Culture / Sporting Life

The Story of the Young Sam Burns — How an LSU Underdog is Making Houston Fall in Love With His Sweet Grit

With Jason Day, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka All Lurking, a Young Player Must Avoid Being Golf Prey

BY // 11.08.20

Young Sam Burns appears to be in danger. A lone wildebeest caught in a prairie full of lions might get better odds. After all, the 24-year-0ld without a PGA Tour victory is being stalked by some of the biggest names in golf.

Jason Day — a former World’s No. 1 — is only one shot behind him. Dustin Johnson — the current No. 1 ranked player in the world — is only three shots back after posting back-to-back, cold-blooded 66s. Yet it is Burns, the unlikely leader who is turning himself into something of an underdog crowd favorite with the way he’s going about his business at the Houston Open.

The fact Burns went to LSU helps. There is a horde of Louisiana State University graduates and devotees in the nation’s fourth largest city — and there is a good share of purple and gold in Burns’ galleries. And Burns knows Tigers can succeed in the Bayou City. He once finished seven spots behind Houston Astros star Alex Bregman, the winner, in the Louisiana Sports Writers Association’s Headliner of the Year voting.

But an LSU tie can only get you so far. Burns is mostly winning over the Houston crowds — and this is the first PGA Tournament in the United States to allow fans since the coronavirus pandemic began — with his actions. Like walking off the 18th green in the tournament lead and immediately handing his golf ball to a young kid who couldn’t be more than 4.

Or responding to the challenges from Day, Johnson and four-time Major winner Brooks Koepka, who shot a five-under 65 on Saturday to jump into the fringe of contention at 3 under, by somehow playing. . . better. Seemingly teetering after bogeying No. 11, Burns birdies the par 4 13th, the par 4 14th and the par 5 16th to grab the lead back heading into Sunday’s final round.

“I think this golf course, you know, it’s not a matter of if,” Burns says matter of factly. “It’s a matter of when. When this golf course will hit you. I think for me, just being able to hang in there. I knew, I felt like I was prepared for that.”

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Now, Burns sleeps on having a 54-hole lead in the last tournament before next week’s special November Masters, a Houston Open packed with big names. That’s not easy for even experienced players. But somehow you get the idea that nerves will not be what does Sam Burns in.

“What I saw out of Carlos (Ortiz) and Sam Burns, I think they’re playing some pretty good golf,” says Day, who sits one shot back of Burns, tied with Ortiz at 8 under . “They’re going to be tough to beat tomorrow.”

Day winning for the first time in more than two years would be a much bigger story for golf — and something of a coup for this reimagined, brought back to the city, Houston Open. So would Johnson winning his first tournament since being sidelined by COVID-19. Either of those two scenarios would create huge Masters storylines.

A Sam Burns victory. . . not so much.

Still, a Burns win would warm the hearts of plenty at Memorial Park. No one’s been nicer or more appreciative of the Houston crowd than Burns. He looks thrilled by every cheer — and he tries to acknowledge plenty of them. That sweet moment off the 18th green when he makes that young kid’s day isn’t the only time Burns connects with a fan.

“It’s been fun,” Burns says. “Jason (Day) and I were talking about today how awesome it is having crowds again. It’s really good for the game of golf. It’s really good for the PGA Tour. And hopefully the fans are enjoying it as well.”

Dustin Johnson is certainly enjoying his time in Houston. Many professional athletes have looked like shadows of themselves immediately after returning from a bout of COVID-19 (see  Russell Westbrook, Cam Newton, etc, etc..) But the world’s best golfer just needed one ordinary opening round at the Houston Open to jump right back into near dominance.

Third round action at the 2020 Vivint Houston Open
Dustin Johnson is always a threat when he is near the leaderboard. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

No matter what happens on Sunday at Memorial Park, this week in Houston has already reestablished Dustin Johnson as a serious Masters threat.

“I just hadn’t played,” Johnson says. “At home there’s really nothing that you can simulate to simulate competition no matter how much you practice or how ready you feel like you are. Just until you get out here and you’re kind of playing in competition, you don’t really know.”

Now, the entire golf world knows. And has reason to be afraid of the World’s No. 1 again.

Sam Burns’ Journey

It was not that long ago that Sam Burns found himself looked at as the next big thing in golf. He won the Jack Nicklaus Award as college golf’s best player in 2017. Before Sam Burns ever was an underdog, he was an overdog.

He was supposed to be one of the young forces in the game. Instead, players like Collin Morikawa, Matthew Wolff and Viktor Hovland quickly passed him by.

The PGA Tour found itself taken over by a youth revolution. Only Sam Burns wasn’t part of it.

He’s made himself a big part of the story in Houston, though. By being sweet to the fans. And showing guts on the course. His parents, Beth and Todd Burns, are walking the course at Houston this week, among the limited 2,500 let in every day. His older sister hopes to be there on Sunday. Sam and his young wife Caroline have gone out to dinner with other young couples they know from LSU this week in Houston.

Third round action at the 2020 Vivint Houston Open
Sam Burns gave his ball to a young fan after finishing up on 18. (Photo by F. Carter Smith)

Sam Burns is used to keeping his circle sort of small. He grew up in Shreveport, Louisiana and then once he made the big time of the PGA Tour, he bought he and his wife’s dream house in an even smaller Louisiana hamlet. That would be little Choudrant, a village with a population of 976.

Now, one of the biggest cities in America is embracing him. He’s more than OK with that, too.

“I don’t know what (Sunday) has in store for me, but I think we’re just going to go out there and stick with the game plan that we’ve had all week,” Burns says. “If it happens — great. If it doesn’t —great. And go from there.”

It that sounds like a sweet attitude. . . well, that’s Sam Burns.

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