The wind died down and the birdies were flying Saturday at the 2023 RSM Classic. Mackenzie Hughes signed for a 60, Eric Cole carded eight straight threes en route to a 61, but the day belonged to leader Ludvig Åberg heading into the final round of action at Sea Island Golf Club.
Sitting at 20 under after a bogey-free 9-under 61, the Swedish superstar will look to put an emphatic cap on his short rookie season. Teeing it up for only the 11th time, Åberg has one hand on Rookie of the Year honors as he vies for the accolade with Cole, who will join him in the final group Sunday.
"I wouldn't say I've played a lot of one-day events, but I guess you can boil it down like that, kind of coming down the last couple holes in a tournament is you play yourself but you also play the golf course and you play your competitors," said Åberg. "That's the way it is, that's why we play and that's why we enjoy it so much."
The 24-year-old remains without a bogey around Sea Island this week, but it was Åberg's shot-making ability that shined Saturday. Opening his round with a ho-hum 3-under 32, Åberg caught fire in the middle of his back nine, playing a stretch of five holes in 6-under fashion.
What makes Åberg's day more impressive is the manner in which it was achieved. Gaining +5.52 strokes from tee to green, the European Ryder Cup member lapped the field in this statistical category and needed just an average putting performance to sign for a 61.
"I try to do the same thing every hole that I play, but sometimes it just seems a little bit easier," said Åberg. "But I stayed patient today, I feel like I did a good job of that. Kind of the first couple three, four holes are not easy, so I stayed patient through those and made a few nice par putts. Stayed patient and luckily it paid off today."
Playing with confidence in the first instance of holding a 36-hole lead on the PGA Tour, Åberg will look for the same in his second time possessing a 54-hole lead. Holding a two-stroke edge at the BMW PGA Championship through three rounds, Åberg scuttled that fateful Sunday with a 4-over 76. History is likely to not repeat itself.
Åberg has proven to be a quick learn, but the relative experience factor sits in the corner of his playing partner. A winner of more than 50 titles across minor league circuits, Cole heads into the final round playing the all-too-familiar underdog role. The 35-year-old will not go down without a fight.
"It [winning 50+ times] definitely doesn't hurt," said Cole. "It's obviously a little different stage out there and everything's kind of amped up a little bit. Whenever you win, it's always a good thing and something I'll probably lean on a little bit tomorrow."
In addition to Rookie of the Year honors, first career victories, Masters invitations and ascension inside the top 50 of the Official World Golf Rankings will all be in play. Not only for those in the final pair but also those seeking to finish the FedEx Cup Fall in the coveted Next 10.
"Just finishing the year on a strong note, it's nice for momentum going into next year," said Hughes. "I feel as though I've gotten myself into a couple of those elevated events -- signature events, sorry -- and if I continue to play like I am, I like my chances to play my way into more of them. Yeah, it's not fun being on the outside looking in right now, but try and make the most of my starts right now and just trying to kind of see some improvement in my game."
The Canadian's near crack at 59 has positioned him in the penultimate group at 18 under. A former winner at Sea Island, Hughes is joined by another prior RSM Classic champion, Tyler Duncan, at 17 under. Sam Ryder is the last of the field to be within five strokes as a dramatic 18 holes to end the PGA Tour season awaits.