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Golfer Eric Cole’s unlikely rise to PGA Tour culminates lifelong pursuit

TEQUESTA —Spending two weeks in Hawaii to kick off 2024 is living the dream, especially if you’re golfer Eric Cole.

Until recently, Cole began each year uncertain when he’d play, where he’d play and whether he’d be able to make ends meet.

There were many times when professional golf seemed like a dead end. But Cole also never gave in.

Cole enters the Sony Open in Honolulu fresh off a season-opening tie for 14th at The Sentry and a $320,250 payday, or almost as much as the $324,779 he earned during 67 starts on the Korn Ferry Tour from 2016-22.

“It’s been a long journey and definitely some bumps in the road,” he told the Orlando Sentinel in December after a round at his home course at Tequesta Country Club. “But it makes it a little sweeter to take the route that I have. While I wouldn’t have picked it, it definitely feels good now and it’s a cool spot to be.”

An unlikely, storybook 2023 season ended with Cole, who grew up in Winter Garden and often golfed at Orlando’s Bay Hill, a 35-year-old PGA Tour Rookie of the Year. He is one of the fresh faces in a sport increasingly tilted toward youth, swing speed and driving distance.

At 5-foot-8, 155 pounds, Cole is unassuming, but is a reliable ball striker with a razor-sharp short game.

He also has rare pedigree as the son of 1973 LPGA Rookie of the Year Laura Baugh and PGA Tour winner Bobby Cole.

Eric Cole’s secret, though, might be the competitive edge of a player who turned professional in 2009, subsisted while dominating South Florida’s mini-tour circuit and repeatedly failed to get out of Q-school. Eventually, he capitalized on his second full season on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2022 to reach golf’s biggest stages.

Cole stole the show at the 2023 Honda Classic, losing in a playoff to Chris Kirk, a recovering alcoholic on his own personal journey.

Cole’s feel-good story wasn’t to be short-lived, either.

What appeared to be a golfer catching lightning in a bottle turned out to be the start of the meteoric rise. Cole recorded six additional top-10s, including three top-3s to end 2023, and earned $5.485 million.

A season that could have been a fluke instead appears to be a harbinger.

“Golf is a cool sport to where everyone peaks at different times,” Cole said. “There’s still an opportunity to have the prime of your career later.”

He will have his chances.

Ranked No. 39 in the world, Cole qualifies for all the top tournaments, highlighted by the eight signature events, including the Arnold Palmer Invitational March 7-10 at Bay Hill, and the four major championships.

Cole is a cool customer, but is geeked up for his first trip to the Masters from April 11-14.

“It’s hard to believe, really,” he said. “My dad played in the Masters a few times. I’ve never been there before. I’ve driven by the front entrance is about as close as they’ve let me to that place.

“It’s definitely a career bucket list or lifelong bucket list type of thing to be able to play in the Masters.”

Cole drive down Magnolia Lane will be another step on a path that has taken him places few of his fellow PGA Tour pros can likely imagine.

The South Florida-based Minor League Golf Tour is home to some talented players and receives the occasional cameo from a local top pro working on his game. Brooks Koepka, a five-time major champion from West Palm Beach, has won on the MLGT.

Most days, golfers put $200 of their own money into a pool hoping to win $1,000 in a one-day shootout. Bigger, multiple-day events require higher entry fees and can pay up to $20,000.

“You’re really not going to get rich,” Cole said. “It’s more just to play competitive rounds in a tournament environment and hopefully feel the little bit of pressure from trying to win or trying to birdie of last couple holes to win. You get the most out of that versus the money.

“Can you perform when you need to?”

Cole rose to the occasion and sits fourth on the career money list with $210,297.84. At times, he had to mortgage his future.

“I’ve put a lot of tournaments on credit cards in my life because I didn’t have the money to pay for them,” he said. “You’re running some balances, had a couple credit cards … definitely leaner times.”

Cole eventually earned a chance for bigger paydays and better competition on the Korn Ferry Tour. He took some bigger gambles.

A trip to Bogota, Colombia, for a Friday qualifier earned Cole a spot in the tournament. A 30th-place finish forced him to fly back to Miami, drive nearly two hours home and head to Sarasota on little sleep for a Monday qualifier.

Cole got into the field, finished 15th and earned the right to play the rest of the 2020 season.

“If you don’t do all those little things and get some good breaks, then I don’t play the whole year on Korn Ferry,” he said. “While I didn’t get my [PGA Tour] card that year, it definitely helped me.”

Cole broke through in 2022 to earn his long-awaited spot on Tour. He now plans to stay, while doing it his way.

In an age when golfers keep a swing coach, sports psychologist and physiotherapist on the payroll and speed dial, Cole is self-reliant. He might check in with his mother, who has a golf school at The Palencia Club in St. Augustine, or his father, now 75 and the winner of 1977 Buick Open.

Cole said mom, who has been sober 24 years after alcohol derailed her career, is “hardworking and optimistic.” Dad is a “pretty calm guy.”

The PGA Tour’s top newcomer in 2023 views himself a combination of both. Cole hopes it’s a winning combination in 2024, though some might say he already has won.

“When it takes that long to to get there, it validates all the work that you put into it,” he said. “You’re so grateful to be out there playing that it’s fun and exciting.”

Edgar Thompson can be reached at egthompson@orlandosentinel.com.