Sam Burns, Justin Thomas both enter Valspar ‘close’ and searching
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Written by Jeff Babineau @JeffBabz62
PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Wednesday along Florida’s Gulf Coast broke cool and rainy, with unseasonal temperatures dipping into the 50s at the Valspar Championship. It certainly was not the Chamber of Commerce handshake one might expect for Sam Burns’ happy homecoming at a place that already has been special to his young career.
Burns’ birth certificate may say Louisiana, but it’s the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort outside Tampa that fast has become his happy hunting ground. Two years ago, he won his first PGA TOUR title here, pulling away down the stretch from Keegan Bradley, winning for the first time at 24. He apparently took such a liking to the feeling that he repeated last spring, where he edged another young, rising standout in Davis Riley, this time going extra holes. Burns seemed at a disadvantage on the second playoff hole against Riley, then did the improbable and holed a 32-foot birdie putt on the 16th green to prevail.
Sam Burns wins in a playoff at Valspar
It was on that same hole in 2018 that a less experienced Burns made triple-bogey in the final round at Valspar, costing him a TOUR card in the process as he slid from T3 to T12. Young golfers are a resilient bunch. You live, you learn, hopefully get better. Burns ranked 15th in the world (he got as low as ninth a year ago) just hit it off with the Copperhead, one more demanding exam in the Florida Swing. Why do the two mesh so well together? For one, it allows him to be creative in choosing ways to attack it. He has a game plan that works, coming into the week having shot eight consecutive rounds in the 60s at Copperhead.
“I wish I could pinpoint what it was. I don't know,” Burns said on Wednesday. “I think the thing that I like about this golf course is it's such a good mixture of holes. It's not like you just get up there and grab your driver every hole and just hit it as far as you can.
“There's a lot of different shots you can hit off tees. There's holes where you could hit four or five different clubs off tees and kind of play it whatever way you want. So I think there's a lot of flexibility here. There's certain holes where you have to hit a lot of really quality shots. I think it's just a very demanding golf course and when you hit the correct shots you get rewarded.”
Burns enters the week having not been on top of his game in 2022-23. After a three-victory campaign a year ago that led to a spot on the U.S. Team at the Presidents Cup, he arrives with a pair of top-10 finishes in nine starts this season. He tied for 35th a week ago at THE PLAYERS, that finish on the heels of mixed cuts in big events at The Genesis Invitational and Arnold Palmer Invitational presented by Mastercard.
The mindset of top players is that they are always just a swing or two away from unlocking something big or sparking a memorable run. Burns doesn’t need to look far to see that. One of his best friends is Scottie Scheffler, a frequent housemate on the road who has been on a tear, winning six times since February of 2022.
“I think his kind of last year and a half has been some of the best golf I've ever seen.” Burns said of Scheffler, last week’s PLAYERS champion. (Scheffler is not part of the Valspar field, which has five of the world’s top 25 players.)
“I think he's got a ton of confidence right now, is kind of clicking on all cylinders. Yeah, I think watching the way that he plays and the way that they kind of dissect golf courses is definitely something that we can learn from. Just asking him questions ... we play a ton of practice rounds together, stay a lot on the road (the players and their wives will room again at the Masters), so kind of picking his brain about certain things has been definitely helpful.”
Burns can point to poor ball-striking this season as the main part of his game that has been holding him back. A year ago, he was 32nd on TOUR in Strokes Gained: Tee to Green; this season he ranks 142nd. In Strokes Gained: Approach the Green, Burns was 18th a year ago, and 186th this season. His greens in regulation stats have dropped from hitting 68.68 percent of greens to 64.37 percent. In a category in which he was 26th a year ago, he ranks 164th. He just is not giving himself the scoring opportunities to take advantage of his world-class putting (11th this season, and 10th a year ago).
“I would say it hasn't been great so far,” Burns said when asked to describe his season to date. “I think just a little bit of inconsistency. But I think the important thing to remember is, as a player, it's never as far off as sometimes you feel that it is, and so I think just continuing to do the hard work and continuing to kind of stick to my process of trying to get better, and I know that at some point it will click, and everything will come together.”
Justin Thomas is at Valspar in a similar predicament. He is searching for something, too, and admittedly frustrated with his 2022-23 results. He is a 15-time winner on the PGA TOUR, and though he counts two giant victories from the last two seasons – 2021 PLAYERS, 2022 PGA Championship – Thomas, who turns 30 next month, just believes he should contend, and convert, more consistently than he has.
Justin Thomas nearly aces No. 17 to set up birdie at Valspar
Thomas played well at Copperhead a year ago, finishing just outside the playoff, and hopes he the good vibes of the place continue this week. Thomas has only one finish this season better than T20, a fourth-place showing at the WM Phoenix Open.
Most of Thomas’ shortcomings this season can be traced to the flatstick. He enters Valspar ranked 144th in Strokes Gained: Putting, losing ground each week to the field. (“It's strange because I feel like I'm rolling the ball arguably better than I ever have,” he said. “I mean, I'm hitting more putts that have chances of going in than I ever have.”)
Added Thomas, “It's just been an odd year. I mean, I've been working really hard and trying to get what I feel like is back to more how I'm playing. But then again, I'll have weeks where – it's weird. It's like I've described it to probably my team, it's like I feel really close and I feel really far at times. So it's kind of bizarre.”
Sometimes, a golfer who feels close but has yet to snap together all the pieces can appear to be a dog caught chasing his own tail. It can be equal parts being invigorated within the search and also downright maddening.
“I'll have some signs of feeling like I'm there, and then kind of – I need to get the consistency, I feel like, back in some things, but then again, not feel like – I don't need to start over and kind of rewrite the book,” Thomas said. “It's not that far off.
“It's just this game of golf can do that sometimes. I think that quote kind of was going around again of what Max (Homa) said however many years ago, you know, ‘This game can make you feel one swing away from wanting to quit, and one swing away from feeling like you're going to win the Masters.’ That's kind of where I'm at right now.
Thomas, like Burns, is at a place where he has had past success. And for now, that is enough fuel for optimism and a fresh slate.