Sam Burns and Keegan Bradley had exchanged 30 consecutive holes of strokes, seemingly glued together at the top of the Valspar Championship standings. They shared the 36 hole lead, tying 69s in the final pairing on Saturday and both had 46 shots through 12 holes on Sunday, three for third as they headed for the 13th tee on a tough Copperhead Course in Innisbrook.
The par 3 measures 182 yards on the map, but played a lot less – a 9-iron for the bombers, an 8-iron for the mortals. Burns played first and his 9 came up pretty short, on the dance floor only a solid 60 feet from the band. So Bradley drew 8, ostensibly to shoot away from the water and into the middle of the green, content to have the decisive hit in this two-man fight come a little later.
What followed was his worst shot of the week, a fanned-out cut that found the drink – the kind of pause Burns had been waiting for in an annoyingly long search for PGA Tour No. 1 victory.
Bradley’s gaffe resulted in a crushing double bogey, the turning point in a shootout that became a fairly comfortable walk to victory. Burns’ three-under-68 was good for a three-shot win, the first in the 24-year-old’s career. The first, according to Jim Nantz of CBS, of “a lot to come.”
“I don’t think I could have dreamed of a better time,” Burns said after his family joined him on the 18th green to celebrate. ‘Just to have my wife [Caroline] Over there. We are together … not married but together for five or six years. She’s seen really good golf, she’s seen really bad golf and she’s just always been there by my side. So it was very special to have her here. And a moment when we’ll have the rest of our lives, we’ll be able to tell our kids about a day. “
When he got into this final round, Burns wasn’t quite into why-he-hasn’t-won-yet. But he wasn’t far off either, thanks to his consistently excellent play – Saturday night marked the eighth time Burns led or co-led after a round in the 2020-21 season, two more than any other golfer. Before this week, the most recent time was at the Genesis Invitational, where he played ridiculously good golf to lead a star-studded field with five halfway through. He started the final round that week at Riviera with a two-shot lead, shot two-under-69 on a golf course ready for the Major and lost.
There was also a 54-hole lead at the Vivint Houston Open last November, where he finished the T-7, and the brutal 75 he shot out of the final group at the Farmers Insurance Open in January.
Burns doesn’t speak much, a laconic Louisian who says more with his eyes than with his mouth. The few words he speaks suggest a steadfast belief in the law of averages – that if he kept putting himself in position, it will happen one of these days.
“You have a better understanding of what it takes,” Burns said of the near misses. “And I think with those opportunities from the past that I was unable to repent, I think it set me up for this moment. Go to the back nine [caddie], Travis [Perkins] and I just really wanted to stick to our game plan, stick to the process of just being really involved with every shot. And we were able to do that. “
Sam Burns celebrates with the trophy and family members (including his wife, Caroline, to his right) after winning the Valspar Championship for his first PGA Tour title.
He will be delighted with his trial on the 14th par-5 right after Bradley handed him control of the tournament. A 300-foot drive took him 250 feet to the hole, well in his wheelhouse, but a lone pine tree lined his row uncomfortably. Perkins intervened with an assertive message: The tree is in your way and you are on the ground. Burns never hesitated to draw 7 iron. From there he feathered a lob wedge within two feet of the hole, the birdie put him down at 15 on the par 5s for a week.
Bradley, who was trying to win the BMW Championship for the first time since September 2018, fought a cold putter and missed from within seven feet at 16 and 17, making the final hole close to academic. The 34-year-old dropped nearly three shots on the field at the greens over the weekend, a frustratingly familiar story for a player who came in at number 182 in strokes / pits that week. But it’s the swing on 13 that leaves a particularly slender aftertaste.
“I just took a terrible shot,” Bradley said. ‘I hadn’t really hit a bad shot all week, and of course you just can’t make it there. But you can’t hit it to the right of the flag. And I got out just a little bit, it was swallowed up by the wind, if it was some other yard it could have been in that bunker, but it was a bummer. “
And so the tour now has another sub-25-year-old stallion with a victory to his name. Burns didn’t have the same immediate success on tour as some of his other peers, with only four top-10 finishes in his first 45 events. But there isn’t one timeline for a golfer’s development, and Burns didn’t fully emerge until this season. Now that he has, there is reason for optimism that he can definitely reach that elite level; the win takes him to the top 50 of the world rankings (one of 10 golfers 25 and under in that group), and you get the feeling he won’t be leaving anytime soon.
The signs have been around for a while. After winning the Nicklaus Player of the Year Award as a sophomore, Burns skipped his last two years at LSU to turn professional. Before making the jump, he was passed over to the 2017 US Walker Cup team, an inexplicable disapproval that continues to annoy him to this day. Four months later, he played with a sponsorship waiver at the Honda Classic, earned a Sunday tee time with Tiger Woods… and beat him by two.
Burns celebrates with his caddy Travis Perkins on the 18th green after closing the win with three shots.
Burns impressed Woods that day, the legend was especially intrigued by Burns’ ball attack and his veteran demeanor when he was 21. “He played beautifully,” Woods said then. (Two months later, Burns won the Web.com Tour, ensuring his time outside of the big tour bubble wouldn’t be long.)
Still, there are plenty of impressive players who never win on the PGA Tour. Take Cameron Tringale, who finished third. The 33-year-old has played in 299 PGA Tour events and amassed more than $ 13.7 million in career earnings – more than any player in Tour history without a win.
Sam Burns learned firsthand how hard it is to win – in Memorial Park, Torrey and Riviera. At Innisbrook he learned that hard doesn’t mean impossible.