Driving down the middle of the fairway at Sea Island GC
The RSM Classic: Course Insight
It’s back to American soil this week for The RSM Classic and one of the more popular stops on the PGA Tour. Contested at historic Sea Island Golf Club on picturesque St. Simons Island, the Classic enters its eighth year as a Tour event, with 21-time PGA Tour champion and 2016 U.S. Ryder Cup Captain Davis Love III once again steering the ship as host. 156 players will compete on both the Seaside and Plantation courses, with five of the top 30 golfers from last season’s FedExCup standings in attendance. Headliners in the field include major champions Bubba Watson and Jim Furyk, 2016 Olympian Matt Kuchar, and defending champion Mackenzie Hughes.
With a majority of the world’s top golfers still enjoying extended vacations, first-time winners have been prevalent this fall, and three new champions have been crowned in the last four events. Of the last five winners here at the Classic, only one had previously won on Tour. Don’t think however that the absence of superstars makes this event a snoozer. Six of the last seven events were decided by one-stroke, and three of them took a playoff to determine a champion. 2017 marks the fifth year for the Classic as a FedEx Cup event, and this week’s winner will also receive the added perk of an automatic trip to Augusta National for The Masters.
A series of lakes and 80 bunkers run through the 7,058-yard, par-72 Plantation Course, where players will compete in one of their two opening rounds. With wide, tree-lined fairways and four, straightforward par-5s, Plantation checked in as one of the easiest courses on Tour last season, so players will have to take advantage and rack up birdies in their one shot here before the 36-hole cut. The real money is made on the 7,005, par-70 Seaside Course, however, the scene for both weekend rounds. The links-style layout on Seaside features 40 bunkers, seven water hazards, and a host of creeks, sand dunes, and marshes. As always, its biggest defense is the ocean wind. Courage and commitment off the tee and in the fairway is the only way to successfully navigate the extremely windy conditions and avoid catastrophe. Bermuda-grass greens on both courses are on the small side, and feature slopes and shaved areas that will repel shots coming up short away from the putting surface.
With both courses measuring just a fraction over 7,000 yards, bombing it off the tee isn’t a huge advantage, and there haven’t been many big hitters here in the winner’s circle. In fact, the statistical averages of the seven winners so far puts them outside the top-30 in Driving Distance. On the other hand, Greens in Regulation and Bogey Avoidance are a completely different story, and will be two key metrics looking for contenders. Players who can best handle the blustery conditions will undoubtedly step to the fore as well. The single most important statistic in this event’s history, however, has been Strokes Gained: Putting, as it’s the only category where the previous seven champions have averaged a position inside the top-7. In other words, it all might come down to a putting contest this week.
Noteworthy Holes (Seaside)
The spectacular 429-yard, par-4, No. 4 is nicknamed “It Is,” which stands to warn players “it is unlucky if played carelessly.” Featuring one of the most severe doglegs anywhere in golf, it requires extreme precision off the tee with a marsh tightly hugging the left side and a lake protecting the right. The left side of the fairway is preferred as it shortens approaches into the green, but aggressive players who are too greedy will obviously pay the price. More conservative tee shots to the right can also be punished, landing in a large fairway bunker on the outside corner of the dogleg that effectively narrows the landing zone. It doesn’t get any easier on approach as the sloping green is protected by bunkers on the left, and chipping swales on all other sides. Requiring two back-to-back, perfectly placed shots off the tee and on approach, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that the 4th is most difficult hole on the course.
18Biries Caddy+ view of No.13 at Sea Island
There’s beauty and danger everywhere on Seaside’s signature 408-yard, par-4, No. 13. It doesn’t feature punishing length, but playing into the ocean it puts players at the mercy of the wind and can be a downright bogey machine. Players have to negotiate marshland running along the entire left side of this dogleg-left hole, and also pay careful attention to a trio of large fairway bunkers protecting the right. Only the best second shots will be rewarded with scoring opportunities, as the approach plays uphill into a green protected by a bunker on the front, and another bunker spilling out of a sand dune to the right. This hole will steal hearts and break hearts.
The ideal drive on the dogleg-left, 565-yard, par-5, No.15 begs for a draw, with a bunker protecting the nearside corner and another bunker sitting opposite on the far right. Aggressive hitters who carry a second fairway bunker stretching across the left side have a realistic shot to reach the green in two. Approach shots must contend with a pond that makes inroads from the left and will drown misfired shots. The raised green is well protected with bunkers pinching left and right, and back pin positions can lead to backbreaking two-putts on the weekend.
Fairway view of No.15 at Seaside
When the winds kick up on the already brutal 192-yard, Par-3, No. 17, this hole can become a palm-sweating horror. Wind speeds will dictate everything on the 17th, and correct club choice is crucial. The green is angled back away from the tee, and sits half as deep as it is wide. Two large bunkers protect the front right corner of the putting surface, making pin positions on this side a formidable target. Anything can happen coming down the stretch on No. 17, and with the tournament on the line, par is a heroic score.
Players to Watch
On paper, Matt Kuchar’s game translates to success perfectly for the Classic. Kuchar’s a short, accurate hitter, who possesses an elite wedge game and is generally solid on the greens. Prior to missing the cut here last year, Kuchar finished in the top-25 in five previous appearances, and will probably be on most people’s radar again this week. Hitting greens this week shouldn’t be a problem for Kooch, as he’s ranked 16th on Tour in Greens in Regulation. Surprisingly however, Matt’s started off slow with the putter this season, and he’ll need the flat-stick to wake up if he hopes to contend. Kuchar’s statistically one of the best putters in the field when playing on Bermuda greens, and you could arguably attribute his poor putting performance at the World Golf Championships-HSBC Champions to Bentgrass surfaces. Honestly though, Kuchar looked so miserable on the greens in China, I don’t even think being back on Bermuda can solve his putting woes. It’s a coin flip if Kuchar even makes the cut, and I see him finishing outside the top-25.
William McGirt finished T-10 a few weeks ago at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open, and his impressive result to start the new season was punctuated by outstanding work on the greens. McGirt left the tournament ranked 15th in Strokes Gained: Putting, and that’s a great recipe for success at the Classic. William’s a poised veteran who rarely unravels completely, and that will be key in conditions susceptible to high winds this week. Composure and clutch putting will position McGirt for another top-10 finish.
It’s not a coincidence that first-time winners have won the Classic four of the last five times it’s been played, and that trend will continue this year with Ollie Schniederjans as the latest champion. Schniederjans is a great wind player, and his impressive ability to control the ball-flight battle in high winds will be a significant advantage. Schniederjans has top-25 finishes in each of the three events he’s played this season, and he’s done nothing to dissuade me he won’t play well again in Georgia. Ollie is currently ranked 23rd on Tour in Proximity to Hole, which will come in handy on Seaside’s small greens, and if he can get the flat-stick rolling a bit hotter, he’ll remove himself from my list of best young golfers without a win, and possibly open the floodgates to a multi-win season.