Burns breaks through at Valspar

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Lisa Antonucci
·8 min read
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Third-year veteran Sam Burns finally converted on 54-hole lead in a PGA Tour event and captured his maiden victory in his 76th career start Sunday at the Valspar Championship in Tampa. The 24-year-old fired a final-round, 3-under 68 to best Keegan Bradley by three shots and finish at 17-under 267, just one shot off the tournament scoring record.

Burns had been in the third-round lead twice before this season, first in November at the Houston Open, where he carded a 2-over 72 in the final round and finished six back (T-7). At the Genesis Invitational in February, he built a five-shot lead after two rounds, and despite shooting a third-round 74, Burns still held a two-shot lead. But a final-round 69 left him one shot out of the playoff won by Max Homa.

The Louisiana native was able to get it done Sunday. Burns entered the final round tied with Bradley for the lead at 14-under 199, matching the 54-hole tournament scoring record, and the former LSU All-American pulled ahead first thanks to a birdie-birdie start at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course. He grabbed another birdie at No. 7, but Bradley kept pace and Burns’ bogey at No. 8 and Bradley’s birdie at No. 9 had Burns trailing by a shot at the turn.

“I think it makes it -- you have a better understanding of what it takes,” said Burns. “And I think having those past chances that I wasn’t able to convert, I think, it got me ready for this moment. ...

“I think I always felt that you had to play perfect golf to win. I always felt that you had to play your absolute best on a Sunday to win. And after those experiences I realized that it’s not the case. I was trying to do too much.”

The turning point came with a birdie by Burns on the par-5 11th, and he broke the lead open with another birdie at the par-5 14th, sticking a 79-yard wedge to 2 feet. He took a three-shot lead over Bradley, who had already faltered with a double bogey at the par-3 No. 13 after hitting his tee shot in the water.

The birdie at 14 was one of 11 on the par-5s over his 72 holes at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course. He became just the second player since Paul Casey in 2019 to play the par-5s at 15-under at Copperhead.

Burns has been knocking on the door since the start of this season. He shot 64-65 in his first two rounds of the season at the Safeway Open to grab a two-shot lead, but he faded to a T-7 finish. The Louisiana native improved to 1-for-3 on the season when holding the 54-hole lead or co-lead and 1-for-4 as a 36-hole leader.

Burns also became the fifth player to pick up his first Tour title at the Valspar Championship and the fourth first-time winner this season. His previous best career finish was third at the Genesis Invitational.

For the week, Burns totaled two eagles and 21 birdies against eight bogeys, and he ranked third in Strokes Gained: Putting (9.096 total) and fifth in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green (7.638). He collected 500 FedExCup points and moved from No. 47 to No. 14 in the standings, however, Burns is not listed in the field for next week’s Wells Fargo Championship at Quail Hollow Club in Charlotte, N.C.

So, what happened to Keegan Bradley?

World No. 135 Bradley stalled out with an even-par 71 after sharing the lead with Burns after Rounds 2 and 3 and through 12 holes on Sunday. Bradley came up short on the par-3 13th, hitting an 8-iron into the water and leading to a double bogey. Burns saved par with an 8-footer took a two-shot lead.

“I just hit a terrible shot,” Bradley said. “I hadn’t hit a really bad shot all week and you just can’t hit it there, obviously, but you can’t hit it right of the flag. And I just came out of it a little bit, it got gobbled up by the wind. If it goes another yard, it might have been in that bunker, but it was a bummer.”

The 34-year-old, a +200 favorite entering Sunday, was seeking his fifth career PGA title in 273 events -- and his first since the 2018 BMW Championship -- but settled for his seventh career runner-up finish. Overall, it marked his 13th top-3 finish and his first since a T-2 at the 2019 Travelers Championship.

Bradley noted he’s in the field next week and hopes to keep the momentum rolling.

“My game’s in great shape, I’m playing next week in Charlotte, I got the PGA coming up in a couple weeks,” he said. “This is the best I’ve played in a very long time -- even before I had won, even when I had won BMW -- this is the best I’ve felt. ... Things are really sharp, my numbers with my irons are really good. Hitting the ball great. Putting way better, chipping is better, so I’m ready. I feel like I’m ready to contend again and I got some big tournaments coming up, so I’m excited.”

Thomas T-13 despite terrible putting performance

World No. 2 Justin Thomas led the Valspar field in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, Approach and Tee-to-Green, but he also was third to last in Strokes Gained: Putting and lost 6.5 strokes on the greens for the second-worst putting performance of his career in a T-13 finish at Innisbrook.

The Valspar marked the first time Thomas has led a tournament in all three categories and made him the first player to do so since Rory McIlroy at the 2018 BMW Championship.

Thomas, who took two weeks off following a T-21 finish at the Masters, fired four consecutive rounds of par or better (69-71-67-70) and closed with a 1-under 70 on Sunday to notch his 11th top-25 finish in 13 starts this season, including a win at The Players Championship. Additionally, with an eagle at No. 1 on Sunday, Thomas joined Rod Pampling (2006) as the only other player with three eagles in a week at the Valspar.

“I’m playing some really good golf and I’m really, really close to, I feel like, getting it going here pretty good,” said Thomas, who overtook Bryson DeChambeau in the FedExCup standings by 30 points. “(Moving to No. 1) is a good kind of bonus for a so-so week.”

“When I feel like I can kind of lay it off at the top and try to hit pull cuts -- that’s what really was my thought at The Players -- I’ve had a lot of good ball striking rounds doing that. My miss, I’m still getting a little stuck underneath it, but it’s close. My good shots are really, really good right now and the consistency is there. I just need to see a couple putts fall.”

Other notables: Lackluster finish for DJ; Homa sputters

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson rebounded from a 3-over 74 on Saturday with a 2-under 69 on Sunday to finish T-48 (71-68-74-69) at Innisbrook. It marked Johnson’s sixth straight finish outside the top 10 -- including a missed cut at the Masters -- and he hasn’t had a top 10 since the Genesis Invitational in February.

World No. 41 Max Homa, who started Sunday in solo third and just one shot back, briefly tied for the lead with a birdie on the par-5 opening hole but sputtered to a 3-over 74 and fell three places to finish T-6 at 10-under 274.

The 30-year-old, who was after his third career win and second this season after winning the Genesis Invitational, made the cut in his fourth appearance at the Valspar and improved to 13-for-18 on the season with 10 top 25s and four top 10s, with his last coming at the Arnold Palmer Invitational (T-10).

On deck: Wells Fargo Championship

Homa will look to defend his 2019 title at the Wells Fargo Championship in Charlotte, N.C., against a strong field including Thomas, who won the 2017 PGA Championship at Quail Hollow Club.

Two-time Wells Fargo winner Rory McIlroy returns to action for the first time since the Masters. McIlroy set a course record in each of his victories, shooting a final-round 62 in 2010 and a third-round 61 in 2015. Other notables in the field include World No. 3 Jon Rahm, DeChambeau and Phil Mickelson, who’s play in the Wells Fargo for the 17th time in 18 editions. Mickelson missed the cut in 2017 but has 12 top-12 finishes at the event.

Sponsor’s exemptions include 19-year-old Akshay Bhatia, a North Carolina native, and Wake Forest alum Will Zalatoris, who finished runner-up at the Masters and T-42 at the RBC Heritage. DJ is not in the published field for Charlotte.