21 February 2021: Sam Burns might spend Saturday night in Los Angeles making an offering to the golf gods given events of Saturday’s partial third round of The Genesis Invitational at Riviera Country Club.
After playing brilliantly over the opening two rounds, the 24-year-old posted a tournament 36-hole record 12-under 130 – good enough to be five clear of his nearest challengers.
Having finished in the morning on Friday, it was a long time to be sitting on such a significant lead for someone trying to breakthrough for the first time on TOUR.
But just as he was about to pull the trigger on his weekend assault, Burns was iced by a weather horn – high winds had reached untenable speeds. With some crashing debris and balls moving on greens, a nearly four-hour delay was enforced leaving Burns to think on his position some more.
No, bother. Just as he had done over the opening two rounds, Burns managed to look a player devoid of nerves through most of his third round when he finally got underway. That was until a late stumble opened the door for a chasing pack who until that point were desperate for a spark.
Back-to-back bogeys in fading light and tough winds meant Burns left Riviera with a somewhat sour taste in his mouth despite leading by two over England’s Matt Fitzpatrick.
A total of 43 players were unable to complete the third round on Saturday, with Burns still to play five holes. He sits 10 under with Fitzpatrick now heading to dinner with a spring in his step at 8 under (17 holes).
The Burns bogeys also lifted the spirits of FedExCup champion Dustin Johnson (13 holes) plus Max Homa (13 holes) and Wyndham Clark (15 holes) who are now just three back at 7 under. Patrick Cantlay (16 holes) is just four off the pace. Game on.
“The golf course is playing really tough. It’s a hard golf course with no wind and then you get 20-plus mph gusts, and it makes it that much harder,” Burns said. “I think we did a good job of just trying to put it in the right spots and go from there.”
The highlights of his early play included an incredible chip from near the boundary fence right of the par-3 6th green that helped save a par and a sublime bunker shot on the par-4 10th that led to a birdie and the re-establishment of a four-shot lead at the top as he headed to the par-5 11th.
It was from that point on that some minor cracks started to show.
The former college golf standout was unable to make birdie on the 11th after his tee shot found trees – a fate that again occurred on the 12th however, he gained a room service bounce back to the fairway. Despite the good luck, Burns would three-putt the green for a bogey.
As the light dropped quickly, he wasted a booming drive on the 13th, pulling his wedge shot left of the green from just 134 yards out. When he failed to make a 7-foot par putt the horn-stopping play felt like the bell at the end of a prizefight.
Johnson came from the course with some frustration, even par on his round and facing a 17-foot par putt on the 14th hole when play resumes. But when he caught a glimpse of Burns, predicament in his eyes lit up a little. Johnson has played the tournament 13 times prior to this year and has finished inside the top 10 nine times.
“I feel like I’m playing pretty good. It was solid. Obviously a couple of bad bogeys but with these conditions, it’s very difficult,” the 2017 champion Johnson said. “No matter if you are into the wind, downwind, it’s just really hard to judge the distance. But I feel like I’m playing pretty solid. Hadn’t really made any putts, but I’m pleased with where I’m at.”
The same enthusiasm was painted on Fitzpatrick’s face when he saw the final washup. The former U.S. Amateur winner rode an incredible rollercoaster when he went 10 holes without a par from the third through the 12th. When play halted, he had etched out seven birdies and four bogeys and was trending towards the best round of the day.
“You’ve just got to stick in, that’s the big thing for me. It’s the way I’ve been brought up, especially when it’s tough,” Fitzpatrick said. “I grew up on a golf course that’s very much like this all the time. You’ve just got to get it round and today was another day like that where you’ve got to stick in. Fortunately had a nice stretch on the front nine of birdies and kicked on from there.”
Perhaps the greatest advantage for Fitzpatrick is the need to only play 19 holes Sunday. Winds are forecast to continue in the early hours as those return to finish. But Burns sees his need to negotiate 23 holes as an advantage. More chances to make more birdies.
He’s been in this position before, most notably at the Safeway Open last fall where he was overrun by veteran Stewart Cink. He is mindful of getting too amped up down the stretch this time around.
“As a competitor, you have that competitiveness in you and I think it’s all about managing that and using it in the right energy and at the right times,” Burns says. “I’d like to think that I have all the tools to win out here. Obviously, there’s a lot of good players, really, really good players. I try not to get caught up in that and am just trying to get better each week and just trying to build as the season goes on.”
With any luck, he will be building on a well-earned maiden win.
Ben Everill on PGA TOUR website