PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – It’s not a bad thing to be noticed. Especially if you’re Eric Cole, the true definition of a grinder who never gave up his dream of playing on the PGA Tour and was rewarded 14 years after turning pro.
What it took was one memorable weekend and the golf world suddenly was talking about this 34-year-old rookie. There he was this week, sitting on the set of the Golf Channel and being referenced by Jay Monahan during the commissioner’s State of the Tour address.
“There’s a few more people noticing what I’m doing,” Cole said Wednesday. “And that’s something that comes with good golf. And I’m all about playing good golf.
“So, you know, it’s kind of an exciting time for me.”
Playing good golf also meant a pathway into this week’s Players Championship, which Cole earned through his runner-up finish at the Honda Classic two weeks ago. That was the best week of his professional career, ending in a playoff and one shot behind winner Chris Kirk.
Cole’s first round at the Players on Thursday was, in his words, “a little bit shaky.” Perhaps uneven is an even better description with five birdies, four bogeys and a double on No. 18 (his ninth hole) in which his drive took an unfortunate bounce into the water. He shot a 1-over 73.
“It could have taken a little more friendly bounce, but it just kicked left, so it’s all good,” the upbeat Cole said about his tee shot at 18. “You’re not supposed to hit it over there.”
What helped Cole’s mood was a birdie on his finishing hole, the 601-yard No. 9. He landed his second shot on the fringe 42 feet from the pin and got up and down with a 4-foot putt.
“It was a good way to end the day,” he said.
Golf in his blood
Cole was born with golf in his blood. His mom, Laura Baugh, was the 1973 LPGA Rookie of the Year and finished with 70 top 10s in a 25-year LPGA career. His father, Bobby Cole, a South African, won the 1977 Buick Open on the PGA Tour and twice finished third in a major.
But that did not guarantee success, and Eric persevered through the Minor League Golf Tour, the Korn Ferry Tour and even worked as a golf teacher and a caddy for good friend Sam Saunders, the grandson of Arnold Palmer. Cole was on Saunders’ bag for the 2019 Florida Swing, including the Players.
“I’m proud of the work he’s put in,” said Baugh, who now lives in Ponte Vedra Beach. “A lot of people really support him and cheer him on because they can identify with him. He’s someone who really puts in the time and effort. He’s a relatable guy.”
Baugh describes her son’s gallery as “passionate,” and that gallery was in full throttle at PGA National as Cole began his assault on the Champion Course. Four rounds under 70 on one of the toughest tracks on tour got Cole into a playoff.
Yet, despite his most successful (Cole never had a top-10 finish in his 17 previous PGA Tour starts) and profitable week in golf (Cole had $363,880 in career earnings before making $915,880 at Honda), he could not help but think of one shot.
Cole entered the 72nd hole one shot behind Kirk but seized the upper hand after Kirk’s second shot ricocheted into the water. Needing to get up and down from the fringe for a birdie, Cole’s chip shot came out hot and rolled off the green.
Cole settled for a par and left an otherwise memorable tournament with one regret.
“I probably could have played the same club but just played it a little lower,” he said about the chip. “It would have been a little safer shot to where if I did miss-hit it like I did, it would have still probably ended up on the green with the putt instead of up against the collar and the rough.”
With the playoff on the same 18th hole, Kirk tapped in for birdie and Cole’s birdie putt caught the lip.
“I played really well, the first three days, but the last day, I didn’t play as well, especially tee to green,” said Cole, who admitted to being nervous playing in the last group for the first time in a PGA Tour event.
“So it was kind of cool to be able to have a chance to win that tournament, even though I wasn’t playing my best. People talk about that all the time. You don’t have to play perfect golf to win. But to see it firsthand was pretty cool.”
What also was pretty cool was shooting 14 under, a Honda record since the event was moved to PGA National in 2007. He and Kirk now share it.
Cole could not carry the momentum into the Arnold Palmer Invitational the following week. He missed the cut after shooting 80 on the second day.
“I just didn’t play well,” he said. “And Bay Hill was so difficult that you didn’t have a whole lot of room to recover.
“I just played bad and then continued to press and be aggressive and just kind of magnified it. But that happens.”
So does “good golf,” and Cole is hoping that happens more often.
More PGA Tour!
Jordan Spieth, Jason Day use mid-round surge to stay in position at the Players Championship
That marquee group of Jon Rahm, Scottie Scheffler and Rory McIlroy sure fell flat on Thursday at the Players
Chad Ramey shines in first Players Championship appearance, Collin Morikawa gets his swagger back and more from Thursday at TPC Sawgrass
Story originally appeared on GolfWeek