Tour cards and livelihoods are very much on the line in PGA Tour's final Fall weekend
Ludvig Aberg acknowledges fans after a putt on the 18th green during the second round of the RSM Classic.
This week, for the first time, the top 125 card holders for the PGA Tour's 2024 season will be determined at the RSM Classic. It's the conclusion of the FedEx Cup Fall, and Davis Love III’s tournament at Sea Island is now the last stop for players hoping to earn their PGA Tour cards by finishing inside the top 125 of the FedEx Cup standings.
Previously, that list was locked at the Wyndham Championship in August, but this year, among the Spanish Moss, players are competing for tour cards, for entry into the "Next 10” category from positions 51-60 (which grants exemption into the first two signature events next year), and to join the tour from the temporary non-member list. The only thing set heading into this weekend was the Top 50, who are guaranteed entry into all elevated events in '24.
With that context in mind, the conclusion of play on Friday (after a rain-soaked Thursday) clarified a complicated picture ... at least somewhat.
Among the most intriguing stories is Peter Kuest, a special temporary member who needs to finish with more points than the No. 125 on the FedEx Cup list to gain full membership next season. Coming in, Kuest was 155 points shy of that mark, which would require a high finish, likely a two-way tie for third or better. He's still a long way from achieving that, but he's off to a brilliant start, and his 66 on Friday set him up at T-5 heading into the weekend. Kuest, a 25-year-old Fresno, Calif., native, has caught fire in recent weeks, posting top-20 finishes in three events, including a T-4 at the Rocket Mortgage Classic, to put himself in this position.
In the battle for tour cards—numbers 126 through 150 still get conditional status—it’s been a curious two days in Georgia, where only one player climbed into the top 125, and only fell out. Maverick McNealy finished birdie-eagle to post 67 and is tied for 22nd, moving him up from 127th to a projected 121st. Troy Merritt, who began the week at 123rd, missed the cut by three shots and now sits outside the bubble at No. 126.
At six under, Carl Yuan (projected 120th) and Nico Echavarria (118th) have both improved their position and given themselves a slight weekend cushion inside the top 125, but otherwise, movement has been minimal.
There's still plenty of time, though. Doug Ghim (projected 125th), Matti Schmid (123rd) and Peter Malnati (122nd) are among the last five projected qualifiers who missed the cut at the RSM, putting their chances in jeopardy if players such as McNealy can hold steady over the weekend. Other outside-the-bubble hopefuls, such as Ryan Moore (projected 128) and Austin Smotherman (projected 133), have also put themselves in position to spoil someone's party and crack the top 125.
On the flip side, Henrik Norlander (127th) and Ryan Palmer (131st) have cost themselves any chance of a late surge by missing the cut, and C.T. Pan's withdrawal while standing at 129th, doomed his chances. All three will have to settle for conditional status next season.
In the fight for the Next 10, which confers entry into the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am and the Genesis Invitational at Riviera, both signature events, Ludvig Aberg continued his impressive rookie year by posting a 64 to take the outright tournament lead at 11 under. That has raised his position from 96th to start the week to 56th in the projected standings.
Aberg, 24, is playing in his 13th tour event, and he recently made the playoff at the Sanderson Farms Championship won by Luke List. Along with a top-10 at the John Deere and a solid showing for Europe in the Ryder Cup, the Swede’s stock continues to rise, and a win at the RSM would not only get Aberg into the two signature events but secure his status for two years.
Eric Cole hits from the 17th fairway during the first round of the RSM Classic.
"I feel like I've been striking the ball quite well," he said on Friday, "which obviously is nice in the wind, which is quite tricky to kind of maneuver. I made a few par putts today; I made a [10-footer] for par on 1 and then it's nice to get those momentum putts and to keep the round going a little bit. There's no guarantees, but if I keep doing what I'm doing today, I like my chances."
The other major drama at the RSM is the race for Rookie of the Year, which is seen as coming down to Aberg and Eric Cole. And although Aberg has been the star of the show, Cole is only a shot behind, in a three-way tie for second after two straight 66s.
"It would be awesome," Cole said, of the prospect of winning the award. "It's something you only get a chance to win once, which is kind of a unique thing in golf. To win that would be incredible."
Cole, a seasoned rookie at age 35, joked that he might have more experiences than the others he's competing against. He's posted six top-10s already this season, and like Aberg, made a playoff (the Honda Championship), and his top-50 status is already secure. But he, too, is seeking his first tour win.
If Aberg moves into the Next 10, someone has to move out, and the disadvantaged party in Georgia is J.J. Spaun, who nevertheless made the cut at four under to keep his hopes alive. Spaun will have to overtake two players on the weekend to get back inside the top 60, and his nearest competitors are Stephan Jaeger, Alex Smalley, List, and Nick Hardy, all of whom made the cut.
Further down the list, Stewart Cink (T-32) and Kelly Kraft (T-10) have played themselves into conditional status, while Webb Simpson and Charley Hoffman have fallen outside the top 150; though, unlike Simpson, Hoffman made the cut. Luckily for Cink and Simpson, they have status next year regardless, but Hoffman and Kraft are not so fortunate.
A long weekend looms, and plenty of drama is still to play out in the Barrier Islands. Each scenario at the RSM is of the moving variety—point values change, players rise, players fall. It's both what makes the final event of the season so exciting, and so nerve-wracking; the future can, and often does, hang on a single hole, and even a single putt.