RSM Classic

How Robert Streb kept his Sunday at Sea Island from going completely off the rails and pulled out a surprise playoff win

November 22, 2020
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Sam Greenwood

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — Fourteen feet, one inch was the length of Robert Streb’s birdie putt that would have won him the RSM Classic the first of the three times he played the 18th hole on Sunday, and his miss won’t be particularly remembered. It was a medium-weak effort, short and fading off to the right, but it certainly wasn’t an easy putt to make in the first place. And, truth be told, he was lucky to have the chance at all.

After holding a three-shot lead at the start of the day, Streb spent most of the final round at Sea Island Golf Club running in place while the field charged from behind on a gettable-to-defenseless Seaside Course. Two missed six-footers, one for par on 13 and one for birdie on 15, saw him forfeit the lead late, and only a terrific and unexpected mini-resurrection on 17, by virtue of a 207-yard dart that left him 11 feet for birdie, nudged him back into a tie. Meanwhile, Cameron Tringale and Harris English shot 62, and Kevin Kisner, the man in Streb’s way, must have felt slightly disappointed after his own 63. A few rickety approaches on the last three holes prevented Kisner from delivering the killing blow.

And yet, as a slight wind blew, it was easy to be convinced that this was do-or-die for Streb. Make it, he wins, miss it and sure, he’s in a playoff. But golf fans who know anything about Kisner had to have this phrase running through their heads: You don’t want to get into match play with Kevin Kisner. It seemed sensible enough. Kisner’s the reigning WGC-Dell Match Play champion, and two-time semifinalist, with scalps like Francesco Molinari, Dustin Johnson, Ian Poulter, Matt Kuchar and Patrick Reed on his belt. There’s a toughness to his demeanor, and the former Georgia Bulldog was the overwhelming favorite of the gallery that existed, which “swelled” to about 250 people by the time he finished his par on the 18th hole.

Of course, this notion was wrong. After a desperate par on the first playoff hole, where Streb survived by sinking a tricky nine-footer, he nearly holed out from the fairway rough on his third and final try at the 18th. Kisner needed a spectacular response with his opponent safely in tap-in range, but an unfortunate lie in the rough meant there was very little chance of getting it close, and his approach rolled harmlessly off the right side of the elevated green. Even with an impressive up-and-down to save par, the end-game had reached its climax. Streb tapped in, and clinched his first PGA Tour victory since his first PGA Tour victory, six years ago at this same course.

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Sam Greenwood

Streb fist-bumps tournament host Davis Love III after closing out the win on Sunday.

It wasn’t the first time an imagined narrative failed to materialize. It was Streb’s tournament to lose after 54 holes, and the first collective eyebrow was raised on the 13th hole, when Kisner drilled his approach to six feet and converted the birdie to come within a shot of the lead. Until that point, Streb had played a modest but effective front nine, coming in at 33, and needed only another birdie to get to 20 under and reach a plateau that would be difficult, if not impossible, for anyone match.

Instead, on his own journey to the 13th green, with the Sidney Lanier Bridge spanning the Brunswick River in the distance and the low drone of the Golf Channel’s plane providing the only background noise, he missed a short par putt. Almost simultaneously, Kisner converted a remarkable up-and-down from the fringe on the 14th, the ball trickling in on what might have been its final revolution after a slow downhill journey. Suddenly, there was a tie at the top. A few holes down the back nine, Cameron Tringale joined them minutes later.

At that point, it looked like Kisner had the massive advantage, and only more so when he recovered from an errant tee shot on the par-5 15th to make birdie and take his first solo lead. His body language reflected the impetus, grim and determined in the classic Kisner style as he marched over bridges and through the marshland. Even then, 20 under felt like a winning score, but his approach on 16 narrowly failed to climb the ridge and rolled off the front edge. Kyle Stanley took himself out with a tee shot into the water on that same hole, and up ahead, it became clear that Tringale wouldn’t add to his total. The two-horse race was on.

The same formula played out on 17 and 18 for Kisner, and it was Streb who seized back the momentum with the tee shot on the par-3 17th, in what he acknowledged later as the most important shot of his tournament. Like the rest of us, Streb was wondering if Kisner would reach 20 under, but by then it had become clear that he might have a chance to wrest the tournament away still. Striding past the dozens of white egrets that had gathered on the far side of a pond past the 18th tee, he gave himself his first chance to win, and missed what seemed like the definitive last gasp.

Instead, he saved his own bacon with a scrambling par on the first playoff hole, and then hit the approach that was so good, it didn’t really matter if it went in … though it almost did.

“It was 158, and we were planning on the ball kind of knuckling out of there and jumping,” Streb said of the shot. “You’re kind of at the mercy of whatever you get, and it came out really well. I was just hoping it would kind of land soft and obviously it just, it worked out as good as you could hope for.”

He knew he was lucky, and not just once. Lucky to reach the playoff, lucky to survive the disadvantage after a bad drive on the first hole, lucky to survive Kisner’s birdie putt that swerved at the last moment.

“I felt very fortunate to get to a second playoff hole,” he said. “As good as [Kisner] is, there was a very good chance he was going to make that birdie putt on the first hole, and I felt lucky to have a crack at par. Made it and got another swipe at it.”

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Sam Greenwood

Kisner just missed his birdi putt on the first playoff that would have given him his second career RSM title.

Kisner was self-deprecating in the aftermath, joking that, “I just want to keep my playoff record intact here on tour and not have a win in a playoff.” It’s a strange stat for someone like Kisner who excels in match play, but he’s now 0-for-5 in his PGA Tour career in playoffs, while Streb moves to 2-1.

For Streb, it represents the end of a long winless drought, and it comes with all the usual perks—tour exemption through 2023, Kapalua, Players, PGA Championship, Augusta. As befits his personality, the 33-year-old Oklahoma native was muted in the aftermath, a small grin flaring up occasionally as he contemplated how his young daughters would feel about the win (“I’m not quite sure they’ll understand what it means”), why he doesn’t wear a glove (“just the thing as a kid, I never really liked how it felt”) and whether he’ll get ice cream at Frosty’s again (“Most likely. I haven’t missed this week.”)

As for what changed this week, he chalks it all up to putting, and no amount of interrogation would change or expand his tune. It’s a simple explanation for a no-frills player, and one whose final round reflected the trajectory of his recent career—stagnancy at the start, bearing up under pressure and doubt, and finally emerging for a brilliant last act.