Go low country
This will be a fun week to close the PGA TOUR season. I have played the two TOUR courses at Sea Island more than any other courses on the PGA TOUR. Not to mention, the RSM Classic is one of those events where I get to see plenty of practice time being on-site. The range at Sea Island Golf Club is an open buffet of impeccable golf swings. With limited fans around at this destination TOUR site, I'm allowed the opportunity to do a ton of player work in preparation for this week and next season.
Having close ties to the Sea Island staff, I am happy for this venue. What was a tired TOUR stop over the past couple of seasons will have new life injected into the event this season. We may be 147 events into the year (just kidding), but the hype surrounding securing your 2024 PGA TOUR card is real. We also have those who want to qualify for the "Next 10." Remember the 51-60 players after this week gain entrance in two signature events: Pebble Beach and Riviera.
The two courses at Sea Island Golf Club sit in stark contrast to one another not just in landscape, but exposure as well. Nestled in the gorgeous Low Country, the recently redesigned Davis Love III Plantation course (2019) stretches to 7,060 yards and a par of 72. Competitors will only play this course once in the rotation during the tournament.
Located more inland on St. Simons Island, the Plantation Course favors better scoring than its counterpart called Seaside. Much like its name, the second course extends out to the Georgia coast and touches St. Simons Sound. The fancy links style Fazio design (1999) allows ample room to land the ball off the tee across a Par 70, 7,005-yard scorecard. It must as the wind can really challenge players across the wetlands. These are resort courses and amateurs contend here the other 51 weeks of the year. Most of the landing areas are large and allow for unique weather conditions.
Speaking of weather conditions, we are going to get wet in Georgia. A storm system is forecasted for Wednesday through Friday expected to dump just under one inch (.86) of rain. Unlike last year, the temperatures will be up in the 70s. Remember Svensson playing the final round in a winter hat? A unique setup feature of this week is the ability to use two golf courses. RSM accepts a full field of 156 players.
They can split them up on Thursday and Friday on two different courses. There won't be any 6:30am tee times unless needed to avoid bad weather. The field will play during the best part of the day. If Thursday and Friday’s forecast remains the same, those playing the Plantation Course during the better weather will have an advantage. Not just in general scoring, but also in conditions. The Seaside Course is far more difficult in the wind and rain.
More on the field:
- We have 35 players inside the top 100 in the OWGR.
- The top 65 and ties make the weekend.
- Those who play the weekend compete for 36-holes on the Seaside Course.
- The purse is $8.4 million dollars, and $1.512 million for first place.
I'm not the only person who has played these courses. Sea Island is home to several PGA TOUR residents and hosts numerous amateur championships. As a result, the field has more course knowledge than you think. More than three quarters of these guys have some course experience. This is key because when the conditions change and it gets windy and wet, that mental rolodex of past tournament rounds will be an invaluable asset. Take, for example, Greyson Sigg. The SEC standout holds the course record on Seaside; 58!
A big part of going low at Seaside and Plantation is hitting greens in regulation and converting on these traditional low-country Bermudagrass coastal greens. When we see two scorecards like these at Sea Island, we immediately think birdiefest. Plantation with a par 72 and four par 5s at 7,000 yards alongside a plethora of shorter par 4s across both courses causes us to take a quick look at BoB%.
- The average winning score over the last five RSMs is 20 under par.
- The tournament scoring record is 22 under (twice) and three of the 13 editions have been won at 14 under par.
- The average pre-tournament odds of the winner over the past 10 years are +10900 (109-1).
Six of those winners in the last decade had pre-tourney odds over +6000 and four were under +4000. One other note to consider, half of the RSMs have ended in a playoff. Something about the Seaside par 70 over three rounds keeps scoring close. The FedEx Cup Fall has been an extremely close race as well. It's worth considering this event will again end in sudden death. Of course, for a season that never seems to end what's a couple more holes...
RSM Classic starts in...
Why the long irons?
Seaside and Plantation are resort courses. They allow amateurs to land the ball off the tee. Based on their length, PGA Tour players consistently use less than a driver to get around both. You can see it reflected in the average driving distance for the RSM (276) versus the PGA Tour average (283). Now accuracy ends up being more important, 71% at RSM against the tour average of 62%. The reason is that if you miss these generous fairways, you'll have a problem. Seaside is outlined in sand dunes, waterways, and low country wetlands. Plantation is framed in Spanish moss and intricately placed oaks trees.
Plantation hosts eleven penalty areas as well with seven of them on the back nine. Therefore, players choose to be very pragmatic in their off-the-tee choices here. If you play positional from the teeing ground, approach play becomes a true differentiator. By playing these courses, you realize what types of approach shots matter most. The spreadsheets show all the approaches fall in the 100-175 zone. Fact is the most important approaches are longer than that. In nine of the last 10 RSMs, the winner gained most in the 200+ category.
Statistics can always be manipulated, but what I can share from playing experience is those long iron approaches lead to scoring and separating yourself from the field. Add up the long par 3s, par 5 approaches in two, and a couple long par 4s and you quickly see where it all happens. The contenders will all be hitting their wedges close. Drop a couple tight long irons in on those par 5s for eagle opportunities and suddenly you are free from the leaders.
Both courses feature green complexes with specific landing areas. They are sectioned to create a challenge when you miss your mark. The average green size on Seaside is 7,200 sq/ft. The greens on Plantation are smaller at 6,100 sq/ft. After two straight weeks on TOUR of greens over 8,000 sq/ft this is another reason why the iron game is so important around Sea Island. Both sets of fairways have Paspalum grass in them. For the third week in a row, we are on the ocean. The ball sits up and will give the best iron players another advantage.
Bermudagrass is a weed. It grows sideways and in these coastal conditions becomes even more hardy than usual. In the Golden Isles, the grain is a huge factor. It will move the ball inches on a flat putt. Success on this surface comes with experience. Our outrights are all capable of going low on the greens in Georgia. Winners gain more against the field on the greens than any other category. Svensson gained over nine strokes a year ago, and Gooch was five better than the field in 2021.
Overall, the last 10 winners have gained an average of 5.2 strokes against the field with the flatstick. Much like the last two weeks, you need to convert birdie chances. How many? Those same ten winners averaged 22 birdies (or better) on their way to winning. Seaside has twelve par 4s, so par 4 scoring will help get you there. Those four par 5s on Plantation are vital, but you only get one round there. When it comes to par 4 scoring the contenders create space from the pack on the 400-450 yard par 4s. The last five winners have gained nine strokes on the par 4s versus the field and that range sees the largest gains.
Let's face it, players will need to average four to five shots under par per round to win. I walked both courses yesterday and they are in brilliant shape. They will get wet this week, but they haven't seen substantial rain in weeks. One more thing, don't get too caught up in the "Sea Island mafia" hype. In thirteen tournaments, only a couple of guys have seriously contended from the neighborhood. The fact is, if you are at home this week, you're hosting. Those extra little details attract attention away from your golf.
I'd rather focus on excellent ball strikers from short and LONG range. Guys who can go deep and need to. This is the last week of the season and certain players will need to conjure up some Sea Island savvy.
Outright winners - RSM Classic
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"And so I face that final curtain..."
There's $7 million dollars on the line at the CME Group Tour Championship for the season's top 60 players. The winner will take home $2 million! Tiburón Golf Club and specifically the Gold Course will host 2023's final event. Located in Naples, Florida this 36-hole facility designed by Greg Norman is brutal as much as it is beautiful.
- A par 72 scorecard that reads 6,556 yards for the women.
- Seventeen of the 18 holes have water.
- A traditional layout with four par 3s and 5s and ten par 4s.
Only four miles from the Gulf of Mexico, this wetland course can be challenging when the weather becomes part of the storyline. This week we expect an interesting start. Temperatures will be in the mid-80s and the wind in the low teens. Wednesday and Thursday there is rain in the forecast. Tournament officials expect approximately a half inch of rain over the two days. Considering the course hasn't received any rain in weeks, it is probably the perfect amount of moisture to soften it up for scoring.
All but one of the past winners at this event are major champions. Charley Hull, the 2016 winner, hasn't won a major but has won multiple times on tour and played in the Solheim Cup. Since the event started the average winning score is 17 under par. Scoring has been better in recent years, but for a target specific course, these ladies eat it up. We are talking about 22 of top 25 in the Rolex Rankings and all 60 of the top 60 of the CME points race are playing.
The LPGA continues to get more and more competitive. Last year's winner, Lydia Ko had a slightly off year and she didn't even qualify. Lexi Thompson ended her LPGA season last week as well. Looking back at the last couple of leaderboards, we can quickly determine a couple of trends at the tour championship. I'll dig deeper into those in the outrights section, but for now, you need to understand the amount of pressure each woman will face this week. Like the guys in Sea Island, this is important. Some of the LPGA season long awards are still on the line. In many ways, the LPGA has seen tremendous parity in 2023. Win two million dollars and whole lot can happen.
Money makes a huge difference for these ladies. The purse increases these women have witnessed in 2022 and 2023 are great. With a $2 million dollar first-place check, there are still approximately 20 women who can win the money title. There are currently six players with over two million in earnings. Twenty-one have earned over a million dollars which is four more than the previous best of seventeen. This may not sound like much, but over ninety-seven players will finish the season with over $200,000 dollars in the bank. The money is starting to add up for the LPGA and makes a big difference when closing time comes on the final Sunday.
Tiburón's Gold Course is a tough test. There's a different dogleg shape on every hole. Players are constantly being distracted by wetlands and waterways. With the breeze we expect out of the north, fourteen holes will play with a crosswind. Keeping it all together will be tough when you consider the winning score will probably be in the high teens. Aggressive play is rewarded here, but there's a fine line between making birdies and double bogeys with seventeen holes having penalty areas.
The LPGA has built off the success of 2022 with this 2023 campaign. Twenty-two of the 23 winners are here from 2023. Six of the 32 LPGA rookies qualified for the tour championship. The Louise Suggs Rookie of the Year is Hae Ran Ryu who finished twelfth at the The ANNIKA. The purses are up, and the pressure is real. The 2023 season hasn't been perfect. The LPGA still needs more coverage. Their schedule continues to have large gaps in the non-major months. Let's hope that a strong finish, an engaging final, and the media coverage in a couple weeks at the Grant Thornton catapult the tour into a grand 2024!
Tour Championship starts in...
Lydia Ko won the 2022 CME Group Tour Championship. Jin Young Ko won in 2021 and successfully defended her 2020 title. I like going back to the 2021 JYK title because she closed the tourney by hitting 63 greens in regulation. Overall, she hit the green 67 out of 72! Accuracy is a huge key at Greg Norman’s Gold Course. Around every corner lies another double bogey. It's not hyperbole, as not only do seventeen of the eighteen holes have water, but thirteen of the fourteen driving holes move sideways off the tee.
Alongside Jin Young Ko's consistency, I look back to other recent winning performances for some straightforward clues. Past champions are good "Florida golf" players. They navigate the wind and water. Of course, when they do, the putter plays a part in their success on Bermudagrass. Lydia Ko, Jin Young Ko, and Cristie Kerr can all roll the rock and have a nice resume in the Sunshine State.
Powerful players have excelled here too. Ariya Jutanugarn, Lexi Thompson, and Charley Hull have trophies from Tiburón. The combination of Florida's success, stellar short game, and a little power starts to narrow the list. Each of the ten par 4s present a different discernible test. Three of them are under 360 yards, four fall in the middle, and the other three are over 400 yards. Scoring on all three successfully takes some talent. Another area the contenders tend to separate their scoring are the par 5s. The top 10 from last year, averaged 4.61 on the 5s. Of the three par categories, that was the most under par.
In nine events, the average winning score is 17 under par. T2G play leads the way for the contenders. Simply keeping the ball out of trouble keeps you on top of the leaderboard. Inside the analytics, we see iron play and putting have the most against the competition. The top 10 from 2022 gained over three strokes against the field on approach and on the greens. Taking the putting one step further, putts per GIR is a very important factor. The nine winners averaged 18 sub-par scores. Converting birdie chances, and par saves with your flatstick may be more important here than any other course these women compete on.
Those same contenders from a year ago averaged hitting 91% of their fairways and 75% of their GIRs. Their scoring average was under par on the 3s and 4s as well as their great par 5 scoring. They had power as well as accuracy. I know (Lydia) Ko is not the longest hitter, but the top 10 averaged 261 yards off the tee. Ten of the approaches fall in-between 125-175 yards so a little pop off the tee counts. The last factor and probably the most important if you can fill this skill set is recent form. The last couple of winners have been playing great coming into the tour championship.
No doubt our fall form has been great as well with three LPGA outright wins in the last couple of months. Let's cap off a great 2023 year with another win from this list of worthy competitors.
Outright winners - CME Group Tour Championship
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