News & Opinion

Hog heaven: Cook joins young Tour winners

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – On Tuesday night, there's a party scheduled at Jonesboro Country Club in Arkansas. Adam Carney, the club's head professional, said he was expecting roughly 200 attendees. They've been planning it for two months. The guest of honor? None other than PGA Tour rookie Austin Cook. The party was supposed to be a celebration of his achievement of earning a PGA Tour card.

On Sunday, Cook won the RSM Classic by four strokes over J.J. Spaun, Cook’s first Tour title in his fourth start since earning his card (scores: http://bit.ly/2wE1lpy).

Now about that party on Tuesday night . . . .

"We might have to raise the food-and-beverage order," Carney said jokingly. "And we're going to charge Austin!"

Cook, 26, who earned $1.116 million, became the fourth first-time winner on the Tour in as many weeks. It's becoming old hat for newbies to walk onto the Tour and win. It used to be that you had to crawl before you could walk.

"I remember when I was the young guy at 26," Brandt Snedeker said. "Now 26 is old. It seems like there's a new crop out here every year, pushing us to get better."

Cook was the first to concede that he wasn't a college hotshot. He never won a tournament in college, but he breezed through PGA Tour Qualifying School in his first trip. He also had a knack for Monday qualifying into Tour events, going an impressive 4-for-5 during 2015. He nearly earned enough money to earn his card. In 2016, he ranked 34th on the Web.com Tour Finals list when the final event was canceled because of Hurricane Matthew. The top 25 earned PGA Tour cards. Cook said he benefited from an extra year plying his trade on the Web.com Tour.

"It truly is the path to the PGA Tour," Cook said of the developmental tour.

Cook's last victory? A 2013 Adams Tour Winter Series event that earned him $4,000. When Cook scorched the Seaside Course in 62 on Friday, he cracked that he had shot that figure on the front nine when he played the same course in the Southeastern Conference Championship during his four years with the Razorbacks. 

"It's the two most stress-free back-to-back rounds I've ever seen," said Kip Henley, a veteran Tour caddie, who has been on Cook's bag since the Web.com Tour Finals.

Cook never flinched on the weekend. His teammates at Arkansas say he's fearless. They never doubted that Cook would make it. 

"It's so hard to predict, but I knew he was special," said David Lingmerth, an Arkansas alumnus and former Tour winner. "I love his attitude."

"I told his caddie, ‘Kip, the kid doesn't know how good he is, but he's about to find out,’ " said Andrew Landry, another former Razorback and Tour rookie who tied for fourth here. 

"I've got a 5-foot-7-inch Matt Kuchar," Henley said. "He's going to be hanging around the lead all the time."

It's a new era on the PGA Tour. Last year, 19 players in their 20s notched 28 victories on Tour. Si Woo Kim, 21, was the youngest in a procession of prodigies to have won. 

"The young guys now come out more experienced than ever, more prepared to win," Adam Scott said. "They understand what a golf ball does better than we ever did."

Brian Gay, 45, who holed out for eagle on the final hole to finish third at the RSM Classic, was impressed with Cook's demeanor. "Nothing seemed to faze him," Gay said.

Gay recalled how he started playing golf when he was 10 years old. "Now they seem to be playing in diapers. They have teachers and trainers. They all think they should win," Gay said. "If they're not comfortable, they fake it pretty good." 

Cook made only two bogeys in the tournament. He closed with birdies on three of the last four holes. Only after sinking a 15-foot birdie putt at the 17th hole to stretch the lead to four strokes did he allow himself a moment to consider that he was about to complete his childhood dream. His eyes watered.

"I had to put the sunglasses back on," he said.

Next stop, Jonesboro Country Club. There's a lot to celebrate on Tuesday. Bill it to the newest PGA Tour champion.

Adam Schupak has written about golf since 1997 for the likes of Golfweek, Golf World and The New York Times. He is the author of Deane Beman: Golf's Driving Force. Email: golfsdrivingforce@gmail.com; Twitter: @adamschupak