A year after driving all night to play a mini-tour event, Eric Cole is hot again at the 2024 John Deere Classic

It wasn’t long ago that a $20,000 payday was the kind that kept Eric Cole’s dreams of playing professional golf alive.

Now, the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year has a little different comfort level when it comes to his finances. After posting seven top-10 finishes this season, Cole has already made over $2 million in 2024 and he’s currently near the top 50 in the FedEx Cup standings, meaning the prospect of more big paychecks is well within range.

And after firing a 62 in the opening round of the John Deere Classic on Thursday, Cole followed with a workmanlike 68 on Friday, staying just behind leaders C.T. Pan and Aaron Rai after the early wave. He’s 12 under through 36 holes.

But a year ago at this time, while in the throes of his rookie year on Tour, Cole drove through the night, after playing 10 straight weeks, to play in a mini-tour event that had once kept him afloat. The final Frank B. Fuhrer Jr. Invitational was held in 2023 after the tournament’s namesake died.

Cole, who won the event in 2014 at a time when he had to put tournament entry fees on a credit card, never forgot how important the event was in his development. A year ago, he drove nearly eight hours after playing the Travelers Championship to Pittsburgh Field Club in Western Pennsylvania.

“That one was really impactful for me in continuing my dream of playing the PGA Tour,” he said on Friday. “I thought it was really important to be there, and it had a huge impact on me continuing my dream of playing the PGA Tour. With it being the last edition it felt like the right thing to do and an important spot to be.”

It’s that kind of mentality that’s helped Cole remain grounded through any hiccups he’s had on Tour. After a stretch of three straight missed cuts in late May and early June, Cole rebounded by making the weekend at both the Memorial and this year’s Travelers, and then finished sixth last week at the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit.

“I feel unbelievably lucky to be out here on Tour. I think that’s probably why I play as much as I do. So it’s just a great spot to be playing, and I like I said, I’m very fortunate and lucky to be out here, so I try and play as much as I can,” he said. “I don’t think about it too much. I’m definitely, like I said, very thankful. I’ve played golf in a lot of places and taken a long road to be here, so happy to be here.”

Last year was his breakout year, one in which he turned 35. He played 37 events with seven top 10s, including two seconds. One of those was the Honda Classic (now Cognizant Classic in the Palm Beaches) where he lost a playoff to Chris Kirk.

All of that resulted in Cole capturing the Tour’s Rookie of the Year, 50 years after his mom, Laura Baugh, won the same award on the LPGA Tour. He was the second-oldest player to be named top rookie behind Todd Hamilton, who was 39 when he won in 2004. The Rookie of the Year Award was established in 1990.

On Friday, he stayed steady, even holing out from the bunker on his penultimate hole for an unconventional birdie.

Cole knows this next stretch is pivotal — a big run in the Quad Cities could put him in good position for the FedEx Cup Playoffs, and set up 2025 to potentially get into signature events next season.

But a year after he drove through the night to play a mini-tour event (which he won and then donated the $20,000 winnings back to the family for charitable causes), Cole is still aware that he’s been one of the lucky ones, and he hopes his story can be an inspiration for those with whom he played on smaller tours for years.

“I’m still friends with a lot of guys that play mini-tours. I check on their scores all the time and see how they’re doing. Hopefully, they see how I’m doing and realize that it’s not that big of a difference between what they’re doing and what I’m doing now,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s kind of like maybe some light at the end of the tunnel or something to where they’re not that far from being out here and competing on the PGA Tour.

“Playing mini-tour golf and maybe some bad golf in there teaches you a lot of things about yourself and everything like that. So it’s taught me a lot. Everything I am today is probably because of a lot of those experiences.”

Story originally appeared on GolfWeek