RSM's final round features one of the greatest Rookie of Year duels ever

November 18, 2023

Ludvig Aberg (left) and Eric Cole are heading down to the wire in the race for the Rookie of the Year award

Here are two resumes for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year award. Decide which one you like best:

Player A: 37 PGA Tour events played; six top-10s; one playoff loss; 10 missed cuts; made cuts in two out of two majors (T-15 at the PGA) and the Players Championship; 43rd in FedEx Cup standings; 48th in World Ranking.

Player B: 13 PGA Tour events played; two top-10s; one playoff loss; 96th in FedEx Cup standings; one missed cut; no majors played; 53rd in World Ranking; one DP World Tour win; 2-2 in the Ryder Cup.

If you're like me, and you keep in mind that this is the PGA Tour Rookie of the Year prize, Player A has the distinct advantage. He, as you likely know, is Eric Cole, and Player B is Ludvig Aberg, the recent college graduate who has taken the golf world by storm in a matter of months. Cole has a lower profile, in part because he's 35 years old, but to my mind you can't punish him for not being on the Ryder Cup team or winning an event overseas—being American meant neither one was a realistic opportunity. And pound for pound, he's slightly, but definitively, better than Aberg.

BUT! It's very close, and in fact so close that a single victory for either man in the RSM Classic on Sunday would, at least in my mind, settle the debate. And the prospect of a win is no hypothetical; it's our great luck as golf fans that the two top candidates for Rookie of the Year just so happen to be first and second heading into the final round of the final tournament of the season.

That's the almost absurdly dramatic situation in Sea Island, Ga., where Aberg shot a nine-under-par 61 on Saturday to move to 20 under and take a one-shot lead at the Seaside Golf Course. Close behind is Cole, who stayed with Aberg every step of the way, also shooting 61 to reach 19 under. (Only Mackenzie Hughes did better, posting a field-best 60 to force his way into the final group with the two frontrunners, where he'll attempt to play spoiler.)

It's no exaggeration to say the prize is coming down to the last day of the season. If neither player wins, Cole likely takes the award on the strength of his meatier resume. If Cole wins, the prize obviously belongs to him. But if they duel it out and Aberg triumphs, it's hard to imagine he doesn't steal it from Cole at the final moment.

There's room for disagreement there; you may think that even with a win, Aberg's resume is a bit thin, and not just in comparison to Cole, but to players such as Taylor Montgomery or Thomas Detry who have been amassing results all season. But when you consider how he'll shoot up the FedEx Cup rankings, and that he'll be the only rookie to win a "normal" PGA Tour event (Vincent Norrman and Nico Echavarria won opposite field events), and that no other rookie even made the Tour Championship, it feels like the opportunity is undeniable.

Cole, who shot a 28 on his back nine on Saturday, demurred when asked whether the race could come down to the final round.

"I don't know, that's not really up to me," he said. "Not something I'm too worried about. It's going to fall where it's going to fall. I'm just focused on getting some rest this afternoon and tonight and being ready to go tomorrow."

Aberg, who went 32-29 on his respective nines, wasn't asked about his Rookie of the Year chances—on Thursday, he said he hasn't been focused on it—but he did comment on Cole's past as a sort of mini-tour legend, having won 50 times on smaller tours, including many one-day events.

"I wouldn't say I've played a lot of one-day events," he said, "but I guess you can boil it down like that. Kind of coming down the last couple holes in a tournament ... you play yourself, but you also play the golf course, and you play your competitors. That's the way it is, that's why we play and that's why we enjoy it so much."

Aberg and Cole have played together previously at Bay Hill (Aberg was still an amateur) and the John Deere, where Cole watched the Swede shoot a final-round 63 to finish in a tie for fourth. On Sunday, they'll meet again with the stakes much higher; they'll be going for a first PGA Tour win, and all the benefits that come with it, and as the last men standing in the Rookie of the Year hunt, they'll also be playing for a spot in tour history.