ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — The Golden Isles got a taste of what normal feels like post-pandemic when the Florida-Georgia football game on Oct. 30 played to full capacity, which meant visitors, buzz and business.
Step two for a normal fall comes this week with the 12th playing of the RSM Classic at the Sea Island Club’s Seaside and Plantation Courses, which begins on Thursday and will be aired on Golf Channel from 1-4 p.m. through Sunday.
Florida-Georgia week on the Isles is about a rollicking good time for football fans, with garish displays of school colors, trash-talking and yes, imbibing at Frat Beach, Brogen’s, the Beachcomber or Gnat’s Landing, then again on game day in the parking lots of Jacksonville’s TIAA Bank Field.
This is golf, as laid-back a sport as it gets. But this week will come with a sense of urgency as a field of 156 players will tackle the windswept courses to pick up some extra cash and FedEx Cup points before the Tour goes dark for six weeks until early January.
That doesn’t mean it isn’t just as important to the area — and to tournament host Davis Love III, who said his initial vision for a PGA Tour event at the historic resort has gone beyond the hopes he had in 2010 when the winner didn’t get a full boat of 500 FedEx Cup points and didn’t get an invitation to the Masters.
“It’s grown a lot more than we ever expected,” said Love, a member of the World Golf Hall of Fame and two-time Players Champion. “It’s exceeded expectations, but that’s what happens at Sea Island and with a great team in our [Davis Love] foundation office.”
The tournament was a big money-maker for charity from the start, most notably the Boys and Girls Clubs of Southeast Georgia and Special Olympics. This week, the tournament announced it has passed $25 million in charity.
And the golf has been dramatic — the first five champions won by either one shot or in playoffs, and four of the last five winners have survived playoffs.
The only time the issue wasn’t in doubt late on Sunday was in 2016 when Kevin Kisner won by six shots.
The tournament was elevated in 2014 when the PGA Tour created its “wraparound schedule,” making the fall events a part of the FedEx Cup and dangling the carrot of a trip to Augusta National with a victory.
Photos: RSM Classic at Sea Island Resort
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“Guys have realized over the last few years that you need to get some points in the fall if you want to win at the end,” Love said. “Every point counts so it’s important for guys to get to play. Obviously, we see that in our field this year.”
There will be 14 major champions starting on Thursday, including Adam Scott, Jason Day, Justin Rose, Webb Simpson and Louis Oosthuizen, along with U.S. Ryder Cup player Scottie Scheffler and defending champion Robert Streb.
Like many PGA Tour events in 2020, the RSM Classic was conducted without fans as Streb birdied the second playoff hole to beat Kisner.
But the fans are back and so are the family-oriented activities for the players, caddies, volunteers and their families, ranging from a charity wiffleball game between the players and wives, Southern Soul barbecue on the practice range, horseback-riding and beach trips for the kids.
There are two pro-ams this week, on Monday and Wednesday.
“It’s nice having the people back,” said Streb, whose two PGA Tour titles have come at the RSM Classic. “That little bit of extra energy, I think it’s fun for the players, too, and obviously the fans are kind of itching to get back out on the course.”
Love said last year’s event was “weird” — from no fans, masked volunteers and an injury that cost him the pleasure of teeing it up in his own event.
“Obviously the whole world’s been weird for a year and a half,” he said. “But nice to have the fans back, nice to have our sponsors back. RSM already had one pro-am event and several events outside, but several fun events at night. It’s moving along and we’re excited that things are back to normal and our community is going to get to come out and participate this year.”
The RSM Classic brings another round of revenue for South Georgia businesses during the tournament week. The Golden Isles Convention and Visitors Bureau has estimated the economic impact of the golf tournament at around $10 million, with weekly attendance between 25,000-30,000.
Not bad, for a tournament Love envisioned as one similar to the Tour’s late-summer event in Callaway Gardens, another notable Georgia resort.
“We wanted it to be family-friendly, one that everybody likes to come and has a great time, show off Sea Island, show our community hospitality,” he said. “It’s more than just a golf tournament to them. It’s a family trip. Now we’ve got new young families like Trey Mullinax — can’t wait to get to Sea Island, can’t wait to go to Southern Soul Barbecue, can’t wait for his kids to see the ocean. That makes it even more special for us.”
Webb Simpson said his kids can’t wait for RSM week, mainly to visit the candy store at The Cloister.
“This is a destination spot for families to come and relax … there’s so much to do,” said Simpson, a father of five.
“Just a lot of good stuff here,” Streb said. “It’s been really good for me and my family, obviously a really cool venue and setup, and the Davis Love Foundation, they just run a great golf tournament.”