Rookie of the Year Eric Cole is overnight success decades in the making
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At 35, Cole is a beacon of hope for golf’s strivers and dreamers
Written by Cameron Morfit @CMorfitPGATOUR
JUPITER, Fla. – He is the best-case scenario, oxygen to the flickering flame.
Eric Cole, by his very example, is the promise of a better golfing tomorrow.
Such is the vibe at the Minor League Golf Tour Championship, a gathering of 90 pros at Abacoa Golf Club in early December. Slender and under 6 feet tall, the soft-spoken Cole – who used to fill divots and set up the range here – would have been easy to miss then, just another kid trading his labor for free range balls and greens fees. Today, he’s shaking hands with members and players. His staff bag is displayed in the pro shop. He's even honored on the club's menu, which features the “Eric Cole Grilled Chicken Caesar Wrap.”
He’ll also be playing for the $15,000 first prize over the next two days, which has led to some clucking on social media given that he just banked $5.5 million as a 35-year-old PGA TOUR rookie.
But this is not about money.
“You know, I mean, this is a tournament I've always played,” Cole said. “I like I like to play tournaments. I like to compete. Most of the people playing in this are friends of mine or people I've played with in the past, so it's good to see them. It's almost like part of my DNA.
“I just like it,” he continued. “And then I think it's cool to bring a little bit of light to the Minor League Tour, where I spent a lot of time and kind of learned to improve my game. And it also will probably show how good a lot of these guys out here are that people haven’t heard of.”
Especially, he added, if someone were to beat him, which would tell his old pals, some of whom played on TOUR, that they’re closer to The Show than they realized.
In the end no one will beat Cole, who shot 62-67 to win for the 58th time on the Minor League Golf Tour. Still, his presence will be felt acutely, for he is the realization of a dream shared by every striver, dreamer and Q-School washout.
After turning pro in 2009, Cole had to wait more than a decade before he even earned his first Korn Ferry Tour card. His success on the Minor League Golf Tour didn’t carry over to his annual attempt at Q-School, leaving him stranded in the lower levels of professional golf.
Then, as illustrated by his presence at The Sentry at Kapalua this week, everything changed.
After earning his first PGA TOUR card in 2022, Cole had seven top-10 finishes last season, including a runner-up at The Cognizant Classic. The only rookie to finish in the top 50 of the FedExCup, he was announced Wednesday as the Arnold Palmer Award recipient as the TOUR’s top rookie. He is the second-oldest player to earn that honor (Todd Hamilton was 38 when he won in 2004).
Not bad considering Cole’s main connection to the TOUR used to be that he coached and sometimes caddied for Sam Saunders, Palmer’s grandson.
Eric Cole smiles during the First Timers press conference prior to THE PLAYERS Championship in 2023. (Keyur Khamar/PGA TOUR)
“I kept saying the guy coaching me is better than me at golf,” Saunders told Global Golf Post, and Cole proved those words prophetic in 2023.
His FedExCup finish qualified him for all of 2024’s Signature Events, the limited-field, star-studded tournaments that will feature the TOUR’s top players competing for increased purses and FedExCup points. A late-season flurry – he had four top fives in his final five starts of 2023 – also earned him his first Masters invitation.
Cole’s schedule for 2024 couldn’t stand in further contrast to the tournaments that used to fill his calendar. He’s a testament to how quickly things can change – and an inspiration to his peers.
“I wasn’t playing this year because I didn’t make it through second stage last year,” Justin Peters, 46, said at Abacoa. “I took eight months off and was trying to decide – am I going to take a pause on golf because I’m getting older? Do I wait and do a Champions Tour run?
“But watching Eric have an amazing year inspired me because look what he’s doing.”
Another player called it “invigorating” to see Cole at Abacoa, and he’s had the same impact elsewhere, too. After finishing T24 at the Travelers Championship in June, his 10th straight week on TOUR, Cole drove overnight to western Pennsylvania for the final Frank B. Fuhrer Invitational, another tournament that kept him going in the lean times. He won that, too.
Indeed, Cole is a sort of public service announcement to keep the faith. He’s also a son, a husband (he got married after the Minor League Golf Tour Championship) and the owner of a new, not particularly ostentatious truck. At The Sentry in Maui, where the 2024 season kicks off this week, he’ll be a trendy dark horse pick, for he might just surprise in his first look at Kapalua.
He's also golf’s most curious origin story.
Success is not a straight line
Arnold Palmer would have loved seeing Cole win an award named after him. They played golf together at Bay Hill and Latrobe, along with Saunders, the glue between them. Cole and Saunders have been friends since they were high school freshmen in Orlando, measuring themselves against one another at Bay Hill, and are now something like brothers.
Fate brought them together, for Palmer shared an agent with Cole’s mother, Laura Baugh, the 1973 LPGA Tour Rookie of the Year. Palmer and Baugh did commercials together back in the day. Cole’s father, Bobby Cole, won the 1966 British Amateur and the 1977 Buick Open on the PGA TOUR. Eric had a junior membership at Orlando’s West Orange Country Club, and the nanny dropped him off every morning.
Eric Cole's parents, South African professional golfer Bobby Cole (left) and American professional golfer Laura Baugh. (Evening Standard/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
He was not, however, earmarked for success, despite his DNA and connections to golf royalty. One of seven kids, he was not flown around the country to premier junior tournaments. He ended up at Division II Nova Southeastern University and withdrew after earning all-conference honors his freshman year because of problems with his health.
Never big to begin with, Cole dropped 40 pounds as he sought a diagnosis.
“He was basically dying on my couch,” Baugh said.
Only when a doctor noticed a bruise on his arm was it determined that he had Addison’s Disease, a rare adrenal condition that also afflicted John F. Kennedy. Cole also has Type 1 diabetes.
Today, he takes two pills a day, corticosteroids. He also injects himself with insulin – one long-lasting shot in the morning, plus fast-acting injections 5-10 minutes before meals. He has learned how to manage these conditions – not easy, in the beginning, as he began his professional career.
“In order to pay your bills, you have to win,” said Baugh, a teaching pro in St. Augustine, Florida, regarding mini-tour life. “Seconds may break even. Thirds, you're losing money.”
In this way, a diminished Cole was diving into a maw akin to the sales contest in “Glengarry Glen Ross.” (“First prize is a Cadillac El Dorado; second prize is a set of steak knives; third prize is you’re fired.”) Still, he eventually succeeded on the Minor League Golf Tour, but every time he was in position to make some real money, i.e. reach the PGA TOUR, he bonked.
“This shouldn't be a difficult thing for me,” Cole said he told himself every time he went into the first stage of PGA TOUR Q-School, starting in 2009. “And then for whatever reason, with that extra pressure I put on myself, I just didn't perform well at all.
“And, you know, as it starts to build up,” he continued, “like I missed once, I missed twice, and then all of a sudden, it's like, you know, I can't get through this.”
When he finally got into eight Korn Ferry Tour events in 2017, he made just two cuts and less than $5,000. An MRI revealed that he’d been playing with a stress fracture in his back. Beat up and exhausted, he considered abandoning his playing career for a new life as a club pro, and for the first time took steps in that direction, asking around at Abacoa.
“One of my teachers said, ‘Hey, go play with Eric, see what you think,’” said Abacoa founder and co-owner Robbie Dew. “So, I did, and he shot 62 the first time I played with him. I thought, well, maybe it was a fluke. Then he shot 61 and 64 and 60. And this wasn’t just here, it was on all different courses. I was like, ‘You don’t need to be teaching, you need to be playing golf.’”
Dew knew what good golf looked like. A native of Canada, he had learned the game from eight-time PGA TOUR winner George Knudson and played with the legendary Moe Norman, whose ball-striking acumen bordered on the mythical.
“Robbie did get into him and said, ‘You’re wasting your talent, teaching here,’” said Scott Turner, the owner and director of the Minor League Golf Tour.
And so, after less than a year of teaching, Cole rededicated himself to his game.
“It almost made playing golf easier,” he said of his stint giving lessons, “because if I didn't make it on TOUR or have a career in golf, then teaching was going to be fine with me.”
He got full Korn Ferry Tour status in 2020 but earned just under $100,000 and returned to the Minor League Golf Tour, where he learned how to “get the most out of one round.” Back on the Korn Ferry Tour for ’22, he earned over $220,000 to finish 39th on the money list. A third-place finish at the season-ending Korn Ferry Tour Championship earned him his first PGA TOUR card.
Cole had broken through and was determined to take advantage of the opportunity.
Reluctant to miss a start
Cole points out that he hasn’t flipped some invisible switch.
“The truth is, getting to the PGA TOUR is unbelievably difficult,” he said.
He missed his first four cuts last season amid a positive COVID-19 test (Fortinet Championship) and stolen clubs (Shriners Children’s Open). He kept battling and enjoyed his big breakthrough just a few miles from home, losing The Honda Classic (now Cognizant Classic) in a playoff to Chris Kirk. Cole had added five more top 10s by the time he got to the season-ending RSM Classic, his 37th start, where he and Ludvig Åberg separated from the field through 54 holes.
The contrast between the two could not have been sharper. Åberg, 24, was the overnight success from Sweden by way of Texas Tech and PGA TOUR University. Cole was the overnight success decades in the making. Åberg shot 61-61 to win. Cole shot 61-67 to finish T3.
“It’s such a cool environment to be in; last group in a PGA TOUR event is awesome,” he said. “Chris Kirk at the Honda, Ludvig Åberg at RSM. You can’t simulate that. I haven’t come out on the right side yet, so there’s definitely motivation to finish it off differently.”
Those closest to Cole are not surprised by his success.
“Everyone that knows Eric knows how good he's been for a long time,” Baugh said. “He's had different obstacles … and one is being the oldest son of seven children, and your mother can't take you to the golf tournament because I'm out playing golf or doing, I did TV for 10 years.
“And, so, he didn't have the opportunity,” she continued. “… If he was going to play in the junior tournament, he had to go through all qualifiers. He was good, he just couldn't get there.”
His old friend Peters, whose battles with Cole have gone from the Minor League Golf Tour all the way to the Waterloo Open in Iowa, said there was never any mistaking his ability.
“I played Eric in match play a few years ago,” Peters said, “and he shot 28 on the front nine.”
Lucas Glover, who had his own travails, calls Cole’s story inspiring.
“He seems like one of those guys who, once he breaks through, he’ll be like Jimmy Walker back in the day and win like four in 16 months,” Glover said. “Because he can play.”
Cole is proud to have persevered. He is grateful for his mother and father, who told him that in pro golf you’re often not as far off as you think. He’s thankful for fellow players and friends like Peters, fellow pro Dylan Meyer and Saunders, as well as Dew and Turner, who gave him the resources and the occasional dose of tough love to keep him going.
Now that he’s qualified for every tournament on TOUR, he may not play in 37 of them again. Baugh, who observed how LPGA stars scheduled themselves with plenty of rest, hopes not.
“I haven't made any final decisions about it,” Cole said, “but I'll probably play for someone that's in my spot in those (Signature) Events – I would bet I'll probably play a little more than some of the other guys. But I think 37 – I don't think I'll hit 37, put it that way.
“As long as I'm feeling good,” he continued, “and I'm healthy and nothing's hurting, I'm just so grateful to be playing in any PGA TOUR event that it's really hard for me to pass up.”
Considering how long it took him to get here, you can understand how he feels.
Cameron Morfit is a Staff Writer for the PGA TOUR. He has covered rodeo, arm-wrestling, and snowmobile hill climb in addition to a lot of golf. Follow Cameron Morfit on Twitter.