ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – RSM Classic tournament director Todd Thompson flashed a toothy smile earlier this week when asked about the field assembled at Sea Island Resort.
Wedged a week after the relocated Masters and a week before Thanksgiving isn’t what one would consider a prime spot on the PGA Tour schedule, but the tee sheet for the year’s penultimate event tells a vastly different story.
This week’s field is the best ever for the RSM Classic, according to the world ranking, with a strength of field of 348, which is double nearly every other year since the event started in 2010. With 18 players from the top 50 in the world ranking that equals the mark set by the ’18 and ’19 events combined and it’s just the second time the tournament has featured a reigning major champion (Shane Lowry).
While the tournament is flush with its normal assortment of Sea Island-area residents (from Matt Kuchar to Zach Johnson), where Thompson has seen an unprecedented infusion of top players is from Europe, specifically the United Kingdom.
The reasons why some of the game’s top players made the 3 ½-hour drive from Augusta National and last week’s Masters vary, but the ultimate concept remains the same – why not?
“It was an easy trip. Any time when the schedule makes it simple to play a tournament, especially living in Europe, it’s ideal,” said Tommy Fleetwood, who is playing the RSM Classic for the first time. “The year hasn’t been particularly full of great performances, but we’ve been doing some good work and at the end of the day you have to keep playing through it and building confidence. It just sat well with me.”
Beyond the idyllic views and warm temperatures there are also world-wide travel restrictions because of the pandemic that made adding an extra tournament or two before the end of year a better alternative to being locked down back home in England or enduring a lengthy quarantine.
“It’s been a strange year and as pros you want to keep playing and be in that rhythm,” Fleetwood said. “The European schedule doesn’t clash with anything and the travel side for us. You can see why a lot of Europeans are playing, just a three-hour drive [from Augusta National]. Continuity with the way things are going, you just want to play.”
Proximity to last week’s Masters is certainly a draw for players who would normally make a similar drive from Augusta National to Hilton Head, S.C., for the RBC Heritage, which traditionally is played the week after the Masters in April. Adding to that allure is the reworked European Tour schedule.
The RSM Classic has been played opposite the DP World Tour Championship since 2015 and the European Tour finale is often a must-play for players on that circuit. Without the Race to Dubai conflict, playing this week’s event in Georgia became more attractive particularly for players who might need to pad their schedule this year after missing five months because of the quarantine.
“It’s been a weird year, that’s for sure. No golf for five months in the summer,” said Henrik Stenson, who hasn’t played the Sea Island stop since 2012. “I’m kind of short on tournaments and it fit in nice on the schedule to take this on the way home to Orlando.”
For others, it’s an opportunity to improve their status for next year.
“I normally play three or four in a row, but I had a great prep week for the Masters so this is kind of added on to that and I want to jump back inside the top 50 in world,” said Matt Wallace, another first-time RSM Classic participant. “That will dictate where I go from here.”
For the top players from Europe there were few reasons not to play the Sea Island stop, with officials allowing those coming from the Masters to drive their courtesy cars over to the RSM Classic and the ability to avoid air travel during a time when COVID-19 cases are spiking in the United States.
“It’s a more chilled out Hilton Head, which is really nice because I love Hilton Head. It’s brilliant,” Wallace said with a smile.
But mainly following the strangest of seasons and the uncertainty looming in 2021, players came to the RSM Classic because they can.