Charles Schwab Challenge
What a gritty, grindy playoff win says about Sam Burns
At 3:47 p.m. Central time, Sam Burns finished his final round at the Charles Schwab Challenge with a four-inch tap-in on the 18th green. It was his sixth consecutive par, and it marked the end of a relatively cool stretch that seemed to have cost him a chance to pull off a stunning come-from-behind victory at Colonial Country Club following a front-nine 30. With the leaders many holes behind and already ahead by a shot, Burns’ valiant charge, culminating in a five-under 65, seemed to be just short of what he needed to pull off the miracle. It may have been realistic to expect one of his rivals to fade in the home stretch, but there wasn’t just one, or two, or even three, but four players sitting at 10 under. Even if none of them could improve that score, surely at least one would manage not to lose ground.
Two hours and 13 minutes later, at 6 p.m. Central time, Burns rolled in a 38-foot downhill putt from off the green, watched his friend and World No. 1 Scottie Scheffler narrowly miss a similar prayer and won the whole thing.
How did it happen? How did the 25-year-old Louisiana native tie the largest comeback in this venerable tournament’s history? Well, you can define the strange events of Sunday at Colonial either positively—by what Sam Burns did—or negatively, but by what everyone else failed to do.
Let's start with Burns, who came out scorching on a sunny but windy day in Fort Worth, on a course that he had visited as a child when his mentor David Toms won in 2011. Burns’ major adjustment at Colonial this year was to play more aggressively by hitting more drivers on a Perry Maxwell track that known in recent years for taking the driver out of players' hands.
It worked. Burns’ opening nine was a birdie fusillade, one after another, starting with a seven-footer on the first hole. On the second, he drove 350 yards, hit his short pitch to 10 feet and buried the putt. Indeed, everything seemed to be working early. A brief bogey hiccup on the fifth hole was the only break in a stretch of six birdies culminating with a nine-footer on the ninth to come into the turn at 30.
The mid-range birdie putts continued to fall on 11, but an errant drive on 12, which he bemoaned in his post-round interview, led to his second bogey of the day and halted his momentum in its tracks. He wouldn't make another birdie, though he came within inches on almost every hole. Insofar as a 65 can be "disappointing" in any way at all, it was a disappointing finish considering his red-hot start.
"I thought I needed to make that putt on 18 in regulation to get to 10 [under]," he said later, "and to be honest I thought I did make it. I hit a really good putt and just missed barely low."
At that point, the tournament was up for grabs. Harold Varner III, Davis Riley, Brendon Todd and Scheffler, the 54-hole leader, had found their way to 10 under, by various means, and the trophy was there for the seizing. Instead, gravity reached for and caught them all, one by one, as nerves and the difficult conditions made their mission increasingly impossible.
"I can assure you I did not envy them while they were out there playing," Burns said. "It didn't feel like it was blowing any less than we were out there, it was just one of those things when you finally finish, you're just ready to be done."
Varner, perhaps unsurprisingly, was the first to take his hat out of the ring. He's long had trouble playing in tense situations close to the lead on Sunday, and this was an exaggerated version of all his worst moments. A three-hole stretch starting on 12 was almost unspeakably poor, resulting in a triple bogey, a double bogey, and another triple (and a fair amount of 757 jokes on Twitter). This torpedoed his chances, and two more disastrous holes to close left him with a head-scratching 45 on the back nine. He finished even par for the tournament, in a tie for 27th place, and a whole slew of questions about how to fix his pressure performances.
Riley was next to go, and though his fall wasn't as dramatic as Varner's, it was equally decisive—a bogey on 13 after a missed four-footer for par and a double bogey on 14 after the first out-of-bounds drive anyone hit on the hole all week ushered him from the dizzying heights and down to a safer part of the leaderboard.
That left the final pairing of Todd and Scheffler, the former falling to eight under after bogeys on 11 and 12. Todd couldn't escape that number despite a strong effort in the closing stretch. This narrow birdie miss on 16 was particularly galling after a seemingly perfect read:
Like Burns, Todd couldn't make anything happen on the back nine despite a few close calls, and when his approach shot found the bunker on 18, he was effectively eliminated.
"This is my favorite course on tour," said Todd after his one-over 71 left him in solo third. "It's a place I feel like I can contend, and I've done that again. … It's tough, because I feel like if I had just a couple things go my way today, I would have been the clear winner."
With everyone around him blowing over, the tournament seemed to be Scheffler's to seize, and after his many wins this season—four in his last nine starts, culminating at the Masters—there was no question of the pressure affecting him. As Burns would say later, "the way that guy is playing right now, who would have ever thought that you'd have a chance seven back?"
Scheffler and Burns are good friends off the course, taking a little of the sting away from Scheffler falling short on Sunday at Colonial.
And yet, after a 66-65-68 start to the tournament, Scheffler somehow put together a round of zero birdies when simply shooting even par would have been enough to win by two shots. Strange as it sounds, Scheffler was actually fortunate to hang tough at nine under as his day wound to a close, sinking par putts of nine feet, eight feet and six feet on three of the last four holes to narrowly eke his way into a playoff. A triumph at Colonial would have given him five PGA Tour wins on the season, making him one of just six players to accomplish that feat since 1981.
Instead, in the playoff with Burns (and with his sister-in-law's wedding to attend Sunday night), Scheffler watched his "best friend on tour" knock in the improbable putt and take the championship from his grasp.
For his troubles, Burns pocketed his fourth PGA Tour win in the last 13 months, $1.512 million, and a fully restored 1979 Pontiac Firebird. And the quote of the day came in his post-round press conference, when a reporter asked Burns a simple question:
"Are you a car guy?"
"I am now," he said.