ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Ludvig Aberg had wrapped up his post-round interview with Golf Channel and it was time move on to the next stop in the car wash of media hits. But Aberg, the 24-year-old Swedish golfer out of Texas Tech, stopped in his tracks when he caught a glimpse of Golf Channel showing his SportsCenter Top-10 worthy highlight of his hole-out birdie from 76 feet at 14.
“I want to see that,” he said, flashing a devilish grin.
It was a beauty, part of a five-hole stretch, beginning with birdie at 13 and including an eagle at 15, in which he played 6 under. On a picture-perfect warm Saturday on the Golden Isles, Aberg signed for 9-under 61 at Sea Island Resort’s Seaside Course to take a one-stroke lead over Eric Cole at the RSM Classic heading into the final round.
Cole, a 35-year-old rookie, matched Aberg with a 61, which included five birdies and an eagle on the back nine. It took Cole years of perseverance and winning more than 50 times on the Minor League Golf Tour before he made it to the big time. He’s the only rookie in the 2022-23 class who qualified for the BMW Championship, finishing No. 43 in the FedExCup standings, is on track to surpass $5 million in earnings this season and arguably the favorite for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Fifty years ago, his mother, Laura Baugh, won the equivalent award on the LPGA Tour.
Aberg, in contrast, has been a sensation, turning pro as the No. 1-ranked amateur and becoming the first player to join the Tour directly out of college by finishing No. 1 in the PGA Tour University Ranking. He won on the DP World Tour in September, was selected as a captain’s pick for the European Ryder Cup team and hasn’t finished worse than T-14 in his last four starts.
Both Aberg and Cole have lost in a playoff this season – Aberg at the Sanderson Farms Championship in October and Cole at the Honda Classic in February. If either were to win on Sunday, it likely would sway the vote for Rookie of the Year in their favor.
Aberg and Cole played together earlier this year at the Arnold Palmer Invitational, where Aberg was still an amateur, and in the final round of the John Deere Classic, where Aberg shot a sizzling 63. Cole was asked if he knew whether Aberg cursed in Swedish or English when he hit a bad shot and Cole smiled.
“When I played with him, there’s not much to swear about. He was playing pretty well, so I think I didn’t get any taste of that,” he said.
Not long after Aberg watched his highlight reel hole-out at 14, he settled the debate by saying that he curses his rare misfired shots in Swedish. Did he drop any explicit words during Saturday’s scintillating 61, which lifted him to a 54-hole total of 20-under 192?
“I think after my drive on 14 I probably said something inappropriate,” he admitted.
But given that he’s bogey-free for 54 holes and 74 holes in all stretching to a bogey made in his previous start while carding 26 birdies and two eagles, he’s had little reason to complain.
Hughes settles for 60
After Mackenzie Hughes rolled in a 24-foot eagle putt at 15, he stood on the 16th tee and told himself if he birdied in, he could shoot 59.
He birdied the next two and hit an 8-iron from 176 yards to 16 feet, but the birdie putt to join ‘the 59 club’ slid by on the right. (Yes, we know Jim Furyk’s 58 is the current standard of excellence but 59 is still rare air.)
“It was on the spine and it was super straight, and that’s typically the putt I like the least. I’d rather it break a foot than be straight,” said Hughes, who also shot 60 at the 2020 Travelers Championship.
Hughes finished the regular season at No. 51 in the FedEx Cup standings and missed out on being guaranteed starts in eight signature events. He’s in line to lock up two for finishing in “The Next 10,” at Pebble Beach and Riviera early next season. Technically, he didn’t need to play this week but he won here seven years ago and said he loves playing at Sea Island.
On Saturday, he got off to what he called “a dream start” with birdies at the first two holes and then reeled off four straight starting at the seventh. He hit a lull with a streak of four straight pars before his eagle at 15.
“It was strange because I was pretty happy with making eagle and only about three people clapped and (Golf Channel’s) Smylie Kaufman was one of the three.”
Hughes, the 2016 RSM Classic champion, is in the hunt for another victory.
“I don’t come here just to play four rounds of golf and get some reps in, I want to play well, I want to contend,” he said.
Moore wants one more low round
Ryan Moore picked a good time to find his game.
The 40-year-old five-time Tour winner posted a bogey-free 8-under 62 at the Seaside Course on Saturday to improve to 13-under 199 and T-8. Starting on the back nine, he chipped in from 42 feet off the green at No. 11 for birdie and canned a 73-foot eagle putt on 15.
After entering the week at No. 129 in the FedEx Cup he’s projected to move to No. 120 in the final event of the 2022-23 season and be fully exempt in 2024. Asked if making the top 125 is on his mind, he said. “It’s impossible for it not to be. I don’t like being outside of that number.”
Moore played this season using a one-time top-50 career Tour money list exemption and suffered through a stretch of six missed cuts between February and mid-April. He finished the regular season at No. 150 in the FedEx Cup standings, the bubble boy for conditional status. But he’s found something, shooting in the 60’s in 13 of his last 14 rounds on Tour and posting a T-13 in Las Vegas last month and a season-best T-5 last week in Bermuda. Asked to name what he’s found in his game, he said, “Sometimes things just kind of click and start working…I don’t know if it’s just the end of the season and it’s like, well, kind of have to do it. I don’t know.”
Exempt status for next season is on the line on Sunday. So far, Moore is the only player this week projected to move inside the 125 and Troy Merritt, who missed the cut, is the only to drop out.
Andrew Novak, who started the week at No. 124, is T-68 through three rounds and projected at No. 123. Carl Yuan, the bubble boy at the start of the week, is still straddling the line at No. 125. He’s T-55.
Maverick McNealy got lapped on Saturday, shooting 1-over 71, and is projected No. 128 but will be able to play off a major medical exemption to start the 2024 season.
The other points chase is for The Next 10: Nos. 51-60 in the standings at the conclusion of the RSM Classic will qualify for two Signature Events in 2024 (AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am, The Genesis Invitational).
Aberg, the tournament leader, began the week at No. 96 and is projected to jump to No. 54. J.J. Spaun is projected to be bounced out, dropping from No. 59 to No. 62. Alex Noren, who started the week No. 64, is projected No. 61 but in the hunt at T-8.
Nico Echavarria recorded a hole-in-one at No. 6, using a 9-iron at the 179-yard par 3, his first career ace on the PGA Tour. The Colombian celebrated by sending beer to the media center, which is always a classy move.
— Adam Schupak (@AdamSchupak) November 18, 2023