ATLANTA — Sam Burns is playing a different tournament than the other 29 golfers at this week’s Tour Championship.
It’s not about making up the 10-stroke starting deficit to world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler. It’s not about trying to win the FedEx Cup playoffs. He was one of five golfers opening play at even par in the staggered strokes format, but none of the others toward the bottom have the same incentive as Burns.
He is playing to remind the world — and U.S. captain Zach Johnson —that he can be one of the best. When he’s on.
When he’s on. That’s the key. Because this year was supposed to be the coming out party of Sam Burns. He was 26 years old when the year began. He’d won four tournaments on the PGA Tour, earned a spot on the 2022 Presidents Cup team and seemed slated to cement himself as one of the next big things in golf. He was going to play better in majors, and when the season was done, he’d safely secure himself a spot in his first Ryder Cup. Right? …. Right?
But it just hasn’t worked out that way. It’s been the type of season that’s more difficult to explain. He has not been bad — it’s not Justin Thomas falling off a cliff or even Cameron Young’s erratic play. Burns is one of the 30 players to qualify for the Tour Championship — five members of the 2022 U.S. Presidents Cup cannot say that. Burns won the match play tournament in Austin, an elevated event, and finished in an impressive 13 top 20s this year.
Burns just didn’t take the step. He didn’t make the statement. His 2021-22 stretch of dominant ball striking slowed down and he earned just one top-five finish all year, a reminder that sports careers are not normally linear. They don’t always go like his best friend, Scheffler, inching his way from solid player to 12th guy on the Ryder Cup to Masters champ to the best player in the world. Sometimes there are dips and regressions and lessons learned.
And now — if you believe in reading the tea leaves and listening to pundits — Burns appears to be on the outside looking in on the U.S. Ryder Cup team, which Johnson will announce Tuesday.
Lucas Glover, Justin Thomas or …?
— Hugh Kellenberger (@KellenbergerCBB) August 17, 2023
Vice captain Fred Couples said last month that Young will be in Rome. Few would argue against Rickie Fowler after his great season, and leaving off Brooks Koepka would be bold. If all of that is true, the final spot really comes down to Thomas versus the field — Lucas Glover, Keegan Bradley, Tony Finau, Denny McCarthy, Russell Henley and Burns. (Yes, also Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau, but them not being picked would be more related to LIV and culture fit than simply on-course play). And many project that spot to go to the longtime star Thomas, unless somebody can really turn heads this week in Atlanta.
So Burns entered Thursday much further back than other contenders like Glover, Bradley or Henley. He entered the week with a 0.1 percent chance of winning the Tour Championship, per DataGolf. But if he could just make an impression…
“My thought coming in today was we’re starting 10 shots back against the No. 1 player in the world, and we’ve got nothing to lose,” Burns said following an opening round 66. “Go out and try to play a solid round, and we were able to do that.”
Nothing to lose, he said, and he played like it. Burns went for pins. He took risks. He rediscovered some of that ball striking to be fifth in strokes gained from approach, setting up five birdies on the day. On the first hole, he was in the rough and maybe 15 yards from three tall pine trees. He grabbed a wedge and lifted it over all three and into the fairway, earning “oohs” and “ahhs” from the crowd. He went right at a daunting raised front left pin on 8 over a big bunker and stuck it for another birdie. He made a 41-foot birdie putt on 15. It was a good day.
This is not a case for Burns to make it. Shoot, Bradley shot a 63 on Thursday to share the clubhouse lead, if we’re going to talk about people proving themselves.
But between Thomas’ nice effort at Wyndham or Glover’s absurd 43-year-old heater or Burns shooting a course-record 61 last week in Chicago, the discourse around the 12th roster spot has become more about reconciling with the best versions of a player versus their current average form. Do we trust Thomas more as a two-time major champ with two Ryder Cups under his belt or somebody like Bradley who has played far better on a week-to-week basis in 2023?
And the best version of Burns would have been a perfect fit for Rome. In that format, it’s often about golfers who can rack up birdies, and Burns is that kind of talent. Burns is a great driver. He’s an elite putter, the only golfer on tour to finish in the top 11 in strokes gained putting each of the last three years. And of course, there’s the friendship with Scheffler, making them seemingly a perfect pairing (especially with Scheffler’s recent putting issues).
When you ask Burns about this, he’s quick to brush it off. That’s kind of his style. He’s a country guy from Shreveport, La., who still lives an hour away in Choudrant, where most golfers live in big cities near major golf areas. He likes to hunt. He likes to fish. He loves his LSU Tigers. As much as the Scheffler friendship has almost become a punchline at times, it is crucial for understanding Burns because, like Scheffler, he’s a somewhat ho-hum religious person who goes with the flow. His responses to these questions illuminate that, like when he was asked in Chicago about trying to make it to Atlanta:
“If I make it, great. If I don’t, I get to go home and be home an extra week. Whatever happens, I know the Lord has already planned it out, and I can be good with whatever happens.”
When asked Thursday about this season and taking a slight step back, he said:
“To make it to the Tour Championship and win the (match play), it’s been a pretty solid year. I definitely wish at times I would have played better, but there’s always those times.”
When asked about those days when he doesn’t have it:
“Golf. Pretty simple as that. It’s a hard, hard game. It can really beat you up at times.”
And that mentality is the key to taking that step. The thinking in the Burns camp is that he is close and there’s no need to tinker too much. His driving and putting have actually gotten better. His short game is about the same. The only difference between the two breakout seasons and 2023 is that his ball striking went from 0.66 strokes gained to -0.02. For reference, he’s still No. 20 in the world in overall strokes gained this season but has the worst approach numbers of anyone in the top 20. That’s an outlier for his entire career, and days like his 61 in Chicago or his nice day Thursday are hope that he’ll be right back soon.
This year was far from a bad one for Burns. It was just a missed opportunity. But then you remember he only turned 27 a month ago. It’s all still in front of him.
A year ago in New Orleans, his annual Zurich Classic team partner Billy Horschel talked about what Burns could be.
“Obviously we know the Justin Thomases and the Jordan Spieths, that little generation, but I honestly believe that Scottie and Sam are these next two guys coming up,” Horschel said then, “and what Scottie has done over the last few months has been unbelievable, and Sam has been right there. It could have easily been Sam than Scottie…
“He’s going to do some unbelievable things in this game of golf.”
For now, Burns can just try to keep firing at some pins and maybe convince Zach Johnson of that skill. He’s got nothing to lose.
(Top photo of Sam Burns: Kevin C. Cox / Getty Images)