ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Taking a three-shot lead into the final round of the year, knowing that your first PGA TOUR win, the lead in the FedExCup and a Masters invitation are at stake? RELATED: Leaderboard Talor Gooch doesn’t consider that pressure. Sunday at Sea Island could be a life-altering day for the 30-year-old, but he doesn’t expect it to be more stressful than what he faced five years ago. Gooch will start Sunday with a three-shot advantage over Seamus Power and Sebastian Munoz. His spot on the PGA TOUR is secure no matter what happens in The RSM Classic’s final round, though. He’s already on the cusp of the top 50 in the world ranking – which is why he doesn’t even need a win Sunday to qualify for his first Masters – and in the top 20 of the FedExCup standings. It was in 2016, after two consecutive years on the Mackenzie Tour-PGA TOUR Canada, that Gooch found his career at a crossroads. He was considering worst-case scenarios during the final round of Q-School’s second stage, after a rough start put his chances of advancing in jeopardy. “I’m going to have to go work at Best Buy,” he recalls thinking. “I’m going to have to go do something to make a few bucks unless (I) get it together.” He rallied, advanced to the final stage and earned Korn Ferry Tour status for the first time. He won that following year, graduated to the PGA TOUR and has been on TOUR since. “If I could do it then, I could do it at any time,” he said. Sunday would be the perfect time for Gooch to call upon that experience. It will be the first time he enters the final round of a PGA TOUR event with the lead. This nascent season already is shaping up to be the best of his career. He arrived at Sea Island after finishing no worse than T11 in his first four starts. The highlight was a final-round 62 in THE CJ CUP @ SUMMIT that threw him into the mix on a leaderboard that also included Rory McIlroy, Collin Morikawa and his fellow Oklahoma State alum, Rickie Fowler. Gooch’s presence among such company may have been a surprise to everyone but himself. He has the self-confidence that some may consider delusion but is requisite for a professional athlete. Take his freshman year for the Cowboys, where the Midwest City, Oklahoma, native was competing against some of the best players in the country for a spot in the starting lineup. Some questioned Gooch’s decision to join the premiere collegiate golf program, fearing for a lack of playing time. Not Gooch. “It’s hard not to have that chip on your shoulder and want to overcome that, you know?” Gooch said Saturday. “Like I remember in recruiting, everyone was like, man, Oklahoma State’s pretty good, you don’t know if you’re going to crack the lineup your first year. I started every time my first year and that’s all I wanted to do was to go there and start every time and prove people wrong. “As a sportsman, if you don’t have that little bit of grit to go prove people wrong, you’re not going to make it long.” His Oklahoma ties came in handy on another windy day along the Atlantic coast. Tournament host Davis Love III, who also played Saturday after making the cut at age 57, called it a “heavy wind” that was exacerbated by the fact that Sea Island’s Seaside Course is exposed to the ocean. “People said to me, ‘What’s the big deal? it’s only 25 mph,’ but it’s different because it’s wide open,” Love said. “We don’t think the weather is that bad here in November because when it’s like this, we don’t play.” Only three players bested Gooch’s 67 on Saturday. He shared the lead with Power on 14, but Gooch’s two birdies on the final four holes, combined with Power’s bogey on 16, allowed Gooch to seize control of the top spot on the leaderboard. He birdied 17 after hitting a 7-iron to 13 feet, then hit a drive on 18 that flew so low that the one of the caddies in his group turned his head and asked, “Where’d you grow up, dude?” It was the sort of tee shot he used often growing up in the winds of Oklahoma. “For me, my creativity is just hitting it this high and hitting it low, not let the wind get it,” Gooch said. His short game has come in handy this week, as well. He’s missed just 10 greens and gotten up-and-down eight of those times, leading the field in Strokes Gained: Around-the-Green. He’s seventh in Strokes Gained: Putting, as well, highlighted by a 66-foot eagle putt he made on the seventh hole Friday. Seven players are within five shots of Gooch’s lead. Tom Hoge is alone in fourth place, four strokes back, while Luke List, past RSM winner Mackenzie Hughes and Scott Stallings are another stroke back. Webb Simpson, a perennial contender who’s lost two playoffs at Sea Island, is among the players who are six back. Simpson holed out a 95-yard wedge shot in his Saturday 66. He leads the field in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green but has lost strokes on the greens. They’re all playing their final official round of the year. Sunday’s result will determine where Gooch plays next, however. His childhood friends have a January golf trip planned for Scottsdale, Arizona. “I’m hopeful that we’re going to have to adjust that,” he said. A trip to Hawaii, where the Sentry Tournament of Champions will be played, would take precedent.
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