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There's an eerie family tie to Eric Cole being named the PGA Tour's Rookie of the Year

January 03, 2024
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Yoshimasa Nakano

Exactly 50 years after his mom, Laura Baugh, won LPGA Rookie of the Year, Eric Cole is the recipient of the Arnold Palmer Award as PGA Tour Rookie of the Year for the 2022-23 season, the tour announced on Wednesday. The coincidence extends beyond that golden anniversary to the manner in which each won the award—with consistency but without the benefit of a victory.

Cole, 35, was chosen by a vote of his peers over Ludvig Aberg of Sweden, who proved to be a force after turning professional in June. Aberg seemed a strong bet to get the selection after winning the final event of the extended split-calendar season, the RSM Classic. He even beat Cole head-to-head playing in the final group in Sea Island, Ga.

The late-blooming Cole—the second-oldest winner behind Todd Hamilton, who was 39 when he captured the honor in 2004—racked up six top-five finishes and was the lone rookie to reach the second round of the FedEx Cup Playoffs at the BMW Championship. Only Scottie Scheffler, who repeated as Player of the Year, Patrick Cantlay, Rory McIlroy and Jon Rahm had more top-fives.

Like Scheffler, Cole was rewarded for his body of work throughout the season, one that began ominously with four straight missed cuts. After struggling for so long just to reach the PGA Tour and grinding out a living on mini-tours, Cole could have panicked. Instead, he put together a season in which he earned nearly $5.5 million and rose to 41st in the world after starting 2023 at No. 370.

“Yeah, it wasn't a great start to the PGA Tour season at the end of 2022,” said Cole, whose father, Bobby, also played professionally and won once on tour. “There were a couple odd things that happened in there. I had COVID in Napa and I had my clubs stolen in Vegas. I also missed a couple of the cuts by one, so I wasn't playing terrible.

“So, I didn't go into any kind of panic. I tried to keep myself from that and tried to just tell myself that the game that you have that gets you to the PGA Tour, if you just stick with it … a lot of advice I got from my parents and older pros said that if you just stick with it and don't try and change too much, then most of the time the game that gets you there, you can have success with. I kind of just kept replaying that thought in my head.”

It was a thought that he had long harbored having played plenty of rounds of golf with Arnold Palmer growing up in Orlando and then with tour players in South Florida. His breakthrough came at the Honda Classic in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where he lost in a playoff to Chris Kirk, but he already knew he had it in him.

“I played a lot of golf with guys who had success on tour, and when I would play with them at home or randomly throughout the year, I felt like my game stacked up pretty well,” Cole said during a video conference call with reporters as he prepared for the season-opening event, The Sentry, in Kapalua, Hawaii. “I saw them having success, and it fueled me to think, if I just keep at it and doing what I'm doing, if I get the opportunity and end up getting there, I think that I can have success.”

Winning rookie honors has two-fold meaning for Cole. First, of course, is the connection to his mom, and he thought of her almost immediately. “I think it's kind of a cool thing with my mom winning Rookie of the Year 50 years ago, kind of the 50th anniversary of that. She won it when she was probably 18 or 19 if I had to guess. Different path for me. But it’s just really special.”

Then there’s his relationship with Palmer. Cole figures that he played with the legendary golfer 50 or more times, but that’s not what he remembers most about him.

“The more memorable thing to me was just spending time around him, hearing some of his old stories about traveling the tour back in the day and some of those stories had my dad in them, which I thought was really cool,” said Cole, who always enjoyed watching Palmer tinker with his club. “It's the little stuff like that that when I think about him and growing up kind of means the most to me.

“But it's just so incredible to win an award named after him, even if I didn't have the connec-tion with him, it would still be an incredible honor, and then to have that layer of me growing up around him a little bit … it's almost hard to believe.”

Arnie, by the way, launched his pro career comparatively late, too. He did all right.