Like a clue hiding in plain sight, Sam Saunders could look at his friend Eric Cole and know it was there.
Digging it out, excavating the potential and turning it from something raw into something polished was the challenge.
It wasn’t just about the golf. It was about the time. It was about the Type 1 diabetes and the Addison’s disease. It was about never retreating and never surrendering.
“I joke that finally he proved me right. I kept saying the guy coaching me is better than me at golf. I’ve been saying he’s the greatest player you’ve never heard of,” said Saunders, who befriended Cole when they were 14 years old and hanging around Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, where Saunders’ maternal grandfather, a guy named Arnold Palmer, kept an eye on both of them.
At the end of this PGA Tour season, Cole is likely to be named rookie of the year, a 35-year-old success story.
“It’s been awesome,” said Cole, who has finished T3 and T2 in his most recent PGA Tour starts this month.
Some players – Jordan Spieth and Viktor Hovland, for example – arrive through the front door. Cole arrived via golf’s back roads, playing literally hundreds of mini-tour events, winning more than 50 of them to help pay the bills while never losing faith that he belonged on the game’s biggest stage.
The son of former PGA Tour winner Bobby Cole and Laura Baugh, the 1973 LPGA rookie of the year and one of the sport’s biggest stars through the ’70s, Cole was born into the game but has found his own way.
Baugh raised seven children as a single mother, and it is Eric whose career path most closely followed the bloodline.
“When you love golf and you love your son and you get to watch someone do what you love, it’s pretty cool,” Baugh said recently during a break between giving lessons at The Palencia Club in St. Augustine, Florida. “The people who have played with him were wondering when, not if, for him. But if you don’t know the struggles and the situations and the passion involved, his success might take you by surprise.”
"I kept saying the guy coaching me is better than me at golf. I’ve been saying he’s the greatest player you’ve never heard of."
Cole has coped with the health problems that surfaced when he was in college and demanded careful attention each day. Addison’s is an adrenal disorder that can stunt growth and, combined with diabetes, can be life-threatening. When he was in college at Nova Southeastern University in Davie, Florida, the 5-foot-9 Cole saw his weight drop to approximately 110 pounds.
“This is a 24/7 thing. Had they not caught it when he was in college, Eric would have died,” Baugh said.
Cole also endured a three-year competitive absence due to back issues that had him wondering at nights whether his future was giving lessons rather than playing tournament golf. He realized he could be happy either way.
“Almost seeing what it was like to not pursue playing pro golf made me realize that if I don’t make it on tour, my life is still going to be great,” Cole said. “That took a little pressure off my golf.”
Call it what you will – perseverance, doggedness, self-belief – but Cole never lost the faith in himself.
In his first season on the PGA Tour, Cole has notched six top-10 finishes including a pair of second-place results through a grinding schedule of 36 starts. Ranked 570th in the world 14 months ago, Cole is now 50th and enjoying a break before playing the RSM Classic in mid-November.
“I always kind of hoped I had this type of golf in me, but you never know for sure until you’re out there hitting the shots,” said Cole, whose accuracy, short game and putting are among the most proficient on tour.
Saunders, who had his best PGA Tour season in 2017-18 when Cole was his full-time coach and confidante, had a sense of what his friend could do if his health, talent and opportunity came together.
For a time, life was simple for Saunders and Cole. They shared a townhouse in Orlando with another friend who didn’t play golf.
“My wife still makes fun of me about this,” said Saunders, who now lives in Fort Collins, Colorado. “We did the same thing every day and together 100 percent: work out, golf, dinner.
“One time before we were married, my wife came down there and I was taking her to dinner and a movie. I said, ‘Do you mind if my roommate comes with us?’ So, on one of our first dates, Eric came with us. She said, ‘Apparently you are inseparable.’”
Many of those days were spent at Bay Hill with Palmer, who died in 2016.
“I joke that a lot of the best Arnold Palmer stories are the ones you can’t tell,” Cole said. “The best stuff with him was just very simple stuff on the range, him giving us little stories or tips when he played. Just spending time with him where he didn’t think he was giving us advice, just talking about his life and where he had been. It was so cool.”
Cole was familiar with the professional game and its lifestyle. His parents were married to each other twice, and it was his mother who raised him. She encouraged each of her children to play sports but never pushed any of them into golf. She made the introduction, and the rest was up to them.
“I always kind of hoped I had this type of golf in me, but you never know for sure until you’re out there hitting the shots."
Unable to financially support an aggressive junior golf schedule for her son, Baugh nevertheless encouraged him and helped mold his game.
“Eric was a good player right away, and then he got better and better and better,” Baugh said. “He couldn’t play the junior nationals because I couldn’t get him there. When I say he did it his way, he did it his way.”
That meant learning how to play golf for a living.
“When he won those 50 or so mini-tour events, it was to pay his bills,” Baugh said. “When you need to make a putt, and you do, then you know in your heart and soul you can do it.”
For Cole, the difference in more than 500 spots in the Official World Golf Ranking isn’t as much about how he plays the game as where he plays it.
When he was healthy enough to play full-time again, Cole earned his PGA Tour privileges in his second full season on the Korn Ferry Tour.
“I knew he would thrive at the PGA Tour level,” Saunders said. “The courses are tougher; the set-ups are tougher. I’m not surprised by what he’s done. Once he found his groove, he realized he could beat these guys.”
What could have been Cole’s most disappointing moment this year instead had a different effect.
In late February, Cole lost the Honda Classic in a playoff to Chris Kirk, but he knew he belonged.
“The last group on Sunday is where you want to be as a player,” Cole said. “The first nine, I didn’t play that well for a stretch and stayed in it. I had a chance.
“While I wish it was a different result, it was a thing where you assume you have to play perfectly to win. To not play my best and still have a chance to win, I realized I didn’t have to be perfect.”
Cole’s mother was there watching him. The thought has crossed her mind that they could be the first mother-son pair to win rookie-of-the-year honors on their respective tours. The PGA Tour announcement won’t come until after the season concludes next month, but Cole’s the frontrunner.
It’s a sweet story.
“My dad and I were on the golf course one evening years ago, and he looked at me and said, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’ I looked at my dad and said, ‘You’re right,’” Baugh said.
“A few years later, I was on the course with Eric and said to him, ‘It doesn’t get any better than this.’
“He has waited a long time for this.”
Top: Eric Cole, the tour's likely rookie of the year, kept his eye on the ball even when the goal seemed far away.
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