Planet Golf — 30 April 2021 by GW staff and news services
Steady Burns finishes off 1st PGA win

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Eight times this season, Sam Burns has been atop the leaderboard after every round except the one that mattered. That changed, finally, at the Valspar Championship.

Burns got some help from Keegan Bradley hitting into the water on the 13th hole, and then the 24-year-old from Louisiana took it from there with two big birdies that led to a 3-under 68 and a three-shot victory Sunday.

Burns won for the first time on the PGA Tour after twice failing to convert 54-hole leads in the Houston Open last fall and the Genesis Invitational at Riviera in February.

The victory moves him into the top 50 in the world and all but assures a spot in the U.S. Open, along with his first trip to the Masters next spring.

Burns was wiping away tears when he tapped in for a meaningless bogey on the final hole, especially to see his wife, parents and other family members pour onto the green to celebrate the moment with him.

“I’ve worked so hard for this moment,” Burns said. “They’ve all sacrificed so much.”

He had reason to believe this moment could have come sooner. Burns wasted a good start at the season-opening Safeway Open. He closed with a 2-over 72 to tie for seventh in the Houston Open. He lost a two-shot lead at Riviera, coming up one shot short of a playoff.

“Those moments in the past, you really learn a lot,” Burns said. “This week coming down the stretch, I tried to stick to our process.”

Bradley and Burns were tied through 36 holes and 54 holes, and they stayed that way through 12 holes on another blistering day at the Copperhead course. That changed with one swing.

Bradley came up well short on the par-3 13th and went into the water, leading to double bogey. Burns saved par with an 8-foot putt for a two-shot lead.

Burns was three shots ahead through 13 holes on Saturday and he struggled to retain a share of the lead, so he knew what was possible. This time, though, Bradley had no chance.

Burns followed with a wedge that stopped next to the hole for a tap-in birdie on the par-5 14th. He put Bradley away with a 7-iron to 18 feet and a birdie putt that brought the most emotion he showed all day, a hard fist slam.

He had a four-shot lead with two holes to play, the water and worst hazards behind him.

No one else had much of a chance.

Max Homa briefly tied for the lead with a birdie on the par-5 opening hole. He didn’t make another birdie the rest of the day, missing several chances around the turn and ending his hopes with a double bogey on the par-3 15th without hitting into the water. He shot 74.

Cameron Tringale was lurking but never seriously challenged. He shot 68 and shared third with Viktor Hovland, whose had a 65 but started too far back at the start of the day.

Abraham Ancer (69) finished fifth.

Burns built a quick two-shot lead on the front nine Sunday. Bradley answered with a pair of birdies, and then made a 15-foot birdie putt from the fringe on No. 9 to take a one-shot lead to the back nine.

The final round started to take shape on the par-5 11th, both hitting wild tee shots and good escapes from the trees. Burns won the wedge contest, making a 15-footer for birdie, to tie for the lead. Bradley fell back with his double bogey and never caught up.

THIRD ROUND

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Max Homa holed a wedge for eagle on No. 6 and nearly made an ace two holes later, but he said the putt he sank on his final hole was the most exciting of the bunch.

Homa hooked his tee shot on 18 into the left trees before hitting a good recovery shot to the fringe, 33 feet from the hole. He swung his fist in excitement after making that birdie putt.

“It was loud,” Homa said. “Six was cool but 18 was loud. That was fun.”

Homa trailed by four shots for most of the back nine Saturday but that birdie, combined with bogeys on 18 by co-leaders Sam Burns and Keegan Bradley, means he trails by just a single stroke.

Bradley and Burns, who started Saturday four clear of the field, both shot 69 to tie the Valspar’s 54-hole scoring record at 14-under 199. Homa is 13 under after shooting 66.

The next-closest players on the leaderboard – Ted Potter, Abraham Ancer, Joaquin Niemann and Cameron Tringale – are all four off the lead. Potter’s 63 was the low round of the day by three shots; he one-putted 14 consecutive holes Saturday and needed just 20 putts for the round. He will join Homa in Sunday’s second-to-last group.

Burns, Bradley and Homa each made an eagle on Saturday, but they had to deal with a tougher Copperhead Course on the back nine. The wind picked up and the greens dried out to slow the record scoring that had been seen this week.

The Valspar traditionally ranks as one of the most difficult tournaments on TOUR. The winning score is often single-digits under par, but the warm May weather meant the greens had to be watered for the first two rounds.

Sunday could be a return to what players are accustomed to from the hilly course on Florida’s west coast that requires precise ball-striking.

“The golf course is changing quickly,” Burns said after his round.

Homa, who won earlier this year at the Genesis Invitational, is looking to join Bryson DeChambeau and Stewart Cink as the only two-time winners this season. Next week, Homa will defend his title at the Wells Fargo Championship.

“I used to do this decent amount in college and when I first turned pro,” said Homa, who won the 2013 NCAA Championship and in his first two Korn Ferry Tour seasons before winning the Wells Fargo in 2019. “I had a dry spell for a while, but … I’ve kind of been in this position a few more times more recently. I feel like the old me is back.”

Bradley is seeking his fifth career victory. After winning three times in 2011 and 2012, including a major and a World Golf Championship, Bradley’s only other win is the 2018 BMW Championship. Saturday’s round included a chip-in on 14 for eagle.

“It just gave me a little bolt of energy, which was fun,” Bradley said. “It’s so great to have the fans out here. You can feel it again and it’s a fun time to be out here playing.”

He is leading the field in Strokes Gained: Approach-the-Green, greens in regulation and Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green. Saturday was the first round this week where he lost strokes on the greens. The shortest shots are the ones that will determine if Bradley is successful Sunday.

Burns is looking for his first TOUR victory after a promising collegiate career that included winning the Jack Nicklaus Award as college golf’s top player in 2017. He also finished in the top 10 of a PGA TOUR event, the Barbasol Championship, while still an amateur.

The next year, Burns earned attention for his strong play alongside Tiger Woods in the final round of The Honda Classic. Burns shot 68 to Woods’ 70 to finish in the top 10. That earned him a start into the next week’s Valspar Championship; he started the final round in fifth place, three shots off the lead, but shot 73 to finish 12th. A triple-bogey at 16 and bogey on the final hole left him six shots behind winner Paul Casey.

This is Burns’ third 54-hole lead of the season, tied with Jordan Spieth for the most on TOUR. Burns shot 72 to finish six back at the Vivint Houston Open and 69 at the Genesis Invitational to finish one shot out of the playoff between Homa and Tony Finau.

Burns eagled his first hole Saturday after hitting hybrid to 3 feet and was 4 under after five holes. He made all pars until a bogey at 16, though, and another one on the final hole.

“I think every opportunity is something you can learn from,” Burns said. “It’s not a matter of winning or losing. It’s a matter of going out there and seeing what the golf course is going to teach me that day.”

With a difficult golf course and enthusiastic fans awaiting Sunday, there is plenty to be learned.

THIRD ROUND

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Sam Burns kept piling up birdies Friday, turning a solid start into a great round of 8-under 63 for a share of the lead in the Valspar Championship.

Keegan Bradley got there with one shot.

Bradley ended his round by holing out for eagle from 100 yards in the ninth fairway, over a deep bunker to the elevated green. The shot left him guessing until he saw the fans jump out of their seats. That gave him a 66 and the best uphill walk at Innisbrook.

“I turned a good day into a great day,” Bradley said. “Man, it was a fun day. And what a way to finish. It was a blast.”

Bradley and Burns were at 12-under 130, and their play in the steamy afternoon on the Copperhead course gave them a little separation starting out the weekend.

Lucas Glover (65), Charley Hoffman (66) and Max Homa (68) were four shots back. Only 10 players were within five shots of the lead through 36 holes.

Bradley, whose longest par putt was 4 feet in his bogey-free opening round, opened with two quick birdies before coming up short of the green on the 12th hole and making his first bogey. Birdies were hard to come by the rest of the way, but he made up for it with one swing.

With the steep hill, he played the 100-yard shot as if it were 119, and then he added 6 yards to account for a little wind. It was a gap wedge. “A perfect shot,” he said.

“You can’t see the green from down there, so you have to wait for the crowd’s reaction,” he said. “And when everyone puts their arms up, normally that means it goes in. So another bonus of having fans out here. It makes it a lot more exciting for everybody.”

Maybe not for Phil Mickelson. The five-time major champion said he is struggling to keep his focus, or to regain his focus after distractions in the gallery, such as a phone ringing. He bogeyed two of his last three holes for a 69 to miss the cut by one shot.

“My physical ability to refocus, to back away and then refocus and so forth, I’m physically not able to do it right now,” the 50-year-old Mickelson said.

Burns had a few key par saves early in his round, and he took off after making the turn. He holed an 18-foot birdie putt on No. 10, reached the par-5 11th in two for a birdie and then holed a bunker shot on the 12th.

“Birdied the first three on the back and then just kind of we’re off,” he said.

Burns had a one-shot lead after 54 holes in the Houston Open in November and closed with a 72 to tie for seventh. He had a two-shot lead at Riviera going into the last round and shot 69 to finish one shot out of a playoff won by Homa.

“For me it’s just sticking to what I’ve been doing, having a good game plan going into the day,” he said. “I know over the weekend there will be some challenges, and I’m excited for the opportunity.”

Homa still has plenty of confidence from his win two months ago at Riviera, and it shows. He doesn’t feel as though any part of his game is out of order, and his putting has been superb. Homa has made five putts of 25 feet or longer.

And his short track record at Innisbrook — three appearances, three missed cuts, all six rounds over par — is a distant memory that comes with a simple explanation.

“I think I’m just better at golf now,” Homa said.

Among those at 7-under 135 were Sungjae Im, one of the best iron players on tour at a course renowned for rewarding good ball-strikers, and past Innisbrook winner Charl Schwartzel.

Due to the great finishes of Burns and Bradley, the top two players have their work cut out for them. Dustin Johnson (68) was nine shots back, while Justin Thomas (71) was 10 behind.

Glover had a good stretch of his own, hitting 6-iron from 209 yards to 4 feet on No. 3, the hardest hole of the second round on the Copperhead course. He followed that with a chip 7-iron to a front pin just over the bunker on the par-3 fourth, settling 4 feet away for another birdie.

Glover is trying to build confidence. Unlike Homa, he doesn’t have a recent victory to give him a spark. The last win for the former U.S. Open champion was 10 years ago at Quail Hollow.

Still, there is a rhythm to how he plays and how he walks that is starting to look familiar. Glover doesn’t waste any time stepping over the ball and making contact — usually in the middle of the clubface — nor does he get overly excited on a Friday.

But it’s a step in the right direction. His iron play has been average. His short game has bailed him out. All he wants now is to get his game a little more tidy.

“Two more rounds to go. A lot can happen,” Glover said. “But I’m happy the way I’m playing, happy with the way I’m putting and just want to have a shot.”

FIRST ROUND

PALM HARBOR, Fla. — Keegan Bradley can’t recall having an easier time than he did Thursday at Innisbrook. He missed only one green. His longest par putt was just over 4 feet. It added to a 7-under 64 and another great start in the Valspar Championship.

It’s the second round that recently has given Bradley fits on the Copperhead course.

Bradley ran off four birdies over his last five holes, finishing with a 20-foot birdie putt on the 18th and a two-shot lead on a day of low scoring not typically seen at this PGA TOUR stop.

“Basically zero stress the whole day,” Bradley said. “I know that I’m going to have some bogeys and some stress coming. But as for today, I played so good and it feels good to go around a course like this and shoot that score.”

Riviera winner Max Homa had eight birdies and was in a large group at 66 that included Emiliano Grillo and Ryan Moore.

It wasn’t a breeze for everyone. Dustin Johnson didn’t make a birdie over his final 12 holes and had to settle for a 71. Johnson hasn’t finished in the top 10 in just over two months and first has to worry about making the cut.

Justin Thomas celebrated his 28th birthday by opening with an eagle and coming inches away from a hole-in-one, but he stalled on the back nine and shot 69.

Phil Mickelson, playing at Innisbrook for the first time since 2004, shot 73.

As for Bradley, this is the fifth straight time he has started the Valspar Championship in a tie for sixth or better. He has missed the cut twice — including in 2016, when he shared the 18-hole lead — and has cracked the top 30.

This could be a different year given the change in date. The tournament has been part of the Florida swing in March since 2007. Because of a change in the calendar, it was moved to the last week in April this year.

With hotter weather — temperatures were pushing 90 — the course is getting more water than usual. Combined with a little more humidity, conditions were a little softer.

Bradley had his game dialed in from the start, and especially at the finish. He made birdie the only time he missed a green, just short on the par-3 15th. He had the 4-foot par putt and another one from just over 3 feet. The other nine par putts were 20 inches or shorter.

“I didn’t really come close to making a bogey, so that was a really fun day to be out there and playing,” Bradley said.

In a season of players ending long stretches without winning, perhaps Moore is in line to join the list. The last of his five PGA TOUR wins was in 2016, the year he played in the Ryder Cup. He missed the last four months of 2020 with a back injury, and it’s been slow coming back.

And his back was feeling a little tight the last few days. The warm weather helped, and so did a conservative approach.

“I couldn’t try and do too much. I couldn’t try and overwork shots and stuff like that,” he said. “I just had to play it pretty neutral and just kind of hit more three-quarter shots all the way around, and that apparently worked. Maybe I should do that more often.”

Paul Casey, trying to become only the fourth player in the last 40 years to win the same tournament three straight times (Tiger Woods did it on six occasions), overcame a rough start with a 68. He also came inches away from an ace on the fourth hole, with one fan jumping out of his chair prematurely. It caught the lip. He made a 2.

“A three-peat has been talked about a lot and will be talked about until I’m done here, and I just want to kind of hang around, which is what I did today,” Casey said. “I certainly can’t win it today, but I want to hang around.”

The best start — it felt like that, anyway — belonged to Michael Visacki, who received plenty of fame at the start of the week with his 20-foot putt to win a playoff in a Monday qualifier and earn his first start in a PGA TOUR event. He was sobbing when he shared the news with his father. He was smiling when he got up-and-down for birdie on the par-5 first hole.

Highlights were rare — he also made a birdie on the par-3 13th — and he opened with a 74.

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