PALM HARBOR — The first thing you need to understand is that this moment was inevitable.
Maybe not this weekend, and maybe not at the Valspar Championship, but Sam Burns was going to be standing on some 18th green at some PGA Tour event with his wife, Caroline — and his blossoming career — rushing toward him.
The kid is that good. Maybe not burst-on-the-scene good. Or look-out-Bryson-DeChambeau good. No, Burns, 24, was always going to earn his way to stardom through patience, disappointment, tenacity and, ultimately, talent.
And it all came together this weekend at Innisbrook Resort, where Burns took a two-stroke lead through four holes in the final round, fell behind by the ninth and came roaring back to beat Keegan Bradley by three strokes to win his first PGA tournament.
“On the putting green when you’re 10, 11 years old and you’re like, ‘I have this putt to win’ whatever tournament, I can remember hitting that putt so many times,” Burns said. “You just hope and practice so hard to have that opportunity. After I had the bunker shot on 18, I just got kind of choked up thinking about that moment and thinking about wanting to have that opportunity for so long, and now you do.”
The point is that it didn’t come easily, and it shouldn’t be taken lightly. Burns has been heading in this direction for quite some time. He was the American Junior Golf Association Player of the Year at 17, an All-American and Jack Nicklaus Award winner at LSU at 20, and he outshot playing partner Tiger Woods in the final round of the Honda Classic for a top-10 finish at 21.
And, up until Sunday, he had led eight rounds on this year’s PGA Tour without winning a single time.
He had three-stroke lead with nine holes to go at the Genesis Invitational in Los Angeles before collecting three bogeys in a four-hole stretch in February. He began the final round tied for the lead at the Houston Open before stumbling home with 72 to finish seventh.
To the world, those moments looked like collapses. To Burns, they looked like growth.
“I think I always felt that you had to play perfect golf to win. I always felt that you had to play your absolute best on a Sunday to win,” Burns said. “And after those experiences, I realized that it’s not the case. I was trying to do too much.”
So when Bradley wrested the lead away with birdies at Nos. 5, 6 and 9 on the Copperhead Course, Burns did not panic. He didn’t take chances, and he didn’t overcompensate. He nailed a 15-foot putt on No. 11 for a birdie and then watched as Bradley imploded on No. 13.
There had been 448 shots off the tee at No. 13 at that point in the tournament, and only 10 had landed in the water. Bradley’s became the 11th. The double bogey that ensued gave Burns a two-shot lead, and Bradley never got any closer.
Burns’ 3-under 68 gave him a three-shot win at 17-under 267.
“I think he’s going to win a lot more tournaments going forward,” Bradley said. “He’s a good dude. I’m happy for him. He’s never played in the Masters, so he’s going to get to do that.”
Not just the Masters, but probably the U.S. Open, too. The victory will move Burns into the top 50 in the world rankings and up to No. 14 in the FedEx Cup standings.
And after finishing in the top 10 on 10 separate occasions in his young career, along with the near misses in Houston and Los Angeles while the PGA Tour was still under more strict pandemic restrictions, Burns got his first victory with his entire family watching a few feet away.
His parents, Todd and Beth, had been visiting his sister Tori in Dallas, and they all decided to fly to Tampa Bay on Saturday morning after Sam got off to a good start through the first two rounds. His brother Chase drove to Dallas to hop on a flight, and Caroline, who had been watching their two children at home in Shreveport, La., flew in Sunday morning.
“Just to see the complete joy when he saw his wife there and then his siblings and us. It truly could not be any better than this,” his mother said. “When he was leading at Riviera (in Los Angeles), we were watching from home on the couch and his wife couldn’t even be on the course. Of course, we wanted him to win so badly, but we didn’t want it to be that way. That’s not how we envisioned it.
“So to have everybody here? What more could a mother ask for? Life is good, I’ll just say that.”
John Romano can be reached at email@example.com. Follow @romano_tbtimes.