2021 Valspar Championship leaderboard, grades: Sam Burns pulls away for first PGA Tour victory

2021 Valspar Championship leaderboard, grades: Sam Burns pulls away for first PGA Tour victory


The list is not massive, but Sam Burns has a legitimate claim to “best American golfer in the world without a PGA Tour win.” Well … had. Burns took the 2021 Valspar Championship over Keegan Bradley and a stocked field on Sunday at Innisbrook Resort by firing an impressive 3-under 68 over the last 18 holes to finish at a near-tournament-tying record 17 under on the week.

Burns came into the final round tied with Bradley at 14 under, but after some early back and forth, the tide turned for good on the 13th hole. Bradley hit an iron into the water on the difficult par-3 13th, took double, and after Burns birdied the 14th to take a three-stroke lead with four to go, that was pretty much a wrap on his first PGA Tour victory. He poured in a birdie at the nasty 16th as an exclamation mark.

So who is Sam Burns, and why was he — at least theoretically — the best American golfer in the world without a PGA Tour win? At 24, he’s still the age of guys like Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland. And though he’s not received the hype those guys have, his amateur career was still pretty great. Burns played two years at LSU and was an All-American, the SEC Player of the Year and a Haskins Award finalist. The pedigree is strong, even if he’s flown a bit under the radar as a professional. 

His numbers say maybe this should not have been the case anyway. Burns has been playing at a top-50 clip since last summer, and earlier this year touched top-25 numbers. It got a bit lost, but he played in the final group at the loaded Farmers Insurance Open and then finished one stroke out of a playoff at the even more loaded Genesis Invitational. 

“I wouldn’t really say [not winning the Genesis] was a failure,” said Burns this week. “I think every opportunity is something you can learn from, and so I think for me 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, see what golf is going to teach me that day.”

Though he has faded a bit from the lead at various PGA Tour events in his career, he moved toward it following a 67-63 start at the Copperhead Couse at Innisbrook Resort this week. This is a natural progression for young pros — learning how to play with and toward a lead instead of shying away from it. It seems intuitive, but talk to anyone on Tour, and it is not. 

Afterward, Burns alluded to some of early-in-the-year failure and said when he hit the back nine, he was trying to stay in his process and not get out over his skis. Impressively, three of Burns’ four nine-hole scores on Saturday and Sunday were under par, even as the golf course slowly began to play more and more difficult in Round 4. It was a veteran-like march toward his first (of probably several) PGA Tour wins in his 76th start.

Winning at this level, especially in one of the strongest Valspar Championship fields ever, is an amalgamation of several different things. Ball-striking is first and foremost, and Burns finished top five in that category. Toss in some good putting, a recent history of learning what it takes late in an event and a pedigree that portends a healthy amount of winning over the course of your career, and you get what took place on Sunday at Innisbrook: a fantastic, clutch, emotional first win for Sam Burns. Grade: A+

Here are the rest of our grades for the 2021 Valspar Championship.

Max Homa (T6): I’ve changed my view of Homa more than anyone else on the PGA Tour since Jan, 1. He’s gone from solid PGA Tour pro to legit contender in every tournament he plays, a role he said he’s reacquainting himself with. Grade: A

“It’s funny, it’s 10 or so years ago … I used to do this a decent amount in college, and when I first turned pro, I was comfortable in these positions,” said Homa. “So I had a kind of a dry spell for a while, but when I get back here now and I’ve kind of been in this position a few more times more recently, I feel like kind of like the old me is back a little bit, mentally. Obviously the golf game can fluctuate, but I just feel like my head’s in a good spot week-to-week, and when I put myself in a spot like I have this week, I just feel ready and comfortable and just kind of accepting what happens.”

Justin Thomas (T13): I am convinced J.T. would have finished better this week if he’d simply played every shot from tee to green and then let Si Woo Kim putt with his 3-wood like Kim did at the Masters earlier this year. J.T. lost six strokes on the greens this week and made as many eagles (3) as he did putts over 10 feet over the course of the last four days. 

“… If I’m putting well this week, I’m winning this tournament without question,” Thomas said on Saturday. 

That bodes fairly well for Quail Hollow next week and the Wells Fargo Championship. J.T. won the 2017 PGA Championship there, and if he hits it like he did this week and putts even close to field average, he’ll win another (slightly less important) trophy in seven days. Grade: B

Paul Casey (T21): No three-peat for Casey, who nonetheless played pretty well. He pulled a mini-J.T. by finishing top five in strokes gained from tee to green and bottom 10 in strokes gained putting. Winning an event three times in a row for somebody like Casey is basically going to come down to whether you putted well and got a little lucky with the flat stick. That did not happen for Casey this week, but his first four months of 2021 — six top 10s, including a win — have been incredibly solid. Grade: B

Dustin Johnson (T48): D.J. does not have a top 10 since the Genesis Invitational in February (which is an eternity for him). Despite some pretty wayward drives early in the week, Johnson’s numbers off the tee overall this week were fine. Instead, it’s from fairway to green where he seems to be trying to find it a little bit. He has some time to find it before the PGA Championship in less than three weeks, and I worry much less about him than probably anyone else on the PGA Tour, but he doesn’t have that “I’m the best player alive” stuff right now. Grade: C

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