Former college star looking to (finally) break through at jam-packed RSM Classic

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Logic would tell you that Sunday at the RSM Classic—the final official PGA Tour event in 2022—is going to be a wide-open affair. Though former Stanford star Patrick Rodgers and 35-year-old Ben Martin share the 54-hole lead at 14 under at Sea Island Golf Club, there are 16(!) players within three shots of the lead. Better yet, come Sunday morning on St. Simons Island, 25(!!) players will tee off four shots or closer to the lead. Safe to say, it’s anyone’s tournament … or is it?

History begs to differ. As they look to hold off the lurking pack, Rodgers and Martin may find comfort in knowing six of the last seven RSM Classic winners have held the 54-lead or co-lead, going back to 2015. Coincidentally, 2015 was the year Rodgers, now 30, gained special temporary membership on the PGA Tour.

Right alongside fellow high school Class of 2011 members Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas, Rodgers was the can’t-miss-kid when he left Stanford after his junior year in 2014. He left the Cardinal tied with Tiger Woods as the program’s all-time wins leader with 11, since matched by Maverick McNealy. In 2014, he won six times and took home the Haskins Award—given to the most outstanding collegiate golfer—as well as the Ben Hogan Award and the Jack Nicklaus Award. He was the No. 1-ranked amateur in the world and primed for a lucrative, trophy-filled PGA Tour career.

Eight years later, Rodgers has indeed enjoyed a lucrative run on tour, racking up over $10 million in career earnings. The downside? He is one of 14 players who have achieved that money milestone without a win. Rodgers nearly found the elusive win at Sea Island in 2018, when he lost in a playoff to Charles Howell III.

A consistent performer at the highest level, yes, but prior to the start of this season, Rodgers and his coach Jeff Smith identified a couple areas that were preventing him from winning with the same regularity he enjoyed in college (or winning, period). Last week in Houston, where he finished T-16, Rodgers spoke of trying to improve from tee-to-green, especially in approach play.

“You see guys like J.T. [Justin Thomas] and Collin Morikawa and Jon Rahm, the way they hit their approach shots and the way that they’re able to attack from the fairway, it’s a huge asset in their game,” he said. “I feel like if I can just kind of chip away getting a little bit closer to those guys, the way I putt it, I should be able to put together a nice year.”

As if his Stanford education hadn’t already given it away, it turns out Rodgers is a fast learner. Through three rounds in Georgia, he’s second in the field in strokes gained/approach. For a guy who in recent years has regularly finished outside the top 160 on tour in the stat—save for last season, when he was a modest 94th—sharpening his iron play like he has so far this week may be the key to getting into the winner’s circle.

“I feel incredibly settled in,” Rodgers said after his third-round six-under 64. “I honestly feel like a veteran a bit out here at this point. Most of the time I’m playing with guys who are younger than I am, and plus experience, and so I’m going to try to lean on that tomorrow. I’m looking forward to the chance.”

Alongside Rodgers on the leaderboard is Martin, who has one career PGA Tour win, which came back in 2014 at the Shriners Children’s Open. In 2015, he held a share of the lead on the 72nd tee at TPC Sawgrass in The Players, before making a bogey to fall one short of the playoff, eventually won by Rickie Fowler.

More recently, though, Martin has battled a lingering back injury, which plagued him in 2018 and 2019. He hasn’t finished inside the top 125 in the FedEx Cup since 2017, and he admits he’s had thoughts of hanging up the sticks.

“Maybe even going through a phase there, man, do I want to transition careers kind of thing?” Martin said after his third-round 65 on the Seaside course. “I don’t know if I ever seriously thought about that, but it was certainly in my head when your body is not feeling great and you’re not playing great golf and struggling to enjoy our time out here.

“I think one thing I learned coming back is if I can enjoy it first, then I think good golf comes instead of telling yourself you have to play well to have some fun out here. … I think I’ve always had pretty good perspective, but as family comes and kids and stuff like that, you kind of realize if I shoot 62 or 72 tomorrow, not a whole lot is going to change in my life.”

Speaking of shooting 62 or 72 on Sunday, he may very well do either of those things if his three final-round scores this season are any indication. On Sundays in this fall campaign, he’s carded a 79 (Fortinet Championship), 66 (Shriners Children’s Open) and 75 (Butterfield Bermuda Championship).

So, regardless of what tournament history says, given Martin’s volatility, Rodgers’ winless streak and so many players near the lead, the many chasers are well positioned to win.

Among those are Canadian Adam Svensson, who carded a third-round 62—the low round of the day—to move within a shot. Sahith Theegala is also part of the group of three lingering one shot back. The former Pepperdine star is in his second year on tour after an excellent rookie season in which he recorded five top-10s. A former Haskins Award winner like Rodgers, Theegala has already posted two top-six finishes in his sophomore campaign and is looking to capture his maiden victory on Sunday.

On Saturday, though, despite shooting a two-under 68 to move within one of the lead, the 24-year-old was visibly frustrated, even after hitting seemingly decent shots. (He’s coming for you, Hideki Matsuyama.)

Asked after the round if the frustration stemmed from his desire to get the win on Sunday, Theegala said, “No, like I just want to play good golf really bad. I’m not referencing a win or anything. Just wanting to get the best out of what I am, because I feel like my game is in a really good spot and [I’m] playing really well.”

The intrinsically motivated Californian will join fellow Pepperdine alum Andrew Putnam and St. Simons Island resident Brian Harman in the penultimate grouping on Sunday. Harman is among the seven players at 12 under, just two shots back—a group which also includes recent International Presidents Cup team member Taylor Pendrith, 2016 Haskins Award winner Beau Hossler, fan favorite Harry Higgs and a couple of Duke grads in Kevin Streelman and Alex Smalley.

Four more players will start at 11 under, three shots back, and another nine are within striking distance at 10 under, four back. In other words, the history of 54-hole leaders prevailing at the RSM Classic will be thoroughly tested on Sunday, when the pack of chasers will look to track down Rodgers and Martin.

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