament of Champions, the Masters and the PGA Championship.
“It was definitely exciting … real brutal with the wind,” Cook said. “I got off to a slow start but I was able to keep my head level and know there was a lot of golf to be played. With the wind and those conditions, a lot could happen.”
Spaun got within one shot of Cook twice, the last time with an 8-foot birdie putt at No. 16. That roll could have tied for the lead but Spaun missed a 4-footer for birdie on the previous hole.
He said it might not have mattered.
“He just played solid all day and didn’t give any of us leeway,” Spaun said of Cook.
Cook said he also benefited from veteran caddie Kip Henley, who worked for Gay and Vijay Singh in the past.
“With Kip on the bag, he was able to keep me in the moment and keep me pressing instead of playing conservative,” Cook said. “There was a lot of stuff going on, mostly up here [tapping his head].”
Cook never slipped after a bogey at the second hole, just his second of the week. He missed only two fairways in the final round and made par after four of his five missed greens. He led the field in scrambling, converting 11 of 12 pars after missing greens, and tied for fourth by hitting 48 of 56 fairways.
“You always grow up thinking that you can do it,” said Cook, whose only previous professional victory was a mini-tour event that paid $4,000. “But actually being able to get the job done and perform and hold all the nerves down and still put in a good round, especially in these conditions and on this golf course … I’m just so happy.”