Successful championship defenses are rare on the PGA Tour.
They are even more rare when the defending player is coming off contention on a short week, and golfing in windy conditions.
A successful defense under those adverse conditions is exactly what happened on the Copperhead Course at Innisbrook Resort & Golf Club on Sunday, as a winding 32-foot birdie putt on the second playoff hole gave Sam Burns his second consecutive victory at the Valspar Championship, triumphing over a highly-motivated Davis Riley.
Burns, a 25-year-old Louisiana native, was not feeling great vibes at the beginning of the week. The 36-hole leader at last week’s $20 million weather-delayed THE PLAYERS Championship, which required a Monday finish, and just one off the 54-hole lead, Burns imploded on that Monday to drop from T2 to T26.
However, Burns was able to fight off the fatigue, shooting a 2-under 69 on Sunday, to go from three back of Riley, the 54-hole leader, to a two man playoff that he won.
And it did not take long for Burns to completely offset the three-stroke deficit. He opened the final round with pars on the first four holes, which he followed with a birdie on the par-5 5th hole. One group behind him, Riley also parred the first four holes, but the fifth was an absolute disaster, as the Tour rookie looking for his first career victory carded a triple-bogey 8 to push Burns into the lead.
That chain of events essentially led to a four-man battle at the Valspar, between Burns, Riley, Matthew Nesmith, and 14-time Tour champion Justin Thomas. All four players reached at least a co-lead on Sunday.
A birdie on the par-3 8th allowed Riley to mitigate the damage and reach the turn at just 2-over, but it was the early portion of the back-nine where Burns really asserted himself, carding birdies on 11 and 12 to go up two strokes after Riley bogeyed the 12th himself. From there, Burns’ round stagnated as he parred five of the final six holes, with his only other result being a bogey on the par-3 17th hole, where he prevented an even worse score with a clutch nine-foot putt.
Meanwhile, Riley parred the same five holes among the last six, but was much better on 17, sticking his tee shot to within six feet and sinking the birdie to re-tie Burns for the lead.
With his par on the par-4 18th hole, Burns reached the clubhouse at 17-under par for the week, the same number he reached a year earlier when he won the Valspar by three strokes. With one hole to go, Riley was tied with Burns. Riley could have clinched the win had he birdied 18, like he had done in each of the first two rounds, but his birdie putt from 15 feet skidded just past the hole, meaning a Sunday 1-over 72 for Riley and a two-man playoff.
The playoff was very nearly bigger than just Burns and Riley. Paired with Burns, Thomas was one stroke back on 18, but his tee shot landed in a fairway bunker that he was forced to lay up from. Thomas parred the hole to shoot a 1-under 70 in the final round. Nesmith, who shot a 10-under 61 in the second round, also could have made the playoff with a birdie, but was unable to convert on a 34-foot birdie attempt. Nesmith shot an even-par 71 and tied with Thomas for third place.
The two 25-year-olds parred the first playoff hole, the 18th, before heading back to the difficult 16th for the second extra hole. Burns was on the green in two, but his approach left him a good 32 feet away from the hole. However, he emphatically nailed his putt for birdie, winning the playoff after Riley was unable to hole a birdie chip.
Strangely, the back-to-back Valspar wins happened in the two years after England’s Paul Casey won the previous two versions, 2018 and 2019, with the 2020 tournament being canceled due to COVID-19. Casey, who also contended last week at THE PLAYERS, withdrew before the Valspar began.
The victory was the third in Burns’ young career, and second on the season. He won the Sanderson Farms Championship last October.
Final Leaderboard: Valspar Championship
Pos-Player-To Par (Final Rd)
1. Sam Burns -17 (-2)
2. Davis Riley -17 (+1)*
3. Justin Thomas -16 (-1)
3. Matthew NeSmith -16 (E)
5. Matt Fitzpatrick -14 (-3)
5. Brian Harman -14 (-3)
7. Sahith Theegala -12 (-4)
7. Stewart Cink -12 (-3)
7. Kevin Streelman -12 (-3)
7. Robert Streb -12 (-1)
7. Adam Hadwin -12 (+1)
* Lost in a playoff
12. Brooks Koepka -11 (-6)
12. Shane Lowry -11 (-3)
12. Xander Schauffele -11 (E)
16. Tommy Fleetwood -10 (E)
21. Gary Woodland -9 (-2)
21. Tyrrell Hatton -9 (-2)
33. Kevin Kisner -6 (-2)
33. Viktor Hovland -6 (E)
39. Dustin Johnson -5 (-2)
48. Webb Simpson -4 (-1)
57. Henrik Stenson -3 (+1)
57. Harold Varner III -3 (+1)
62. Louis Oosthuizen -2 (+2)
68. Collin Morikawa +1 (+2)
How Sam Burns Won the Valspar Championship
Despite the deflating Monday final-round at TPC Sawgrass, Burns put himself in excellent position to defend his 2021 title when he opened with a 7-under 64. Back-to-back 67s in the second and third rounds got him into the penultimate Sunday pairing with Thomas, three back of Riley, who had exploded into the lead with a 9-under 62 on Saturday.
For the week, Burns’ 20 birdies at Copperhead tied for the second-most in the field, and while he did add seven bogeys during the week, he never had anything worse. He finished third in strokes gained: approach-the-green, fourth in strokes gained: tee-to-green, and eighth in strokes gained: putting.
Sam Burns’ Winning Numbers
Driving: 305.0 yards (24th)
Fairways: 57.69%, 30/52 (61st)
Greens: 69.44%, 50/72 (15th)
Putts/GIR: 1.580 (3rd)
SG-Off Tee: -1.046 (56th)
SG-Approach Green: 6.985 (3rd)
SG-Around Green: 2.881 (13th)
SG-Putting: 5.163 (8th)
SG-Tee to Green: 8.817 (4th)
SG-Total: 13.979 (1st)
Scores: 2 Eagles, 20 Birdies, 43 Pars, 7 Bogeys
What It Means For Burns
In addition to jumping him from 8th to 2nd in the FedExCup standing, Burns’ world ranking rose from 17th to a career-best 10th. He will certainly be among those to watch at next week’s 64-man WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship, an event he qualified for a year ago, but did not start in.
After a strong start to the season, Burns missed three cuts in a row from late January to mid-February, but with results of T9, T26, WIN the next three weeks, respectively, he is back to his best form. He had finishing 19th or better in each of his first five starts of the 2022 season.
Sam Burns’ 2022 PGA TOUR Season
Cuts Made: 8
Wins: 2 (Sanderson, Valspar)
Additional Top 10s: 3
Money: $3,953,031 (4th)
Points: 1,390 (2nd)
World Rank Before/After: 17/10
Sunday’s Stars at Innisbrook
Sunday’s low round came from one of the biggest names in the field: four-time major champion Brooks Koepka, who carded seven birdies as part of a 6-under 65 that was two strokes better than anyone else.
The low round, of which Koepka said was “the worst he could have scored”, propelled him 33 spots up the leaderboard, from T45 to T12. It was a nice bounceback from Koepka, who was an absolute disaster at last week’s PLAYERS Championship, shooting 72-81 and missing the cut by seven strokes.
Tour rookie Sahith Theegala was the 54-hole leader at last month’s WM Phoenix Open before a pedestrian final round dropped him to T3. He struggled badly in his next three starts, but the 24-year-old seemed to have the switch flipped back on at Innisbrook this week.
A 4-under 67, the third 67 he had for the week, was good enough for a nine-spot rise up the final leaderboard, from T16 to T7. Theegala was especially strong on the back, going 4-under in a six-hole span from 11 to 16.
Stewart Cink played his front nine in birdie-free 1-over, but found his best stuff on the back, going bogey-free 4-under to shoot a 3-under 68 and jump seven spots from T14 to T7.
The 48-year-old won twice in the 2021 season, but was struggling coming into the week, with six missed cuts and no top-10s in ten starts in the 2022 season.
Sunday’s Stumbles at the Valspar
Adam Hadwin captured his only Tour title at the 2017 Valspar, and looked to have a good shot at winning his second when he opened the week 64-66. A Saturday 70 pushing him back into a share of fifth, but still had a chance on Sunday at five back of Riley to start the day.
The Canadian birdied his first hole, making himself relevant early, but it would be his only birdie of the day as he parred his next 12 holes, and bogeyed two holes down the stretch to shoot a 1-over 72 that dropped him from T5 to T7.
Xander Schauffele, one of four players ranking in the world’s top 10 in this week’s field, suddenly found himself in the leadership mix after playing his first 14 holes in 3-under to reach 14-under for the week.
However, the four-time Tour winner collapsed down the stretch with a bogey on 15 and a double on 18 to shoot even-par 71 and drop from T6 to T12. Had he finished one stroke better, it would have been just his second top-10 in eight starts on the 2022 season.
Troy Merritt began the final round in tied with Schauffele in a share of sixth place, but saw his chances of a high finish incinerate early on Sunday, as three consecutive bogeys on 3, 4, and 5, combined with a double-bogey on 7 led to one of the worst rounds in the Sunday field. A 4-over 75 plummeted him 21 spots down the board into a tie for 27th.
Valspar Championship: Quotable
“I’m So Happy!”
“Man, it was crazy. Davis played well today, especially the way he finished; hats off to him, he played great. I just tried to stay steady today. We didn’t make a lot of mistakes; a lot of times on Sundays, if you can just plot your way around, make a bunch of pars, throw in a few birdies here and there, a lot of times it works well. Travis (caddie) did a great job this week… I’m so happy”.
– Sam Burns, Valspar Championship Winner