After opening with rounds of 66 and 62 at Sea Island Golf Club, the only place to go was down for Austin Cook, a PGA Tour rookie making just his 14th career start at the RSM Classic. Surely, he would fade and make room for a few PGA Tour champions like Kevin Kisner and Chris Kirk to mount a charge on moving day.
Cook immediately quelled that notion on Saturday, making back-to-back birdies to open his round and extend his lead to two. From there it was smooth sailing, as he finished with a four-under 66 to get to 18-under 194, good enough for a three-shot lead heading into the final round in St. Simons Island, Ga.
The University of Arkansas alum didn't make his third birdie until the par-5 seventh, but added another two holes later at the par 4, sticking his 185-yard approach shot to within five feet and holing the putt. He turned in four-under 31, and after a streak of four consecutive pars, Cook remarkably dropped his first shot of the week, ending his run of 44 holes without a bogey. He was able to get it back on the following hole, the par-5 15th, for his final birdie of the day.
Cook has found himself in this position thanks to some stellar iron play, hitting more than 87 percent of his greens in regulation for the week, which ranks him solo second in the field. Another precise round on Sunday could lead to Cook's first professional victory on any tour, and anything inside the top five would give him his best career finish on the PGA Tour.
Kirk appeared to knock himself out of contention on Friday, posting an even-par 70 and falling five strokes off the pace. But the four-time tour winner made a big move on Saturday, carding a six-under 64 that featured seven birdies and a bogey. His three-round total of 15-under 197 has already eclipsed his 14-under overall total that won him the RSM Classic in 2013 for his second career victory.
"I'm just really comfortable here, I love Sea Island, I lived here for six-and-a-half years, so I've played the golf course a lot," he said. It's that local knowledge that has Kirk feeling confident about Sunday, even with windy conditions in the forecast.
"I've played this course in every direction and velocity of the wind possible. I bet I've got 300-plus rounds in on the Seaside (course). Not saying that'll make me do any better, but I'll know what to expect."
If Kirk can catch Cook and win on Sunday, he'll become the first two-time RSM Classic winner in the event's eight-year history.
Sitting four back at 14-under 198 is Brian Gay, who shot a one-under 69 with five birdies, two bogeys and a costly double bogey at the short par-4 fifth. Gay, 45, is looking to win for the fifth time of his career on the PGA Tour.
The round of the day belonged to J.J. Spaun, who carded an eight-under 62 highlighted by a run of four straight birdies from the fifth through eighth holes. He's in solo fourth at 13-under 199, one ahead of Kevin Kisner, who shot a five-under 65 to get into contention.
Two-time major champion Zach Johnson is also lurking at 10-under 202 thanks to a third-round six-under 64.