By Shane Ryan
ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. — The first win of Talor Gooch’s PGA Tour career was not easy inside the walls of his own mind—it never is—but to an outside observer, he certainly made it look easy. On a sleepy Sunday at the RSM Classic, in the last official event before the winter break, the Oklahoma native left no doubt that he was the best player on the course. In the process, he put a capstone on a superlative fall and, more importantly, secured the biggest result of his career seven days after his 30th birthday. Just like on Saturday, he proved stingy with a lead, responding to each salvo by his opponents with a birdie of his own, and the closest anyone could come was a brief moment when Mackenzie Hughes pulled within two shots at the ninth hole. Gooch was simply too steadily brilliant, showing no signs of nerves as he strode down the fairways at the Seaside Course, where in contrast to the heavy winds of Friday and Saturday, the wisps of Spanish moss hanging from the oak branches blew only slightly in the breeze.
“Apparently when you turn 30 you just have an abundance of wisdom that comes to you,” he joked later. “I played very wise golf this week…we had talked about wanting to get a win in before I turned 30, but the golf gods like to make you chuckle on occasion, so they wanted to wait until the week after. It is my mom’s birthday today, so it’s a nice little birthday present for her.”
Gooch played a bogey-free front nine to reach 18-under at the turn, and answered Hughes’ brief charge with four birdies in his next six holes, laying waste to the field and ensuring that his closing stretch was nothing more than a coronation. He did his damage with his irons and his putter, hitting approaches inside 10 feet on the 10th and 11th holes, then hitting a 16-foot birdie on 13 and a 15-footer on 15. When the dust had settled, he sat at 22-under, and would finish at that score, three better than Hughes. The statistics of the week told the story of his dominance—he finished second in Strokes Gained: Approach, second in SG: Around the Green, and sixth in SG: Putting. It was a comprehensive breakthrough, and tied the all-time record low score at the RSM Classic first set by Kevin Kisner in 2015.
It also completes one of the greatest fall seasons in memory. Gooch played in six tournaments and finished 11th or better in five of them, the only “hiccup” coming last week in Houston when he was merely average over the weekend. In all, 17 of his 24 fall rounds were in the 60s, and he has taken over the top spot in the FedEx Cup standings. His fall has been so good, in fact, that the 852 FedEx Cup points he has accumulated to date would have been good for 68th place at the end of the 2020-21 season, meaning that if he opted not to play another tournament for the rest of this season, he’d still likely have enough points to make the BMW Championship, the second playoff event. If anything, it’s bad luck for him that the tour now heads into its six-week winter break, potentially cooling off the hottest streak of his career. But the good news is that he’ll be in the field at the Tournament of Champions in Kapalua, and though that means delaying an annual buddies trip, his friends will understand.
“I thought about these types of interviews my whole life,” he said during his post-tournament presser. “Sitting in the showers, giving my winning speech, my winning interview, so it’s an absolute dream come true…I’ve envisioned it a thousand different ways.”
There was some early drama on the course Sunday when Tyler McCumber went hunting for a 59, ultimately missing the mark by a matter of inches, and he ended up with the best round of the day. Hughes was close behind with his 62, but Gooch’s nearest competitors, Seamus Power and Sebastian Munoz, could “only” manage 68 and 65, respectively—not nearly enough to catch the eventual winner.
Gooch has worked extensively on his mental game, which helps explain the equanimity he showed on the course, but he points to his childhood as the point when he learned the pitfalls of anger and frustration.
“Back in high school I used to play a lot of racquetball with my dad,” he remembered. “He would whip my butt…I didn’t take it very well. I broke a couple rackets, I had to go pay for those rackets and I quickly learned whenever I didn’t get so ticked off at myself that I was able to compete with him a little bit better and a little bit better. The times where I would get too upset, too mad, it just shut me down.”
It was a busy day in golf—Collin Morikawa became the first American to win the Race to Dubai, Rory McIlroy tore his shirt, Jin-Young Ko won the LPGA tour championship, and Tiger Woods is hitting golf balls again. Gooch’s win may look a little nondescript by comparison. In terms of pure life-changing impact, though, none of those other results will mean quite as much. Not only has Gooch secured his PGA Tour status for a couple years, plus a hefty chunk of change (a cool $1.26 million, to be exact), but he’ll make the Masters and PGA Championship automatically (it will be his first at Augusta), and with his world ranking improving to 33rd, he’ll be in prime position to make the two other majors and the WGC-Match Play.
But the impact goes even beyond all that for Gooch, who unlike some of the players mentioned above was never a can’t-miss prospect. He turned pro in 2014, but didn’t make it through Korn Ferry Tour Q-School until 2016, enduring difficulty and doubt throughout.
“I had a couple years that were, let’s just say, lean years,” he said. “Growing up not a country club kid, it just built a different kind of toughness in you than kids who grew up at country clubs with nice greens and Pro Vs on the range and all that. I’m super grateful for everything that we have here on the Tour and I think that gratitude pays dividends on days like today.”
He wouldn’t have the journey any other way, and now he has the one thing he was searching for throughout his childhood, his mini-tour days, and even the grinding years of surviving on the PGA Tour.
“Confidence will come and go,” he said, “but belief is everlasting.”
As he begins a new decade of life, Gooch has plenty of reasons to believe.