PALM HARBOR, Fla. – One week after beating Tiger Woods, Sam Burns returned to his alma mater and the life he left to ply his trade.
Burns was in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, to visit his former teammates, throw out the first pitch at an LSU baseball game and attend his girlfriend’s sorority formal. His final-round playing partner the previous week was a popular topic of conversation. Burns estimates he was asked about Woods some 40 times, though his body language and slight laugh seemed to imply that the inquiry came even more frequently.
“I kind of miss it,” Burns said about college. However, he was playing golf last Friday in Louisiana while his friends were in class. “I don’t miss that part of it,” he joked.
Burns, 21, would be a junior at LSU if he hadn’t decided to turn pro last year. Now he may be pro golf’s hot new prospect after going toe-to-toe with Tiger in the final round of The Honda Classic. Burns finished eighth after a bogey-free 68 that was two shots lower than Woods’ Sunday score.
“I thought Sam would play great because Sam always thought this day would happen,” said his college coach, Chuck Winstead. “Deep down he sees himself as a great player and great players are eventually paired with great players. He has an inner belief that the best have that isn’t contingent on each round or each tournament.”
Burns is back on the PGA TOUR this week after his brief return to campus. His T8 finish at The Honda Classic – which wasn’t even the best finish of his brief PGA TOUR career – earned him a start at the Valspar Championship. He also has a spot in next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.
Woods approached Burns for a brief chat Tuesday at Innisbrook’s putting green. There was a box of new clothes awaiting Burns when he arrived at his locker after his practice session. He’s fitting in nicely on the PGA TOUR. The only question is how much more he’ll play here this season.
Burns can use three more sponsor exemptions this season. This week doesn’t count against that limit, nor does his start at the Memorial Tournament presented by Nationwide. He earned that appearance by winning last year’s Jack Nicklaus Award as college golf’s top player. He’s hoping to use one of his remaining invitations on the Zurich Classic of New Orleans in his home state. He said former Memorial champion William McGirt is a prospective teammate.
Burns also has Web.com Tour status this season after his 10th-place finish at Q-School. He ranks 13th on the money list after a runner-up finish in at the Club Colombia Championship. He plans on returning to the tour for the Chitimacha Louisiana Open presented by NACHER, but his time there could be limited if he continues his good play.
Burns is 147 non-member FedExCup points from earning special temporary membership, which would allow him to accept unlimited sponsor exemptions for the remainder of the season. He could take care of that with a third-place finish this week. A solo fourth would leave him just 12 points short.
“I honestly don’t know what that is,” Burns said Tuesday. “If I play well, that takes care of itself.”
The Valspar is the same event where Jordan Spieth earned his first TOUR status in 2013. He became a special temporary member after a runner-up at the Puerto Rico Open and seventh-place finish at Innisbrook. He won the John Deere Classic later that year, qualified for the TOUR Championship and made the Presidents Cup team. Spieth and Woods are the only players to qualify for the TOUR Championship after starting the season without TOUR status. Burns may face long odds to replicate that feat, but he’s surged to the head of the class among this talented crop of rookie pros. This, despite being left off the 10-man U.S. team that competed at last year’s Walker Cup.
Fellow LSU alum John Peterson used his Walker Cup omission as motivation, nearly winning the 2012 U.S. Open after being left off the previous year’s team. Burns is responding in similar fashion.
“It’s probably something I think I’ll never get over as long as I live because when you’re 50 or 60 years old you want to tell your kids that you played in the Walker Cup,” Burns said. “I’ll never be able to do that, so I think that it will always leave a bad taste in my mouth.”
He wasn’t picked for the team despite winning one of college golf’s player of the year awards and finishing T6 at the Barbasol Championship while still an amateur. He’s made the cut in three of four starts this season, adding a T20 at the Shriners Hospitals for Championship and T43 at the Sanderson Farms Championship.
Burns has seen PGA TOUR players up close since his childhood. He’s longtime friends with Carter Toms, son of 13-time TOUR winner David Toms. Burns has tagged along on family vacations, where he also competed against players like Davis Love III.
Burns texted Toms for advice on playing with Woods at PGA National. Toms told Burns to putt out first, when possible, so that the crowds wouldn’t be running while he was over his ball. Advice is worthless, though, if the recipient doesn’t have the game to compete. Burns birdied his first hole with Woods, knocking his approach shot to 3 feet, and was bogey-free in the Honda’s final round.
“When he plays his game as good as anyone,” Toms said. “He always has that to fall back on.”