Sam Burns must hold off Dustin Johnson, Jason Day to get first TOUR win

Sam Burns must hold off Dustin Johnson, Jason Day to get first TOUR win
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HOUSTON – Shortly before Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland stormed the PGA TOUR, Sam Burns was the big prospect coming out of the college game.

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Three years ago, he was the Jack Nicklaus Award winner as college golf’s top player. That same year, Burns finished in the top 10 of a PGA TOUR event while still an amateur. Then, in one of his first TOUR starts after turning pro, Burns played alongside Tiger Woods, and beat him.

Now Burns, still just 24 years old, has a chance to earn his first PGA TOUR victory Sunday at the Vivint Houston Open. He will start the final round at Memorial Park with a one-shot lead.

The reigning FedExCup champion, a former World No. 1 and a demanding golf course all stand between him and the trophy, however.

Burns got up-and-down for a scrambling par on 18 to shoot 68 on Saturday. He’s at 9-under 201, one ahead of Carlos Ortiz and Jason Day. Ortiz and Day both shot 67 on Saturday.

Sepp Straka is two shots back, while Dustin Johnson is three behind. Johnson, who is playing for the first time since the U.S. Open, has shot consecutive 66s after a sloppy 72 in the first round.

Johnson and Day, who’ve combined for 35 PGA TOUR victories, won’t be the only thing he has to worry about, however. Memorial Park, the municipal course that is making its return to the PGA TOUR after a hiatus that lasted more than a half-century, has proven to be quite the test. Its scoring average this week is more than a stroke over par. There have been 32 triple-bogeys or worse this week, more than there were the entire week at Winged Foot for this year’s U.S. Open.

Many of those high scores are attributed to the steep slopes of short grass around the greens. They repel wayward approach shots and make recovery difficult. A chip shot caught heavy will roll back to a player’s feet, while a bump-and-run hit too hard can scoot across the green. Combine that challenge with the thick rough along the fairways and firm greens and it’s easy to see why this public course has put up such a good fight.

“It’s not a matter of if. It’s a matter of when this golf course will hit you,” Burns said.

It’s also about how you bounce back from those blows. Burns, who started Saturday with the lead, bogeyed two of his first three holes but also eagled the eighth hole and birdied three of his final six holes to grab the solo lead.

Burns has already proven he can handle playing with a future World Golf Hall of Famer in the final round of a PGA TOUR event.

It was two years ago that Burns played with Woods in the final round of The Honda Classic. Burns was a Korn Ferry Tour player competing on a sponsor exemption, while Woods was beginning to show the form that led to wins at the TOUR Championship, Masters and ZOZO CHAMPIONSHIP.

No one would have blamed Burns if he succumb to the pressure of playing with Woods, who was adorned in his Sunday red. Burns beat him instead.

Burns shot 68, two shots lower than Woods, to finish in the top 10.

Burns graduated the Korn Ferry Tour that year. He finished third in his second TOUR event as a member, the Sanderson Farms Championship, and kept his card despite suffering a season-ending ankle injury in July. He broke his right ankle while playing pickup basketball with kids in his neighborhood.

Burns returned for the start of the new season but admits that may have been premature. He said it wasn’t until this January that the ankle stopped bothering him. Two months later, the season was paused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Burns finished 111th in the FedExCup this year, but already has been in contention once in this young season. He held the halfway lead at the season-opening Safeway Open and entered Sunday one shot back. A final-round 70, including a 37 on the back nine, left him four shots back of winner Stewart Cink.

On Sunday, Burns will play in the final group alongside Day and Carlos Ortiz, who’s also seeking his first PGA TOUR win. Day called his game “a work in progress” as he rebuilds his swing to take stress of his ailing back.

“I’ve got to be patient with it,” Day said Saturday.

Johnson, meanwhile, could accomplish something he’s never done before. He has 23 PGA TOUR wins, but none of them have come after he shot over par in the first round. Johnson, who’s making his first start since testing positive for COVID-19, opened this week with a 2-over 72. He’s quickly found his form, however, and said his game now feels similar to the FedExCup Playoffs, when he finished 1st-2nd-1st to claim his first FedExCup.

Having two of the world’s top players in pursuit always makes for a stressful Sunday, but beating Woods gives Burns confidence entering the final round.

“That day really challenged me,” he said of his round with Woods at the Honda. “I think it was good for me to see that I was capable of being able to do that in a pressure-packed situation like that. Tomorrow’s a similar situation.”

Source: PGA tour

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