Sam Burns pulls away at Innisbrook, claims first PGA title

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Sam Burns lines up a putt on the first green during the final round of the Valspar Championship golf tournament, Sunday, May 2, 2021, in Palm Harbor, Fla. (AP Photo/Phelan M. Ebenhack)

PALM HARBOR, Fla. (AP) — Sam Burns figured all those close calls would eventually teach him how to win on the PGA Tour.

Twice this season, he had the 54-hole lead and failed to convert. Six other times, he was atop the leaderboard at the end of a round, just never the round that mattered — Sunday.

That changed, finally, at the Valspar Championship. And the lesson was not what he expected.

“I always felt that you had to play perfect golf to win,” Burns said after a 3-under 68 for a three-shot victory. “I always felt that you had to play your absolute best on a Sunday to win. And after those experiences I realized that it’s not the case. I was trying to do too much.”

He did just enough, and got some help from Keegan Bradley.

Tied for the lead with six holes to play, Bradley hit 8-iron short and into the water for a double bogey on the par-3 13th hole, and Burns put him away with two big birdies and a celebration he had reason to feel was a long time coming.

Burns was all smiles coming up the 18th hole with a four-shot lead, and he was fighting back tears when his wife, parents and other family spilled onto the green after he won.

“I’ve worked so hard for this moment,” Burns said. “They’ve all sacrificed so much.”

The victory moves him to No. 44 in the world and all assures the 24-year-old from Louisiana a spot in the U.S. Open, along with his first trip to the Masters next spring.

Bradley and Burns were tied through 36 holes and 54 holes, and they stayed that way through 12 holes on another blistering day at the Copperhead course at Innisbrook.

That changed with one swing.

Bradley came up well short on the par-3 13th and went into the water, leading to double bogey. Burns saved par with an 8-foot putt for a two-shot lead.

“I just hit a terrible shot,” Bradley said. “I hadn’t hit a really bad shot all week and you just can’t hit it there, obviously, but you can’t hit it right of the flag. And I just came out of it a little bit, it got gobbled up by the wind. If it goes another yard it might have been in that bunker, but it was a bummer.”

Burns was three shots ahead through 13 holes on Saturday and he struggled to retain a share of the lead, so he knew what was possible. This time, though, Bradley had no chance.

Bradley had to lay up from the rough on the par-5 14th, and Burns didn’t have time to contemplate his next shot. His caddie, Travis Perkins, decided for him.

“We’re walking over to the ball and Travis says, ‘Tree’s in your way, we’re laying up.’ And I’m like, ‘Well, what about this and that?’ And he’s like, ‘Nope, you got 180 to this number right there, it’s a perfect 7-iron, this is your line,’” Burns said.

He hit lob wedge to a foot for birdie and was on his way.

“He knows that I’m always trying to go pedal down and then in that situation, that just wasn’t the play,” Burns said. “A year ago, he would not have done that and today he did. And it’s one of the reasons that we were able to win today.”

He had reason to believe this moment could have come sooner. Burns wasted a good start at the season-opening Safeway Open. He closed with a 2-over 72 to tie for seventh in the Houston Open. He lost a two-shot lead at Riviera, coming up one shot short of a playoff.

“Those moments in the past, you really learn a lot,” Burns said.

He put Bradley away with an 18-foot birdie putt on the 16th hole and a rare show of emotion, slamming his fist after it dropped. He had a four-shot lead with two holes to play, the water and worst of the hazards behind him.

No one else had much of a chance.

Max Homa briefly tied for the lead with a birdie on the par-5 opening hole. He didn’t make another birdie the rest of the day, missing several chances around the turn and ending his hopes with a double bogey on the par-3 15th without hitting into the water. He shot 74.

Cameron Tringale was lurking but never seriously challenged. He shot 68 and shared third with Viktor Hovland, whose had a 65 but started too far back at the start of the day.

Abraham Ancer (69) finished fifth.

Burns built a quick two-shot lead on the front nine Sunday. Bradley answered with a pair of birdies, and then made a 15-foot birdie putt from the fringe on No. 9 to take a one-shot lead to the back nine.

Burns caught him with a birdie on the 11th. The rest of the day, he wasn’t perfect. He didn’t have to be to win.

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