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Sam Burns converts, Michael Visacki has a week to remember, Rickie Fowler receives a handout, the roster of early-20s studs grows longer and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:
As the final round of the Valspar Championship unfolded, the broadcast team kept returning to a familiar observation about young Sam Burns: This sure didn’t look like a kid who was trying to win for the first time.
Meaning: That he looked solid. Comfortable. Poised. Like he’d been in that position dozens of times.
Burns, of course, had won plenty before. He was an accomplished junior, reaching No. 1 in the world. He was an accomplished collegian, earning the Jack Nicklaus Award in 2017. But those aren’t experiences that can be drawn upon in the crucible of a PGA Tour Sunday, locked in a battle with a former major champion (Keegan Bradley) on a quality course like Innisbrook.
But in Tampa, Burns appeared so composed because he’d finally figured out what it took to get it done. He had been inside the top 5 through 36 holes in five events this season, the most of any player on Tour. He’d grabbed a share of the third-round lead on three occasions, tied with Jordan Spieth for the most on Tour. But those final rounds he didn’t look so solid, so comfortable, so poised. He shot 2 over the final day in Houston and finished six back. At Riviera, he surrendered a five-shot lead at the halfway point and didn’t win despite a closing 69.
What’d those experiences teach him?
“I always felt like you had to play perfect golf to win,” Burns said. “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.”
That’s a common refrain among first-time winners, and Burns learned that lesson at a tender age, which will no doubt prove valuable in the future. Though he wasn’t perfect Sunday, he was more than good enough to win – nine fairways hit on a demanding track, then top-10 statistical performances with both his iron play and putter. He won by three over Bradley.
“You have a better understanding of what it takes,” Burns said, “and I think having those past chances that I wasn’t able to convert, I think it got me ready for this moment.”
And now he has arrived.
You don’t have a soul if you didn’t feel something watching this clip of mini-tour grinder Michael Visacki realize a lifelong dream by Monday qualifying into his first PGA Tour event. That the Valspar was close to home, about an hour from his hometown of Sarasota, made the experience even sweeter, allowing the 27-year-old to have upward of a hundred supporters watching his first two rounds at Innisbrook, when he shot rounds of 74-71 and missed the cut.
Having covered golf’s minor leagues, it’s not a stretch to say that there isn’t much of a difference between the developmental circuits and the big tour. All of those guys can play, too. The margins are razor thin – those at the elite level are more consistent, slightly better putters, better equipped to handle adversity. The little things that can make a big difference. "Big Mike" has come agonizingly close to breaking through to the next level – he once lost a ball late in Q-School’s second stage to miss out – and just needs a break or two to go his way, like so many others.
Visacki’s story resonated because his emotion was laid bare, and he was able to articulate why he never abandoned his dream, not even when he turned to his parents for financial help. A two-day taste of the Tour will only fuel his competitive desire: “It’ll keep pushing me forward in the right direction,” he said.
Visacki was the feel-good story last week, but there are hundreds like him (documented expertly by Ryan French, who runs the Monday Q Info account), all waiting for their turn in the spotlight. They deserve our attention, too.
Rickie Fowler has already missed one major this year. The PGA of America made sure that he wouldn’t go 0-for-2.
The organization confirmed last week that it had extended a special exemption into this month’s PGA Championship to both Fowler, who sits at No. 116 in the world ranking, and American John Catlin, who has won three times on the European Tour since September.
Fowler’s slide has been well-documented as he tries to find his way through a swing change with coach John Tillery. Though he would have been exempt into the PGA because of his spot on the 2018 Ryder Cup team, he needed to remain inside the top 100 in the world by the May 10 cutoff date. That hasn’t happened, at least not yet, as Fowler has recorded just four top-20s in the past 14 months.
Despite being one of the game’s most popular players, Fowler’s exemption was roundly criticized on social media. Maybe there are other more deserving players, but we’d much rather see Fowler receive the free pass than, say, some also-ran who just wants to take one last victory lap. Fowler might not be in the best form currently, but would it really be a shocker if he contended? Of course not.
Even with this freebie, the major qualifications don’t get any easier in the next month. Fowler is not yet exempt into the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines. If he doesn’t crack the top 60 later this month, he would need to play a 36-hole sectional qualifier ... or, yes, rely on a USGA special exemption.
THIS WEEK'S AWARD WINNERS ...
Winning Isn’t Everything: Cameron Tringale. With a tie for third at Innisbrook, the 33-year-old Tringale became the wealthiest player on Tour without a victory. He now tops the list with $13,743,938 in earnings, passing Brian Davis. He was making his 299th start on Tour, the most on the circuit without a win since 2009.
At Least He Knows What to Address: Justin Thomas. The world No. 2 tied for 13th at the Valspar, which was a disappointment considering the way he struck it – he ranked first in the field in strokes gained: tee to green, gaining a whopping 13.1 strokes on the field with his ball-striking. Of course, only two players putted worse – he took 117 putts and lost nearly 6.5 strokes on the greens. He also climbed to No. 1 in the FedExCup standings.
Classy: Keegan Bradley. Though bummed by his finish, after rinsing his tee shot on the 13th hole and needing to grind just to finish solo second, Bradley saw the bigger picture and congratulated the newest Tour winner: “(Burns) is a great player; he deserved to win this week. I think he’s going to win a lot more tournaments going forward.”
Staying Hot: Hyo-Joo Kim. A closing 8-under 64 rocketed her in contention, and she was the beneficiary of Hannah Green’s closing bogeys to win the LPGA’s HSBC Championship. Though she’s played primarily on the KLPGA, Kim now has 10 top-5 finishes since the start of 2020, including three wins.
Ugly Finish: Hannah Green. Winning is hard, even for former major champions, as Green three-putted the last two holes to hand Kim the title – her first on the LPGA in five years. Said Green afterward: “Hopefully I can learn from it and do the opposite and maybe make two birdies coming in.” She’s gotten better in each of her five starts this year: T61, T14, T12, T3, 2.
About Time: Pine Valley. Arguably the top course in the world is opening its doors to women members for the first time, saying in an email to its membership that “the future of golf must move toward inclusion.” Right. Of course it should. So what took so long?
The Struggle Is Real: Dustin Johnson. Another week, another finish outside the top 10 – that’s now six in a row for the world No. 1, his longest drought since his injury-plagued second half to 2019 (and just the second time it's happened in the past eight-plus years). Though he lamented all of his bad breaks in Tampa (T-48), his issues run far deeper than misfortune: His pedestrian iron play continues to put too much stress on his slumping short game and putter. There’s much to clean up at the Nelson before he takes his talents to Kiawah for a PGA Championship that normally would be well-suited for him. Speaking of DJ ...
Need That Late-Year PIP Content: DJ and Brooks Koepka. In what some are calling the biggest news of the week, it appears that the significant others of both Johnson (Paulina Gretzky) and Koepka (Jena Sims) were wedding dress shopping last week, in New York and Los Angeles, respectively. Perhaps the timing is coincidental, but maybe the pressure is on to deliver an end-of-year wedding that could give these stars the internet boost they need to claim one of the top prizes in the Player Impact Program.
Drought Buster: Mike Weir. With the Insperity Invitational reduced to 36 holes because of inclement weather, the 2003 Masters champion, who turns 51 later this month, captured his first senior title by shooting rounds of 66-68 and taking advantage of a final-hole blunder by John Daly, who rinsed his approach when tied for the lead. It was Weir’s first win – anywhere! – since the 2007 Frys.
Run and Hide: Dean Burmester. That’s one way to steal a European Tour title – a closing 62 to romp by five shots at the Tenerife Open. It snapped a four-year winless drought and was Burmester's first victory outside of South Africa.
What to Watch This Week: Walker Cup. It's going down this weekend at legendary Seminole, where the Americans should be huge favorites against the GB&I squad.
Respect: LSU women’s golf. As one of the top teams in the country hosting a NCAA regional, coach Garrett Runion celebrated a great season with a good ol’ fashioned Louisiana crawfish boil, throwing down 70 pounds of mud bugs for the team to destroy. As a crawfish connoisseur, we ask: What could be better?
TOP 5 MEN'S PLAYERS UNDER THE AGE OF 25
Add another youngster’s name to the list of Tour winners, as Burns, at 24 years, 9 months and 9 days, etched his name on the Valspar trophy. He’s the second-youngest champion in tournament history, behind another former wunderkind by the name of Jordan Spieth.
The victory vaulted Burns inside the top 50 in the world ranking (No. 44, to be exact), which got us to thinking:
Who are the top men’s players under the age of 25? (And sheesh – it’s stiff competition.)
1.) Collin Morikawa, 24: The reigning PGA champ has been ranked as high as No. 4 in the world and has the type of iron play (to say nothing of his maturity) that will make him a force for a long, long time.
2.) Viktor Hovland, 23: After addressing the weaknesses in his short game, Young Hov already has two Tour titles and figures to be a menace at the Ryder Cup later this year.
3.) Joaquin Niemann, 22: The youngest on the list, Niemann already has eight pro wins, including the title at the Greenbrier, in what is now his fourth season (!!!) on Tour. An outstanding player with a different gear.
4.) Sungjae Im, 23: A former Rookie of the Year, Im won last year at the Honda, contended at a major and has already played his way onto a Presidents Cup team. So long as he doesn’t get burned out with his never-ending playing schedule, Im isn’t going anywhere.
5.) Will Zalatoris, 24: Can he really crack this list without a Tour win? Let’s answer that question with another question: Have you ever seen him play?! The dude has the goods and is all the way up to No. 28 in the world despite only, technically, owning a card on the Korn Ferry Tour.
Honorable mention: Another homegrown Texas product like Zalatoris, Scottie Scheffler, 24, is still searching for his first Tour win but he already has the respect of his peers – a 59 in a playoff event, a Rookie of the Year award, a couple of close calls in tournaments, including a finals appearance at the WGC-Match Play; Matthew Wolff, 22, is slumping hard right now, but when he’s on, his game is electric; Robert MacIntyre, 24, doesn’t have many reps on this side of the Atlantic, but the sweet-swinging lefty has impressed on the European Tour; 21-year-old Garrick Higgo (No. 66 in the world) and 22-year-old Takumi Kanaya (No. 78) both keep cleaning up on their respective tours; and, of course, Burns, who by the end of the summer could crack the top 5.