ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Every time a PGA Tour player considers the circuit’s “off-season” it always comes with “air quotes.” It’s a nod to the circuit’s nearly nonexistent off-season that unlike other sports is measured in days, not weeks or months.
Ten days separated Patrick Cantlay’s FedExCup winning performance at East Lake and the start of the new season in Napa, Calif. Instead, players look forward to the wraparound schedule’s winter break between this week’s RSM Classic and the Sentry Tournament of Champions in January. It’s a giddy, almost juvenile outlook that gives this week’s stop at Sea Island something of a last-week-of-school vibe.
“I almost feel a little bit more freed up I would say. You don't feel quite the pressure to go out there and practice because you know there's a break coming up,” said Tom Hoge, who will be four shots off the lead held by Talor Gooch to begin the Tour’s final turn of 2021. “I've just tried to relax and have some fun out there. I've played well these last weeks, so hopefully I can keep it going.”
No one needs a break more than Hoge. The Tour doesn’t dole out an Ironman award but if it did the 32-year-old would be a lock every year. The RSM Classic is Hoge’s 34th start this year and the looming break is hard to ignore.
“That will be nice,” he said when asked if he was looking forward to putting his golf clubs away for a few weeks. “I've played a lot this year. I think this is maybe 33 or 34 for me for this year, so yes, I am looking forward to it.”
Gooch doesn’t have the wear and tear of 34 starts (he's played 27 events in ’21) but he’s also looking forward to being at home for more than a few days. It’s been a particularly eventful fall for Gooch, who has four top-15 finishes in five starts this season, and his third-round 67 in blustery conditions pushed him three strokes clear of Seamus Power and Sebastian Munoz.
For the second consecutive day, winds gusted to 30 mph and the temperature continued to drop, but even as the field scoring average climbed (70.81) he remained aggressive.
“It's easy to try to stay level par and to be frank what you're trying to do out there is avoid bogeys. It would have been easy today at times, like I said, to just really get conservative and really be defensive,” said Gooch, who made just one bogey on Day 3 and birdied two of his final four holes. “I was being very conservative at times, I was still able to stay aggressive, the mentality of trying to extend what I have rather than just maintaining.”
Whatever happens Sunday on Sea Island, Gooch plans to take a few weeks away from golf before gearing back up for the restart in January with a few days in Scottsdale, Ariz., next month with his swing coach, Boyd Summerhays. He hears the call of the winter break but there’s still work to be done.
“You want to play well any time of the season, but especially the last event of the year, you want to send it off right, you know?” Gooch said. “There's also that part of you that's, we're all tired, we're all excited to get a little bit of a break, so we're hopeful that we can just play well before we can get a break finally.”
Breaking through for his first Tour victory would make that break-even sweeter as well as give him some leverage over some of his more outspoken friends. Gooch explained that he and a group of friends take a buddy’s trip in January to Arizona, but a victory on Sunday would come with a spot in the winner’s-only event in Maui to start the year.
“It's always the first week of January and so I'm hopeful that we're going to have to adjust that. That's what will be talked about,” Gooch laughed.
Gooch said he and his team have focused on finishing the year strong and 18 cold and windy holes await before he can finally embrace an off-season that doesn’t require air quotes.