Camilo Villegas completed one of the all-time feelgood stories of the PGA Tour last week in Bermuda. Following a runner-up finish in Mexico the previous week, the Colombian produced an excellently composed final-round display at Port Royal to record his first PGA Tour win in nine years and in the process, secured his short-term future on tour. Though this win had much more significance than a former top 10 player merely regaining his tour card.
It was about a player overcoming the most personal of heartbreaks following the passing of his young daughter, Mia, in 2020. After which the Colombian stated his intent to make a full return to the game, with the memory of his daughter inspiring him to try and recapture his form. This is something he has certainly achieved over the last two weeks and it has simply been a pleasure to witness.
It’s back to the mainland this week for the final official PGA Tour event of the year. Tour cards and more are still very much up for grabs as the players head to the Sea Island Resort in Georgia, for the RSM Classic.
The RSM Classic debuted in 2010 as the McGladrey Classic and has held this spot as the final official event on the calendar since 2015. Every renewal of the tournament has taken place here at the Sea Island Resort.
The inaugural 2010 edition was won by Heath Slocum, who beat off Bill Haas by one shot with a score of -14. This is the joint-toughest the event has ever played, with Chris Kirk in 2013 and Robert Streb in 2014 winning with the same score.
Streb regained the trophy in 2020 to become the only multiple winner in the event’s history. He defeated Kevin Kisner in a playoff there, who was also looking for his second victory in the event having fired a record -22 for a six-stroke success in 2015.
That record score of Kisner’s was equalled by 2021 champion, Talor Gooch; himself beating a former winner to the title, Mackenzie Hughes.
Hughes’ compatriot, Adam Svensson is this week’s defending champion, as he captured a first PGA Tour title here last year, defeating a trio of challengers that included Sea Island resident, Brian Harman. Svensson returns this year, looking to become the first player to successfully defend the RSM Classic.
The RSM Classic is a two-course event, with players playing at both the Seaside and Plantation courses at Sea Island. All players will rotate across the two courses over the first two rounds, before the cut-makers return to play two more rounds at the Seaside Course over the weekend.
The Sea Island Resort is based on St Simons Island, which sits on the Atlantic Coast in the South East of the US in Georgia. This luxury resort is/has been home to a large community of current and former PGA Tour pros, including this year’s Open Championship winner, Brian Harman and two-time major winner, Zach Johnson.
Both of the courses used in this week’s event have a long history, with the CH Allison and Harry Colt-designed Seaside Course opening for play in 1929 and the Plantation Course, which was designed by Walter Travis, completed the previous year. They have each been renovated since then; Tom Fazio working on the Seaside Course in 1999 and in 2019, Sea Island resident, Davis Love III renovated Plantation.
With three rounds played there, my primary focus will be on the exposed, coastal-links Seaside Course this week, though that doesn’t mean there is no importance attached to the easier, more densely tree-lined, parkland layout of Plantation; a course where winners often fire their lowest round of the week.
Having said that, both courses are very scorable, with the event possessing an average winning score of -19.75 over the last eight renewals and as shown by Adam Svensson last year – who opened with a 73 at Plantation before shooting three rounds of 64-or-better at Seaside – it’s not absolutely vital that you go low there.
Each setup features generous fairways; large and speedy bermudagrass greens and a significant amount of water, which is in-play on twenty-three holes across the two courses. Between them, they provide an event that offers up one of the easiest ball-striking tests on tour, with the RSM Classic ranking in the top 4 for both driving accuracy and greens-in-regulation percentages.
Seaside Course: 7005-yard par 70 – twelve par 4s (368-470 yards), four par 3s (179-223 yards) & two par 5s (565-582 yards)
Plantation Course: 7060-yard par 72 – ten par 4s (327-481 yards), four par 3s (156-219 yards) & four par 5s (529-623 yards)
Whilst the manicured, subtly undulating fairways at the Seaside Course are generous, there is a level of strategy required, with most holes doglegging - many severely so - and protection on all sides. Which comes in a variety of forms, from marshland and lakes to large strategically-placed bunkers and sandy waste areas.
The course does bite back somewhat on and around the green complexes. Though generally easy to hit, these undulating greens are often elevated, with shaved run-offs meaning they repel unprecise approach play. They are inside the top 20 most-difficult greens to putt on tour and are of average difficulty to scramble around.
Situated by the coast, the event can be impacted by wind, particularly the more exposed main course. With a strong breeze forecasted throughout the week, this should keep the players honest and mean that the plethora of birdie chances that can be orchestrated around both setups aren’t taken for granted.
- SG: Approach
- Proximity 125-175 yards
- SG: Putting
- Birdie or Better %
This is an event that largely negates driver and puts emphasis on everything you do after putting your ball in the fairway off-the-tee.
As with most low-scoring tournaments, there has generally been a requirement to be strong with your iron play, especially the short-irons/wedges, with approaches in that 125-175 range carrying most importance. If not quite dialled in enough in approach, pummelling the greens and putting the lights out is another way to contend in the RSM Classic.
Adam Svensson showed this last year, ranking 1st in putting for his three rounds at the Seaside Course, 4th for greens-in-regulation and a solid 15th in approach. Of his closest challengers, runner-up, Callum Tarren ranked 2nd in approach, 4th in GIR and 13th on the greens; fellow runners-up, Brian Harman and Sahith Theegala, ranked 5th in approach and 4th in putting respectively.
2021 saw elite approach players come to the fore, with seven of the top 10 finishers ranking inside the top 10 in approach. Winner, Talor Gooch, ranked 2nd and complimented it with a strong putting performance, ranking 6th.
Robert Streb did all of his best work at the Plantation Course – for which there is no strokes-gained data – in 2020, shooting -9 for his single round there. He did putt the Seaside greens well, ranking 9th, as did the 7th-ranked putter, Kevin Kisner in 2nd. Whilst Cameron Tringale relied on rankings of 6th in approach and GIR for his 3rd-place finish.
We see other examples of elite approach play for winners in 2019, where Tyler Duncan ranked 3rd; Austin Cook was the 8th-best iron player when winning in 2017 and Kevin Kisner ranked 2nd when winning in 2015. Whereas Mackenzie Hughes was all about the putter when he won in 2016, ranking 6th and indeed every winner from 2015-2019 putted at least solidly, with all ranking inside the top 25.
As these greens are littered with run-offs and with wind set to be some kind of a factor, if you’re a little out with an approach you’re going to need to have a decent ability to get up and down. This has often been an important stat in winning this event, with several recent winners scrambling well.
Last year’s winner, Adam Svensson ranked 6th in scrambling; Talor Gooch (2021) ranked 3rd, Tyler Duncan (2019) ranked 1st, Austin Cook (2017) ranked 7th and Mackenzie Hughes (2016) ranked 8th.
CORRELATING EVENTS (COURSES)
Honda Classic (PGA National)
The first comp event for this week is the Honda Classic at PGA National. Located south of here in Florida, this exposed course also sits by the coast and features large, speedy bermudagrass greens and a huge amount of water. Wind management is often key here and it’s a tricky course around the greens.
Notable Correlating Form:
RSM (1st, 4th, 4th) / Honda (1st)
RSM (1st, 2nd) / Honda (2nd)
RSM (1st) / Honda (3rd)
RSM (1st) / Honda (3rd)
RSM (1st) / Honda (5th)
RSM (2nd, 6th) / Honda (1st, 2nd)
RSM (4th, 6th) / Honda (1st, 3rd)
Sony Open (Waialae Country Club)
Waialae Country Club is another coastal course that is generous off-the-tee and has large bermudagrass greens. It has similar greens-in-regulation percentages to this week’s venue whilst also providing players with a comparable level of short-game difficulty.
Notable Correlating Form:
Charles Howell III:
RSM (1st, 6th, 7th) / Sony (2nd, 2nd, 3rd)
RSM (1st, 4th, 4th) / Sony (2nd, 2nd, 3rd)
RSM (1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th) / Sony (3rd, 4th, 4th)
RSM (4th, 6th) / Sony (1st, 2nd)
RSM (2nd, 3rd) / Sony (3rd, 4th, 4th)
RSM (4th, 5th) / Sony (3rd)
RSM (4th, 9th) / Sony (3rd)
RSM (6th, 9th) / Sony (4th, 7th)
Wyndham Championship (Sedgefield Country Club)
Sedgefield Country Club is more inland and densely tree-lined than this week’s venue but as a short, scorable course, where wedge-play is usually key and possessing close-matched averages in GIR, scrambling and putting on the bermudagrass greens, it has often proved a good guide to potential contenders in the RSM Classic.
Notable Correlating Form:
RSM (1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th) / Wyndham (1st, 3rd)
Tommy Gainey :
RSM (1st) / Wyndham (3rd)
RSM (1st) / Wyndham (4th)
RSM (2nd, 6th) / Wyndham (1st)
RSM (2nd, 3rd) / Wyndham (1st, 2nd, 2nd)
RSM (4th, 6th) / Wyndham (2nd, 5th)
RSM (2nd, 4th) / Wyndham (3rd, 6th)
RBC Heritage (Harbour Town Golf Links)
Located on the same stretch of coast as this week’s venue, Harbour Town Golf Links is another short, strategic coastal course that can help us in finding this week’s winner. Like this week, it’s a place where the very best in approach and putting usually dominate.
Notable Correlating Form:
RSM (1st, 2nd, 4th, 4th) / Heritage (2nd, 7th)
RSM (1st) / Heritage (2nd)
RSM (1st) / Heritage (3rd)
RSM (2nd, 3rd) / Heritage (1st, 2nd)
RSM (3rd, 4th) / Heritage (1st)
RSM (2nd, 6th) / Heritage (5th, 7th, 9th)
RSM (4th) / Heritage (3rd)
Bermuda Championship (Port Royal Golf Course)
As a short, coastal course with large bermudagrass greens, it is no surprise to see the Bermuda Championship at Port Royal develop some pretty strong form-ties with the RSM Classic in just a few years, which was franked again last week.
Notable Correlating Form:
RSM (2nd, 6th) / Bermuda (1st)
RSM (3rd, 4th) / Bermuda (1st, 3rd)
RSM (4th, 5th) / Bermuda (1st)
RSM (4th) / Bermuda (1st)
RSM (8th, 10th) / Bermuda (4th, 6th)
Shriners Open (TPC Summerlin)
A final, more left-field choice here is the Shriners Open. Whilst not looking the most obvious comp course on paper, it ranks closest of any other course on tour to the RSM Classic statistically, particularly in the difficulty of the course from tee-to-green. Fairways and greens are amongst the easiest to find, whilst it has almost identical scrambling averages to the RSM Classic.
Notable Correlating Form:
RSM (1st) / Shriners (2nd)
RSM (1st) / Shriners (3rd)
RSM (1st, 1st) / Shriners (4th, 10th)
RSM (2nd, 3rd) / Shriners (1st, 4th)
RSM (4th, 8th) / Shriners (2nd, 7th)
RSM (4th, 9th) / Shriners (4th, 7th)
RSM (5th) / Shriners (7th)
There is some rain about prior to the start of the event which carries over into Thursday, though disperses for the rest of the tournament.
The wind is set to be pretty strong over the opening two rounds, with a constant 13mph breeze and gusts of over 25mph. Whilst it does die down over the weekend, it won’t take much for it to become an issue on this exposed setup.
Though lacking star power, we have an attractively deep field to finish the year, with a selection of players just looking to sign of 2023 with some positivity to take into 2024; others with much more to play for, such as retaining their playing rights or making their way inside the top 60 in the FedExCup to get into those opening two Signature Events next year.
Brian Harman is the top-ranked player in the field at #9 and is joined by a further ten from inside the world’s top 50, including fellow Sea Island residents, Harris English and J.T Poston, along with former resident and the 2013 RSM Classic winner, Chris Kirk.
Kirk is one of eight former winners in attendance. The others: Ben Crane (2011), Robert Streb (2014, 2020), Kevin Kisner (2015), Mackenzie Hughes (2016), Austin Cook (2017), Tyler Duncan (2019) and Adam Svensson (2022).
Other notables in the field include Swedish sensation, Ludvig Aberg and Billy Horschel, who hasn’t played a PGA Tour event since the Wyndham Championship all the way back in August.
Players in attendance around the top 60, which is needed to get into the first two signature events of 2024: the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and Genesis Invitational, are as follows:
- Luke List
- J.J. Spaun
- Sam Ryder
- Mark Hubbard
- Stephan Jaeger
- Thomas Detry
Players In attendance around the top 125, which is needed to retain a PGA Tour card for 2024, are as follows:
- Doug Ghim
- Nico Echavarria
- Troy Merritt
- Andrew Novak
- Carl Yuan
- Henrik Norlander
- Maverick McNealy (Medical Extension)
- Ryan Moore
- C.T Pan (Medical Extension)
- Patton Kizzire
Ludvig Aberg continues to dominate the markets and is this week’s 14/1 favourite. Followed by Brian Harman and Russell Henley at 16/1.
This is about as tricky an event to work out as I’ve seen all year. The field is wide open, with any number looking a potential winner. When you throw in the two-course aspect and the potential for draw biases, it becomes even tougher.
With that, we’re going to go searching for some value down the betting and I’m kicking off with last week’s runner-up, Alex Noren.
1.25 pts Alex Noren each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 40/1
Noren moved to the periphery of the FedExCup top 60 with his second top 3 finish in three events at the Bermuda Championship last week. After opening with a 10-under 61 there and leading at the completion of rounds two and three, Noren had to settle for a 2nd-place finish behind the brilliance of Villegas on Sunday.
This was following on from the Swede finishing 3rd in the Shriners Open three starts ago and now has him sitting in 64th position on the FedExCup. Another strong performance this week will push him into those all-important top 60 spots.
It’s not only the quality of those recent results in comp events that should give him confidence here, as in three starts in this event he’s recorded finishes of 10th and 18th. Whilst a strong record in the Honda Classic, where he’s finished 3rd and 5th, is another boost.
Noren has been in good tee-to-green form over the last three months, ranking 27th in this field. This was particularly evident in the Shriners, where he ranked 2nd. His typically excellent short-game, shown by rankings of 23rd in putting and 41st in scrambling this year, should serve him well, as will his quality with the short irons and I’m hoping he can follow Villegas’ lead by winning this week after finishing a close 2nd on his previous start.
1.25 pts Brendon Todd each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 40/1
Brendon Todd made an encouraging return after a two-month absence last week, finishing 20th. With his place in the FedExCup top 50 already secured, there’s little pressure on him to perform this week (compared to many in this field at least), which may make him a dangerous contender at this very suitable setup.
Todd finished the regular season at #47 in the standings, a position largely owed to a couple of excellent runner-up finishes in 2023, at Pebble Beach and in the John Deere Classic.
He’d looked in good shape on his last start prior to Bermuda, finishing 6th in the Fortinet Championship in September and was excellent early doors last week. He sat 6th at the halfway stage after rounds of 65 and 66 to start the event, but ran out of steam over the weekend to finish 20th; a conclusion that I’m more than happy to put down to him lacking a little sharpness after nearly a month off.
We know exactly what to expect with Todd’s game; he’s a player who makes up for a lack of explosiveness off-the-tee by being on-point in every other area. The short game is especially strong, as he ranks 6th in scrambling and 14th in putting this season. He’s also an effective wedge player and ranks inside the top 30 in this field in approach over his last fifty starts.
It’s a readymade skillset for this challenge, which makes it a touch surprising that he hasn’t got a stronger collection of form here, with just two top 20s. Though he did finish an excellent 4th in 2019.
More evidence of Todd’s suitability for Sea Island is on offer from his win in Bermuda in 2019, as well as a 4th in the RBC Heritage and several top 10s in the Wyndham Championship. He ticks every box and I expect him to be in the conversation come Sunday evening.
1.25 pts Taylor Pendrith each way (1/5 – 6 places) – 40/1
Taylor Pendrith has some of the best recent form on offer in this field and after two encouraging efforts in the RSM Classic to date, he makes a lot of sense.
Pendrith has had a solid year, having recorded seven top 20s but has found his best run of results coming across his last three starts. He finished 3rd in the Shriners Open around a month ago and has followed that with finishes of 15th in Mexico and 8th in Bermuda in the last two weeks. He has only failed to break 70 once in his last twelve rounds.
He’s been hitting the ball well over this period, ranking top 35 in both approach and off-the-tee in this field. Whilst the putter can be an issue, it is a positive that he has putted these greens well on both of his previous visits; ranking 10th in putting when finishing 26th on his debut in 2021 and was the 7th-best putter when finishing 15th here last year. His 3rd-place finish in the Shriners and two top 8 finishes in the Bermuda Championship also offer up some attractive pieces of comp form.
As a player with little to lose this week, sat at a comfortable 86th in the FedExCup, Pendrith should be able to relax here, finding a quality of performance that can rocket him up inside the top 60 and into those first two Signature Events next year.
1 pt Ben Griffin each way (1/5 – 8 places) – 60/1
Sea Island resident, Ben Griffin has knocked on the door a few times in his rookie season, enough so that he currently finds himself sat at 54th on the FedExCup. He can consolidate that position this week and knowing this course like the back of his hand, earn what would be a deserved breakthrough win.
Griffin immediately impressed in his debut season at the end of 2022, making six of seven cuts in the wraparound season and recording three top 25s, including an excellent 3rd-place finish in the Bermuda Championship.
He started 2023 well, finishing 12th in the Sony Open and made nine of his first eleven cuts, often occupying a solid mid-leaderboard position. However, he struggled through the middle part of the year, missing six of seven cuts from the end of April to June, but rediscovered some consistently good performances after finishing 25th in the Scottish Open.
Griffin has recorded four further top 25s since then, going extremely close when 2nd in the Sanderson Farms Championship five starts ago. An event in which he entered the final round with a three-shot lead before succumbing to the pressure of trying to make that PGA Tour breakthrough, firing a final-round 74 to drop into a five-man playoff, which he duly lost to Luke List.
He struggled on his two starts immediately following that close call but has looked more solid the last two weeks, finishing 23rd in Mexico and 37th in Bermuda last week, where his second-round 63 was the second-lowest round of the week.
Griffin finished 29th here last year after missing the cut on debut in 2018. Top 4s in the Bermuda and Wyndham Championships should prove a good pointer to potential success here and as someone who is currently excelling on the greens and with his irons, ranking 5th in putting and 15th in approach over the last three months, he has plenty in his favour to put on a show at Sea Island.
1 pt Taylor Montgomery each way (1/5 – 8 places) – 80/1
Taylor Montgomery was one of the undeniable stars of the early season. Though he hasn’t been able to replicate this for much of the second part of 2023, he has shown signs of life over recent weeks and can build on a promising debut effort here last year.
Montgomery made his way to the PGA Tour after finishing 5th on the Regular Season Points List on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2022, and made an instant impact. He only finished outside of the top 15 once in the seven events in the wraparound season at the end of last year; a 3rd in the Fortinet Championship his best performance.
He carried this form over into the start of this year, finishing 12th in the Sony Open and 5th in The AmEx on his first two starts, though has largely struggled since, with just two further top 25s coming his way in Texas and two starts ago in Japan, when 16th in the ZOZO Championship.
Having said that, his effort in Japan was part of a more positive look to his results in recent weeks, where he’s made four of his last five cuts and started to get the ball-striking – which had completely deserted him – under a little more control. He arrives here after finishing 31st two weeks ago in Mexico, where he fired four rounds in the 60s.
Despite the slightly improved ball-striking, Montgomery is a player who is all about the short game, ranking 2nd on the greens this year and 15th around them. This superb putting ability enables him to rank an impressive 5th in birdie or better %.
He showed an ability to perform well here last year, finishing 15th and with encouraging top 15 efforts in the Sony and Shriners, I’m taking him to come full circle and record the only thing that was missing during his excellent end-of-year run in 2022 – a victory.
1 pt Henrik Norlander each way (1/5 – 8 places) – 150/1
Henrik Norlander missed the cut for us last week in Bermuda, which has dropped him into the unenviable position of 126th in the rankings and in danger of losing his card. I’m taking another chance on him here this week though, at a course where the honorary Georgian has a good record.
After enduring what had been an uninspiring year, Norlander breathed new life into 2023 when finishing 2nd at the Sanderson Farms Championship four starts ago, which took him from 145th and twenty spots outside of the cut-off mark for card retention, to 120th and a bit of a cushion. Though he has slid back down to one outside after consecutive missed cuts.
He is a bit of a “horses for courses” golfer. That performance in Jackson came out of nowhere at a course where he’d recorded two previous top 5s and that is something he has also managed to do here in the RSM Classic.
He finished 2nd in 2016 following a year where he’d recorded just one previous top 25 on the PGA Tour and finished 5th in 2019 with four missed cuts and a best of 28th in his seven previous starts. This gives me confidence he can find something here regardless of how he’s looked in his last three events.
Despite struggling for results for much of this year, Norlander is a player who has hit plenty of greens, ranking 29th in GIR and scrambles well, ranking 38th. If he can reproduce the quality he was showing in approach/on the greens in his starts in the Sanderson Farms and Shriners Open four and three starts ago, he can spring another big performance at Sea Island.