PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Sam Burns had dreamed of winning on the PGA Tour since he was 10 or 11 years old.
“You’re like, ‘I have this putt to win whatever tournament,’” he said. “I can just remember hitting that putt so many times and you just hope and practice so hard to have that opportunity. And it was just, man, after I had the bunker shot on 18, I just got kind of choked up thinking about that moment and thinking about you wanted to have that opportunity so bad for so long and now you do. So, it was really special for me.”
And harder than he ever imagined.
The 24-year-old Burns had squandered two previous 54-hole leads this season, but he made three birdies on the closing nine holes to erase a one-stroke deficit at the turn and claim his first PGA Tour title at the Valspar Championship by three strokes over Keegan Bradley.
“I always felt that 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.”
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In his 76th Tour start, Burns did more than enough, making six birdies at Innisbrook’s Copperhead Course and signing for a 3-under 68 and a 72-hole total of 17-under 267, one shy of the tournament record.
Burns, who hadn’t won professionally since the Korn Ferry Tour’s 2017 Savannah Golf Championship, may not have found the winner’s circle as quickly as fellow young guns Collin Morikawa, Viktor Hovland and Matthew Wolff, but big things have been expected from the former LSU Tiger All-American.
Three years ago, Burns showed what he is capable of when he outplayed his idol, Tiger Woods, in the final round of the Honda Classic. When asked if he had ever played with Woods, Burns answered, “Only on the video game.”
A broken right ankle in July 2019 derailed his climb up the world ranking but Burns, had four top-10 finishes this season entering this week. He blew a five-stroke lead after 36 holes at the Vivint Houston Open in November and was on the verge of winning his first title at the Genesis Invitational in February, building a three-stroke lead with nine holes to go but made three bogeys in a four-hole stretch and finished third. He has held the lead for more rounds than any player on Tour this season with nine and was tied with Jordan Spieth for the most 54-hole leads this season. For all his immense ability, there were beginning to be questions if he could close out a win.
“He’s a young guy who needs to take it to the next level,” PGA Tour Radio’s Dennis Paulson said. He’s proven that he belongs on the PGA Tour to everybody but I think himself.”
— PGA TOUR (@PGATOUR) May 2, 2021
Burns proved his mettle, going toe-to-toe with Bradley, the former PGA Championship winner, in a final-round pairing that felt very much like match play. Viktor Hovland, who shot 65, the low round of the day, and Cameron Tringale shared third place at 13 under.
Burns got off to a hot start with birdies at the first two holes to build a two-stroke lead, but Bradley refused to back down and when he canned a 16-foot birdie putt from the fringe at the ninth, he held a one-stroke lead at 17 under.
The tournament flipped at two key moments. Burns steered his tee shot left into the trees at the par-5 11th and he was lucky the ball stayed in bounds. He punched back into the fairway, wedged to 15 feet and drained the birdie putt to tie Bradley.
“It was definitely a fortunate break,” Burns said. “Sometimes I think it’s just, you got to have a couple of those to win. And that was one of them.”
At the par-3 13th, Bradley’s hopes sank when he blocked his tee shot to the right and into the pond fronting the green, one of only two players to find the water at that hole all day.
“I was hoping Keegan would play his best,” Burns said. “I wanted to see how I would hold up and see if I could beat him with my best against his best. Unfortunately for him he hit it in the water there and I really felt for him. I’ve been there, I’ve done that.”
Bradley leaned on his 8-iron and lowered his head knowing that his chances of ending his nearly three-year winless drought had drowned. He made double bogey, shot 71 and settled for his best finish since the 2019 Travelers Championship.
“I didn’t play my best today, but I hung in there,” Bradley said. “Sam played unbelievable and he deserves to win… I think he’s going to win a lot more tournaments going forward.”
Burns built as big as a four-stroke lead with birdies at Nos. 14 and 16 and he broke into tears after tapping in his bogey putt at the last hole.
“It’s really a dream come true,” he said.