Austin Cook takes three-stroke lead into Sunday at RSM Classic

Austin Cook shot a 66 in Round 3 of the RSM Classic on Saturday and leads by three over Chris Kirk and four over Brian Gay going into the final official round of the year on the PGA Tour on Sunday. 

For a while, it looked like it was going to be an even bigger lead than that. Cook went out in 31 before cooling off on the back nine to "settle" for a 66. Playing in just his 14th career PGA Tour tournament, the rookie is trying to lock down a two-year exemption and a ticket to the Tournament of Champions to start 2018.

He leads two veterans, too, in Kirk and Gay. Those two have combined for eight wins in 719 events. So Cook will have his work cut out for him on Sunday in holding off two guys who have seen most everything.

Cook, who had a torrid run in 2015 but no PGA Tour card, says he's grown a lot in the last two years. The uber-talented, 26-year-old who went to Arkansas is showing this week he has at least the talent to win on this tour.

"Back then my game was good as well, but mentally I've grown a lot and matured a lot and been able to kind of just let small things on the golf course roll off my shoulder instead of getting tied up in one little small mistake," Cook said on Saturday.

That doesn't mean he's completely forgotten what's at stake on Sunday in maybe the most important golf day of his life. Young players can often make hay in the fall with less-talented fields and not as much competition. But that can also be a springboard into stardom at the big boy tournaments come 2018. 

It's been a week highlighted by changing winds and interesting conditions, but Cook has conquered it and sits at 18 under after 54 holes. He has just one bogey on the week, and that didn't come until the 14th hole of his third round on Saturday. Nerves will come for him on Sunday, though, and could be his undoing.

Cook knows that.

"Holding back the nerves probably (will be the hardest thing on Sunday)," Cook said. "I know today it was a lot of deep breaths, a lot of trying to calm the nerves, just stay in the moment, let the anxiety go away. I think even tomorrow it will be a little bit higher on Sunday, so just trying to stay in the moment and just not really think about the possibility of what could happen."

With what's at stake -- a first prize bigger than his career earnings and the aforementioned exemption -- that will be much easier said than done.

CBS Sports Writer

Kyle Porter began his sports writing career with CBS Sports in 2012. He covers golf, writes poetry about Rory McIlroy's swing, stays ready on Tiger watch and loves the Masters more than anyone you know.... Full Bio

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