The year is winding down, but for the PGA Tour, the RSM Classic this week is only the end of the beginning.
The RSM on the Seaside Course at Sea Island Resort in Sea Island, Ga., is the seventh and final tournament of the fall portion of the 2017-18 schedule. It follows stops in California, Malaysia, South Korea, Mississippi, China, Las Vegas and Mexico.
There will be a six-week “offseason” before the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua in Hawaii on the first week of January, which for years was the traditional start to the season.
When the PGA Tour introduced the wraparound schedule in 2013-14, many of the top players in the world didn’t bother to play in any of the early events, but times have changed.
“(In past years), I’ve felt like it has gotten to January or early February and I’m way too far behind on the FedExCup list, and from there it is an uphill battle,” said Australian Marc Leishman, who got his season off to a strong start with a runner-up finish in the CJ Cup Nine Bridges in South Korea last month, losing in a playoff to Justin Thomas.
“We’ve still done OK, made the playoffs every year, but if you want to be up with the elite I think you need a big start.”
Last season, Thomas claimed his second career victory by repeating in the CIMB Classic, but he was only getting started.
Thomas started the new year by winning the Tournament of Champions at Kapalua after opening with a 59. He went on to win five times overall, including the PGA Championship at Quail Hollow.
When Thomas finished second in the Tour Championship, he claimed the FedExCup and locked up the Player of the Year Award.
“I felt like after (winning early), I learned a lot to where I could kind of ride that momentum out for the year,” said Thomas, who started his new season by winning the CJ Cup Nine Bridges and is taking a break before defending his title in Hawaii.
It was similar for Hideki Matsuyama of Japan, who claimed his third PGA Tour victory in the 2016 WGC-HSBC Champions in China during the early portion of the season. He then added the Waste Management Phoenix Open and the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational.
Matsuyama led the FedExCup standings for much of the season before fading at the finish and wound up eighth in the standings.
Not only the young guns have used the Fall events to kick-start a big season.
Pat Perez resurrected his career at the age of 40 while coming off left shoulder surgery last year. He wasn’t planning to play in the early events, but received a sponsors exemption from the CIMB Classic and tied for 33rd.
Perez felt so good that he moved on to the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas, where he tied for seventh, before earning the second victory of his PGA Tour career by winning the OHL Classic at Mayakoba.
His only previous victory came in the 2009 Bob Hope Classic and his second while playing on a major medical extension give him back his tour card.
“I played good on the weekend in Malaysia, and I carried it over,” said Perez, who again got off to a great start when he won the CIMB Classic last month and followed that with a tie for fifth in the CJ Cup Nine Bridges and a tie for 24th in the WGC-HSBC Champions.
“I really can’t explain it; it’s been an amazing 12 months,” Perez said after returning to Malaysia and winning where he started his comeback a year ago. “I can’t explain it, but I hope it continues. “I’ll be here every year. Every year of the tournament, I’ll be here. It’s been very good to me. The tournament’s been fantastic.”
Perez, who was No. 333 in the Official World Golf Ranking when he came back from surgery, had risen to No. 18 last week.
Actually, the players who perform well in the Fall to kick-start their seasons are following a similar game plan that others followed under the old schedule.
Top-ranked Greg Norman once said: “The PGA Tour really doesn’t start until Doral (the first event of the Florida Swing.”
In those days, many of the top players lived in Florida and didn’t play much on the West Coast Swing, giving up-and-comers more of a chance to shine early in the season.
“Before, you could take advantage of the West Coast and set your year up, and now you can take advantage of the Fall and set your year up,” said David Duval, the former No. 1 player in the world who won the 2001 Open Championship at Royal Lytham & St. Annes, and now is a commentator for the Golf Channel.
Davis Love III, another major champion and resident of Sea Island, is host of the RSM Classic this week. He has lined up a field that includes veterans Zach Johnson, Matt Kuchar, Bubba Watson, Webb Simpson, Brandt Snedeker, Graeme McDowell of Northern Ireland, Ernie Els and Retief Goosen of South Africa and Vijay Singh of Vijay, Stewart Cink and Bill Haas.
Among the youngsters looking for early-season FedExCup points are reigning Players champion Si Woo Kim of South Korea, Jamie Lovemark, Patrick Rodgers, Cheng Tsung Pan of Taiwan, Nick Taylor of Canada, J.J. Spaun, Beau Hossler, Aaron Wise and Roberto Diaz of Mexico.
The tournament ends four days before Thanksgiving, so the winner will get an early start on his holiday celebration, and most likely receive a jump-start on the new year.