By Tim Liotta
PGA Tour Rookie Eric Cole Still Takes a Mini-Tour Attitude to the Course
In the late afternoon on the final Sunday of June, after competing for a tenth consecutive week on the PGA Tour, rookie Eric Cole packed his golf clubs in the trunk of his car and drove through the night across three states to make an 8:10am Monday tee time in a mini-tour event.
No matter that Cole could have reported a few days later to the PGA Tour's Rocket Mortgage Classic, with its $8.8 million purse and more than $1.5 million going to the winner. The 35-year-old PGA Tour rookie had made a commitment to himself and nobody else to make the seven-and-a-half hour, 480-mile journey through an endless stream of tail lights from Connecticut to western Pennsylvania to play in a tournament nobody ever heard of - the Frank B. Fuhrer Jr. Invitational, a three-day, 72-hole to event boasting a first prize of $20,000.
Nine years earlier, Fuhrer Jr. had given Cole, then a struggling mini-tour player, a spot in the field for the golf tournament bearing his name. After paying his entry fee with a credit card, Cole went on to win the event and the $40,000 first prize, which went a long way toward keeping him afloat through a mini-tour player's endless barrage of entry fees, gasoline receipts, restaurant tabs and hotel bills. Cole has never forgotten.
“Mr. Fuhrer passed away last year … this was the last year of his tournament, so I felt like it was a really important thing for me to be there and play in it,” Cole told PGATour.com in July. “It was cool to be part of the last edition of his tournament. To be there, one, and then to win the last edition of his tournament was awesome.”
Cole won that final renewal by nine shots, finishing with an 11-under-par 269 score that included a bleary-eyed, drive-through-the-night opening-round course record 63. Cole immediately donated the $20,000 winner's prize to the Fuhrer family to distribute to the charities of its choice.
After winning that 2014 mini-tour event, it took Cole another two years to reach the Korn Ferry Tour for the first time, and another six years to finally make it to the PGA Tour. It's been a long ride with many faces along the way that Cole will always remember because, deep down, he will always remember the feeling of having no place anywhere to apply his craft, the plight that faces thousands of mini-tour players across the land.
More than a dozen years after turning professional, Cole has played this year's PGA Tour like a mini-tour player would. If he gets into a field, he plays. Since the Zurich Classic in April, Cole has played every PGA Tour event on the schedule except three - the Rocket Mortgage, because Mr. Fuhrer's event, and the Open Championship and PGA Tour Championship.
Twenty tournaments in all. No player on the PGA Tour this season has played more rounds than Cole.
"I mean, I think a lot of it is I played a lot of years with not being able to play the PGA TOUR, so any chance I get to compete in a tournament, I'm really thankful for and am really happy to be out here playing," Cole said at the Shriners Children's Open. "As long as I'm healthy and feeling good, I definitely like to play as much as I can."
Along the way, Cole has racked up five top-5 finishes, including a pair of second-place results, more than $5 million in earnings, and put himself in the discussion for PGA Tour Rookie of the Year award. None of this has come easily.
Cole began his PGA Tour membership receiving a positive Covid 19 test at his first event of the season -the 2022 Fortinet Championship. He had his clubs stolen at the second. And he missed the cut at the first four events he entered.
It wasn't until three months later that he notched his first top-25 finish - a T15 at Pebble Beach - which he followed up by reaching a playoff at the Honda Classic, won by Chris Kirk.
“It’s one thing to be playing well,” Cole said, “but to have that feeling of being comfortable on the PGA TOUR and on the big stage is something that’s not as easy to get. But as you start to play better, it almost creates a scenario where you’re playing better, so your confidence is higher and you’re more comfortable. So they’re kind of all connected.”
And he's gained that confidence in a game based not on distance but on accurate iron play and good putting. At 5-foot-9, 150 pounds, he ranks 110th on Tour in driving distance, but 20th in Strokes Gained: Approach, and 17th in Strokes Gained: Putting.
"I think my game hasn't really changed a whole lot," Cole said in August. "Having access and playing the PGA TOUR and getting starts is definitely a huge factor, but I think I'm also playing a little bit more consistently just tee to green. I don't have quite as many bad days as I used to, and I think that was a catalyst in getting me out here and then having the year I've had to this point."
Cole has been able to test that game at the second and third majors of his career, which he only qualified for weeks prior to the championship due to his climb through the Official Golf World Rankings. He finished T15 at the PGA Championship, qualifying via his place in the Tour standings, and a T39 at the U.S. Open, which he got into by earning a spot via Final Qualifying.
Cole estimates he played 10 local qualifiers for the U.S. Open, and another 5 or 6 Final Qualifiers, qualifying only once before - at the 2021 U.S Open at Torrey Pines, where he missed the cut by four shots.
"You need to bring a good attitude," Cole said of Final Qualifying experience. "It's a tough day. You don't really know where you stand as you're playing, so you kind of just got to be focused on what you're doing and try and just hit the best shots you can and shoot as low as you can."
At the PGA this year, Cole was the leader at 5-under-par when play was suspended at the end of the first day of play. He put up scores of 67-74-70 through three rounds, and sat T10 with 18 holes to play when he met with reporters.
"It was absolutely brutal out there playing in the rain and the rough being so thick and wet made it to where you absolutely had to hit it in the fairway which I did which was nice for the most part of the day until the last three holes," Cole said. "But yeah, even par is a really good round I think and I'm very happy with it.
Next question: "Your rookie year, and you may be in the top 10 overnight going into Sunday. How much - how do you not get too excited about that?"
"It is exciting," Cole responded. "I don't want to not get excited about it. That's why I practice and spent all these years trying to get here, so I do want to be excited about it. I'm just going to focus on what I've been doing and try and get some rest and be ready to go tomorrow.
"You've got to be conservatively aggressive. If you get too aggressive, even if you're in the fairway, Donald Ross greens, you can get out of position real quick. There's a few spots to be aggressive but there's not many."
Cole turned pro in 2009, won more than 50 mini-tour events and played in hundreds more, attempted Q-school 11 times and competed on the PGA Tour LatinAmerica and PGA Tour Canada before playing 2020 and 2022 on the Korn Ferry. In 2022, Cole put together a solid Korn Ferry season, with five top-10 finishes, that season culminating with a T3 in the Korn Ferry Tour Championship, earning his way onto the PGA Tour at 34 years old.
As the son of Bobby Cole, a winner on the PGA Tour and twice top-three finisher in a major, and Laura Baugh, a former Rookie of the Year with 70 top-10 finishes over a 25-year LPGA career, Cole has been around professional golf his entire life.
“I’m proud of the work he’s put in,” said Baugh in a Golfweek report. “A lot of people really support him and cheer him on because they can identify with him. He’s someone that’s really put in the time and effort. He’s a relatable guy.”
Asked earlier this year the most important advice he's gotten from his parents, Cole responded:
"I would say most of it is like off-the-course stuff. My mom is big on resting. Not necessarily taking tournaments off, but more just like when you're at the course, work hard. When you're at the hotel or wherever you're staying, relax and make sure you're ready to go for the next day.
"And then my dad is kind of just keep doing what you're doing. Don't change much. As you guys that maybe hit it further than you or do things that you can't, just keep doing what got to you this point. If you're good enough, then you'll have success."
Cole has concentrated his efforts on creating a consistent approach to each round of golf, be it in a major, on the PGA Tour, or a mini-tour event.
"I just make sure that I'm focusing on the same stuff week to week, so not that much changes. You just go from one tournament to the next. I like to play a lot, too, so that kind of helps with that to where I'm just focused on the next shot and trying to hit it the right distance at the right target.
"Making sure that I get to the course at the same time every day and kind of go through the same type of prep for each round, so that way for me the rounds feel -- they're all important rounds, but that way they all feel a little bit more routine," Cole said. "When you get to the first tee, it doesn't seem as big of a shot or as tough of a shot if you're just kind of going through the motions that you do on a week-to-week basis."
That doesn't mean he hasn't taken at least one opportunity to step out of his on-course routine.
After his first practice round at Pebble Beach, where he had caddied for friend Sam Saunders but never played, he took advantage of his access to the course's iconic 18th hole to make it his backdrop when he proposed to his girlfriend, Stefanie Williams. She had walked the practice round with him, and when it was over she figured it was time for the obligatory photo.
“He took off his hat and glove and I didn’t think anything of it. It’s such an iconic hole,” said Williams in a PGATour.com report. “(Cole's caddy) Reed (Cochrane) took the photo and that’s when he proposed.”
“I probably cried for the first minute. I just didn’t expect it.”
As Cole closes in on completing his first full season on the PGA Tour, he continues to remember the faces through the mini-tour years who've kept him going along the way.
"I would say I had a lot of friends and family that were behind me and kind of told me that I was good enough to make it out here and play well out here," Cole said at the Travelers in June. "So that's a big thing. I also saw a lot of friends of mine that I play golf with have success out here, so that kind of inspired me to keep trying and grinding through some of the harder times. I would say it's a combination of those two things."
"Golf is a funny sport where there is such a thin line between having success and not, so I think from them I probably learned that whenever -- you're never as far away as you feel like you are. Even though I wasn't out here playing on the PGA TOUR, they kept me in a good mindset to where once things start to go the right direction, sometimes it can happen pretty quick."
All Eric Cole has needed was another chance - just like the one he got nine years ago courtesy of Mr. Fuhrer.