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Ludvig Åberg, Eric Cole eyeing first TOUR win and Rookie of the Year honors at The RSM Classic

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Ludvig Åberg, Eric Cole eyeing first TOUR win and Rookie of the Year honors at The RSM Classic

    Written by Sean Martin @PGATOURSMartin

    ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Georgia – Ludvig Åberg and Eric Cole may be a study in contrasts, but they have arrived at the same destination.

    They will play in the final group for the final round of the PGA TOUR season, with more than The RSM Classic’s trophy on the line.

    The Arnold Palmer Award, given to the TOUR’s top rookie, will likely go to the winner of tomorrow’s showdown at Sea Island Golf Club.

    Åberg and Cole occupy the top two spots on the leaderboard after both shooting 61 on Saturday. Åberg sits at 20-under 192 (67-64-61) and holds a one-shot lead over Cole, who opened the week with consecutive 66s.

    “I felt like I was striking the ball well,” Åberg said. “I was hitting the fairways, apart from 14, but other than that I felt I was striking the ball well and kind of took advantage of a little bit easier conditions today.”

    Åberg and Cole didn’t have the day’s best score. That belonged to 2016 RSM Classic champion Mackenzie Hughes, who shot 60 after missing a 17-foot putt on the final hole. He will play alongside Cole and Åberg in Sunday’s final group.

    Mackenzie Hughes dials in tee shot to set up birdie at The RSM Classic

    Sea Island was defenseless on a sunny Saturday after clouds, wind and rain made things more difficult over the first two days. More sunshine is expected Sunday, which means more low scores are likely. The leading trio has separated itself slightly from the pack but pursuers can quickly make up ground, especially on Sea Island’s back nine.

    Both Åberg and Cole broke 30 on the back nine Saturday. Cole needed to make just two putts outside 10 feet to shoot a 28 that featured five birdies and an eagle. He played the 11 holes from Nos. 6-16 in 10 under par.

    Åberg’s 29 featured a five-hole stretch from Nos. 13-17 that he played in 6 under. That included a chip-in on the 14th hole and his own eagle on the par-5 15th after he hit his second shot to 13 feet.

    Ludvig Åberg holes out for birdie at The RSM Classic

    Another past RSM champion, Tyler Duncan, is in fourth place, three off the lead after shooting 62 on Saturday. Sam Ryder is the only other player within five shots of Åberg, sitting in fifth place at 15 under par.

    Åberg and Cole are both seeking their first PGA TOUR title. For Åberg, this is just his 11th PGA TOUR event as a pro. He is the first player to earn direct access to the PGA TOUR as the top player in the PGA TOUR University’s rankings. He quickly proved himself worthy of the honor after turning pro this June.

    Åberg has missed just one cut as a pro, finishing in the top 25 in all but three of his 13 starts as a pro. That includes three starts on the DP World Tour, where he picked up his first pro victory in September at the Omega European Masters.

    His worst finish in his past seven pro starts is T14. He has five top-10s in that span.

    On the PGA TOUR, he was runner-up at the Sanderson Farms Championship after losing in a five-man playoff and finished T4 at the John Deere Classic. He already is on the cusp of the top 50 in the world ranking and can likely lock up his first Masters invitation even if he doesn’t win Sunday.

    Åberg has impressed with his ability off the tee. He would rank second in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee this season if he had enough rounds to qualify for the statistical rankings and is the only player on the PGA TOUR to average at least 315 yards off the tee and hit 60% of his fairways.

    This week, Åberg is second in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee (+3.39), second in Driving Distance (308.7 yards) and third in Driving Accuracy (36 of 42 fairways hit).

    Åberg has shot 62 and 64 in his past two Sundays on the PGA TOUR. He also shot a final-round 63 at the John Deere Classic in July. Åberg’s three final rounds of 64 or lower are the most on the PGA TOUR this season, and he’s done it in just 10 starts as a pro. His final-round scoring average of 68.45 would rank third on TOUR if he’d played enough rounds qualify for the TOUR’s statistical rankings.

    “Once I make a decision I try to go with it,” Åberg said, “I'm already a quick player, but sometimes it goes a little bit too fast. I try to almost calm myself down a little bit, but also stay decisive in the decisions that I make.”

    Åberg is golf’s top prospect since Viktor Hovland, the reigning FedExCup champion who turned pro four years ago, or Jon Rahm. Rahm, a two-time major winner, turned pro in 2016. Aberg and Rahm are the only two players to win the Ben Hogan Award, given to the top player in college and amateur golf, multiple times. Both players won it two times. Rahm is the only European to spend more time atop the World Amateur Golf Ranking than Aberg.

    Cole is a contrast to Åberg, and not only because he’s 7 inches shorter and 35 pounds lighter. Cole, 35, is more than a decade older than Åberg but is playing his first PGA TOUR season after toiling on the mini-tours for years.

    Eric Cole's impressive approach leads to eagle at The RSM Classic

    While Åberg’s rapid rise has established him as a rare talent, Cole’s success on the PGA TOUR is a testament to his tenacity. He is fourth on the Minor League Golf Tour’s career money list, taking home $194,833.84 on a circuit where they measure earnings to the cent. Cole didn’t even play his first full season on the Korn Ferry Tour until 2020.

    Cole’s success on the PGA TOUR has been one of the season’s feel-good stories. He has earned nearly $5 million this season and was the lone rookie to qualify for the BMW Championship by finishing in the top 50 of the FedExCup. That guarantees him starts in every Signature Event, the elite, limited-field tournaments comprised of the TOUR’s top players, next year.

    He’s continued his good play in the FedExCup Fall, finishing in the top four in three of his past four starts. At 48th in the world ranking, he also is trying to lock up his first Masters invitation. The top 50 at year’s end earn spots in the season’s first major.

    Cole said his experience on the MLGT, where players must go low to win the one-day events, helped him in Saturday’s low-scoring environment. He has won more than 50 times on that TOUR and said he will take the same routine into Sunday. He will arrive at the course 90 minutes before his tee time and then head to the range 25 minutes later to go through his usual warm-up routine. The hope is that a consistent routine will make The RSM’s final round feel as familiar as possible.

    “It's obviously a little different stage out there and everything's kind of amped up a little bit,” Cole said. “Whenever you win, it's always a good thing and something I'll probably lean on a little bit tomorrow.”

    No matter how hard they try, however, both Cole and Aberg know they face a life-changing final round at The RSM Classic.

    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.

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