Ludvig Åberg, Eric Cole illuminate two contrasting paths to PGA TOUR’s top rookie award
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Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin
Editors note: This article was written Thursday, Nov. 16 following Round 1 of The RSM Classic.
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Georgia – Players are competing in this week’s RSM Classic for diverse reasons, whether it be the tournament’s unbeatable proximity to their home or something as stressful as job security.
The PGA TOUR’s Arnold Palmer Award, given to the season’s top rookie, is among the items that hang in the balance on the season’s final week. The two favorites to win this award illustrate one of professional golf’s most appealing aspects: the diverse paths that players take to arrive at the same destination.
Eric Cole has been the favorite to win Arnold Palmer Award for months now. He was the only rookie to crack the top 50 in the FedExCup standings and qualify for the second FedExCup Playoffs event, the BMW Championship. And he’s been even more successful in the FedExCup Fall, posting three top-five finishes in his past four starts.
Ludvig Åberg’s Round 1 highlights from The RSM Classic
“It's something that comes with … doing a lot of little things right, so I'm more focused on those,” Cole said about the Arnold Palmer Award. “It's something that if I keep doing those little things right, then hopefully that will be the result.”
Cole’s success has been one of the season’s feel-good stories, an appealing development for those who appreciate the great lengths players go to in order to make the PGA TOUR. Cole, 35, toiled on golf’s mini-tours for years, even serving briefly as a swing instructor and unsure if this day would ever come.
He has been handsomely rewarded for his patience and determination. He arrived on the PGA TOUR just as the purses were undergoing unprecedented growth. Breaking even is considered an admirable achievement on smaller circuits like the Minor League Golf Tour, where Cole has spent the majority of his professional career. He has earned nearly $5 million this season alone, an amount that eclipses the $194,833.84 that he earned on the MLGT, good for fourth on the circuit’s career money list (which measures players winnings down to the cent).
Cole’s success this season has come on venues both familiar and far away. His runner-up in his most recent start, at the ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP in Japan, was his second of the season.
Cole burst onto the scene with another runner-up in March at The Classic in The Palm Beaches. It was a continuation of his success in South Florida. PGA National is just miles from the courses that he dominated during the leaner years of his professional career.
Cole lost a playoff at The Classic in The Palm Beaches to Chris Kirk. It was that victory that earned Kirk the PGA TOUR’s Courage Award, which he was awarded this week for confronting his battle with alcoholism and returning to the winner’s circle.
Cole has competition if he wants to join Kirk as an award winner in 2023. And that threat comes in the form of Aberg, whose career is a stark contrast to Cole’s. Åberg was playing college golf earlier this year. He is the first player to earn direct access to the PGA TOUR by finishing atop the PGA TOUR University Rankings and he has set a high bar for those who will follow.
Åberg ranks 96th in the FedExCup Fall standings in just 10 starts as a pro. He has missed just one cut and finished in the top 25 in seven of those 10 events, including a T4 at the John Deere Classic and runner-up at last month’s Sanderson Farms Championship, where he lost in a five-man playoff.
He will need a strong finish this week, possibly as much as a win, to wrest the Rookie of the Year award from Cole’s grasp. Åberg is off to a good start, shooting 5-under 67 on Thursday in a rainy opening round to The RSM.
Ludvig Åberg rolls in eagle putt at The RSM Classic
Cole was one better, however. His 6-under 66 tied Cameron Young, last year’s Rookie of the Year, for the low round of the day in relation to par. Cole would be the second-oldest player to earn the TOUR’s Rookie of the Year Award, surpassed only by Todd Hamilton, who toiled in Japan for years before winning The Classic in The Palm Beaches and The Open in 2004.
Åberg turned 24 on Halloween. He stayed at Texas Tech for four years in part because of the awards awaiting PGA TOUR University’s top player. During that time he compiled an impressive amateur resume. Åberg joined Jon Rahm as the only players to win the prestigious Ben Hogan Award multiple times, and Rahm is the only European player to spend more time atop the World Amateur Golf Rankings.
This week is the first time Åberg is competing as a pro at a place he has played previously; he earned a spot in the 2021 RSM Classic by virtue of his win at the Jones Cup, an amateur event whose list of champions also includes Justin Thomas, Patrick Reed and several other PGA TOUR winners.
“I'm a different player,” Åberg said, when asked to compare himself to the player he was two years ago. “I think I'm more experienced, I know more about my own game and I know my tendencies a lot better. I would still be able to hit the shots two years ago that I do now, but I just do it more consistently now.
“I'm better if something's a little bit off, I can come back to it a little bit easier. I think it all comes with experience and I'm sure if you talk to me in two years' time I think I'll probably say similar things.”
His quick success as a pro is a continuation of that dominance in the amateur game. He won in Europe, at the Omega European Masters, and impressed European Captain Luke Donald enough to earn a spot on the Ryder Cup roster that was victorious in Rome.
Åberg’s worst finish in his past seven worldwide starts is T14. He already is on the cusp of the all-important top 50 in the world ranking. The top 50 at year’s end earn invitations to next year’s Masters. Cole also is on the cusp of his first Masters invitation, entering this week at No. 48.
While Åberg’s success on the DP World Tour – he also had a T4 and T10 in his two other finishes on that circuit – does not count toward the Arnold Palmer Award, it is difficult to imagine that it won’t influence the voters, the PGA TOUR players.
The voters do not face an easy choice. Do they award someone for a full season of success or recognize one of the most enthralling prospects to arrive on TOUR in years for his rapid success?
The RSM Classic is the final opportunity for each candidate to make his case. They’re both off to a strong start.
Sean Martin is a senior editor for the PGA TOUR. He is a 2004 graduate of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo. Attending a small school gave him a heart for the underdog, which is why he enjoys telling stories of golf's lesser-known players. Follow Sean Martin on Twitter.