Sam Burns is turning up the heat

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Sam Burns of the United States
  • Post published:February 22, 2022

There’s a new name dining at golf’s top table after a swift and impressive rise. The indications are that he is here to stay, writes GARY LEMKE.

When 2022 swung into view and the first men’s golf rankings for the year were published, all the usual suspects were there. The status quo in the top six remained, with Jon Rahm on top, while Viktor Hovland and Justin Thomas switched places at Nos 7 and 8.

However, there was a new member of the top 10, and it resulted in South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen being bumped down a notch, to No 11. At No 10, emerged the name Sam Burns, the seventh American golfer on the list.

Emerged isn’t a bad description. He ended 2019 in 209th position and climbed to 154th by the end of 2020. Still, his rise to 11th in 2021 and then to a career-high 10th in the first week of January 2022 signalled a significant breakthrough trajectory.

Two wins and seven top-10 finishes at 26 PGA Tour events in 2021 tell the story of a player whose rise up the rankings has put him in there with the big boys. At 25, he’s also the third youngest in the elite group, with only Viktor Hovland (24) and Collin Morikawa (25 on 6 February) younger than him.

Burns admits it was a call from the USA Ryder Cup captain Steve Stricker, giving him the news that he wasn’t selected to take on Team Europe at Whistling Straits last September, that made him even more determined to show his value.

‘Hearing the news that I didn’t make the team was very motivating and kind of gut-wrenching. So, yeah, I think it’s definitely motivated me to try to be on the next team and to try to improve,’ he said in the aftermath of his second PGA Tour win of the season, at the Sanderson Farms Championship last October.

Phil Mickelson, who was a vice-captain at the Ryder Cup and who knows talent when he sees it, said after Burns’ latest win: ‘Look at him, he was inches away from being on the USA team. He’ll most likely be on the next one. I just don’t see how a guy that talented won’t be.’

Burns finished in the top five in 27% of his starts on the PGA Tour in 2021, which was a better number than Justin Thomas, Bryson DeChambeau, Scottie Scheffler and Dustin Johnson, and made the biggest world ranking leap of anyone in the top 50 when he went from No 154 to No 11.

He shot 68 on a windy Sunday to win the Valspar Championship by three shots over Keegan Bradley last May at Palm Harbor. That first win on the PGA Tour came after a third at the Genesis Invitational and a random ankle injury that slowed the promising start to his pro career.

A fortnight after his breakthrough win in Florida he finished runner-up behind Kyoung-Hoon Lee at the AT&T Byron Nelson and headed to The PGA Championship at Kiawah Island as a lot of aficionados’ picks for one to watch that week. But he slipped on the 5th tee, aggravating a previous injury to his lower back and walked off the course after nine holes, having gone out in four-over 41 – with a triple- and a double-bogey.

Burns returned in time for the US Open last June but missed the cut by one shot after rounds of 73 and 74. His debut Open Championship in July went slightly better, in that he made the cut, but tie-76th (joint last) on eight over par.

Still, he regrouped and re-emerged in early August where he finished runner-up behind Abraham Ancer at the WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational, losing out in a three-man playoff that also included Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama.

Burns wasn’t born into a golfing family. Parents Todd and Beth Burns met while Todd was playing American football for Louisiana Tech. Their first son, Chase, followed in his father’s footsteps and played football for the Bulldogs. Todd and Beth’s second son, Sam, also played football but showed promise in golf at an early age.

The story goes that when Sam was four, Chase handed his younger brother an 8-iron. Sam’s first swing produced a 70-yard shot with a little draw. Then he did it again. And again. Chase ran inside to tell their father they had a rare talent on their hands.

By Grade 8, aged around 13, Sam was ready to commit to golf, which was tough for his mother to accept. ‘She was just devastated because that was all she ever knew, going out Friday night and watching football,’ he told ‘I said, “Well, Mom, how about if I play one more year; we can have a little putting green in the backyard. That way, I can still practise golf after football practice.” That was good negotiating on my part.

‘As I went through middle school, I started to figure out I wasn’t bad at golf. I thought, maybe if I kept working hard and practising and figuring how to play going into high school, I’d have a chance to play professionally.’

Burns, thanks in part to the tutelage of 2001 PGA Championship winner David Toms, became one of the best juniors in the United States before committing to another Louisiana school: LSU. He won the Jack Nicklaus Award after his sophomore season and it was then that he decided to embark on his pro career.

He quickly attracted attention for his performance at the 2018 Honda Classic, when he played alongside Tiger Woods in the final round. He shot 68 to Woods’ 70 to finish in the top 10, a shot clear of Dylan Frittelli and two ahead of Woods. Burns had gone into the tournament ranked outside the world’s top 400 and improved to 388th after that week.

‘As a kid growing up, as a fan of golf, it was always Tiger Woods this and Tiger Woods that,’ Burns reflected. ‘He was my childhood hero, I’m standing there next to him on the tee box and I’m like, “That’s Tiger Woods.” I don’t even remember feeling the club in my hands.’

Apparently, after a few holes, Burns cracked up Woods when he said, ‘Can you believe all these fans came here to see me?’

It really didn’t dawn on Burns what he had done until the following day.

‘We were on our way home,’ recalled his mother, ‘and Sam looks at his dad and he says, “Dad, did I really just beat Tiger?”’

Things were moving quickly. On April Fool’s Day in 2018, he recorded his first professional win by pairing an opening-round 72 with three straight rounds of 65 to capture the Savannah Open on the Korn Ferry Tour. He won $99 000, which basically assured him of earning a PGA Tour card by the end of the season.

His rookie year (2019) got off to a solid start before he broke his right ankle in two places while playing basketball with kids in his neighbourhood. Thankfully, he didn’t need surgery and managed to recover relatively quickly. He discarded the crutches after a few weeks and began chipping and putting, swapping the boot for an ankle brace. A little less than two months after the injury, the 23-year-old was able to hit his driver again.

But, bad habits had crept in to his swing. ‘My ankle wouldn’t do stuff that was necessary in my swing. It gave me inconsistency with my ball striking. My body was holding back, keeping me from off my right side and into my left.’

Burns talked to his coach, Brad Pullin, about trying to adjust his swing to compensate for the limitation, but they both decided to give it a little more time.

‘If I could change anything,’ Burns said, ‘I guess I would’ve originally waited a little longer to return.’

Speaking of his relationship with his coach, Burns said, ‘The two of us are good friends and I think that helps a lot. We know when it’s time to be serious when we’re working. But when we’re off the course, we’re really good friends. We don’t talk about golf. It’s important that we can both get away from golf and still have things in common to talk about.’

For his part Pullin said his partnership with Sam has flourished because it’s built on them never pulling any punches. ‘It starts with us being honest with each other. It’s always been a staple of what we’ve done. He’s honest with me and I’m honest with him. We trust one another. We’re a great team in that way.’

Burns’ outlook on golf is refreshingly simple: ‘The most important thing is not putting your whole identity in golf. Obviously, it’s how I’m going to pay my bills and support my family one day, but it’s just golf, it’s just a game. Have fun. Don’t overcomplicate it. Go out, enjoy it.’

But, according to Toms there’s more to it.

‘I’ve seen kids come to my facility to practise and it’s more social than anything,’ Toms told Ron Higgins of in 2019. ‘They don’t turn off their phone. They are talking with others around them.

‘Sam turns off his phone and goes to hit by himself. He’s there to work. He knows what he wants and what he has to do to get it. It’s a quality not all young people have in this day and age. He has the drive to be great.

‘The toughest thing for young people in general is for the hard work they put in they want results right now. That isn’t the way it’s always going to be in golf. You’ll play great and then you’ll have some valleys. Sam’s strong enough mentally to handle that and he’s got a great support group to help him get through those times when it’s not always going to be rosy as a professional golfer.’

Perhaps another part of Burns’ success is that he understands it won’t always be this good. From relative obscurity to a top-10 player.

‘Golf is a funny game, with a lot of challenges and a game you can’t perfect, no matter how much you practise. Often, things may get worse before they get better, even though you’re working hard on different things.

‘You have to understand the process and be willing to accept it’s not always going to be great every time. You may miss six putts in a row, but during those six you’re still learning and always trying to find something to learn and grow. You should always be thankful and grateful for the opportunity to play.’

The casual golf observer will also be grateful that there’s a fresh new face on the scene who gatecrashed the world’s top 10.


2017: 3M Open (T7th)
2018: Savannah Golf Championship (1st), Sanderson Farms Championship (T3rd), Honda Classic (T8th), KC Golf Classic (3rd), Utah Championship (3rd), Valspar Championship (T12th)
2019: RBC Heritage (9th)
2020: The American Express (T6th), Houston Open (T7)
2021: Valspar Championship (1st), WGC-FedEx St Jude Invitational (T2nd), Sanderson Farms Championship (1st), AT&T Byron Nelson (T2nd), The Genesis Invitational (3rd), Hero World Challenge (T3rd), The CJ Cup @ Summit (T5th), BMW Championship (8th), Houston Open (T7th), Travelers Championship (T13th)

– This article first appeared in the February 2022 issue of Compleat Golfer magazine. Subscribe here!

Compleat Golfer February 2022 cover

Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images