PALM HARBOR, FL – Sam Burns has been a great putter for a long, long time. Few would know that to the extent that Davis Riley would. The PGA TOUR rookie has been going up against Burns for more than half of his life.
Riley figures he and Burns, both 25, met one another playing AJGA events when they were 11 or 12. In 2014, they were teammates on a Junior Ryder Cup team. The two were at it again late on Sunday at the Valspar Championship, bigger stakes, bigger stage, the sun beginning to dip as Burns was deciding to rise once again. He does that.
On the second hole of a playoff after the two players tied in regulation at 17-under 267, Burns buried a curling, left-to-right 32-foot putt for birdie on the treacherous par-4 16th, his ball barely sneaking into the right edge of the hole. Riley’s last-ditch chip for birdie scooted past the flagstick, and just like that, Burns had successfully defended the Valspar Championship that he won on Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course last May.
Burns shot 2-under 69 on Sunday, his eighth consecutive round in the 60s on the daunting Copperhead. Riley recovered from an early triple bogey and shot 72; Matthew NeSmith, who watched a big-swinging 35-foot birdie putt to join the playoff graze across the top of the hole at 18, closed with 71. NeSmith, who didn’t glance at a leaderboard all day and set a lone goal of simply enjoying his 18-hole Sunday walk, tied for third with Justin Thomas at 16 under.
At the fifth, Riley drove it left, chose to play his second shot way left, and hit the next one heavy and up against a tree, prompting him to declare an unplayable lie. A roasted pitch, a poor chip … it added up to your basic nightmare. When it happens while playing in the last group on Sunday, it runs frame by frame in super-slow motion.
Riley tumbled three shots down the board, to 15 under, and suddenly the lead was handed to three players at 16 under: Burns, Thomas and NeSmith. Give Riley credit. He fought hard. He birdied the difficult par-3 17th (5-iron to 6 feet) to tie Burns and had a 15-footer on the 72nd hole to win outright. The slick downhiller barely trickled past the edge of the hole.
“I wasn’t rooting against him,” Burns said, describing his emotions as he stood and watched Riley settle over a potential game-winning putt. “I just wanted one more chance to have my say.”
When Burns got his next good chance, he didn’t miss. Last spring’s victory at the Copperhead, contested in a later date, was his first on TOUR, and now he counts three. Burns moved to No. 2 in the season-long FedExCup standings and to No. 10 in the Official World Golf Ranking (up from 17th). He became the TOUR’s fourth multiple winner in 2021-22, and the second player to ever win back-to-back Valspar Championship titles (Paul Casey).
Six days after a disappointing final day at THE PLAYERS, Burns was steady throughout, and carried a clean card through 16 holes before he encountered some adversity of his own. If Burns’ heroic playoff putt at 16 was his most memorable stroke of the day – even driving the usual tranquil Burns to unleash a couple of fierce fist pumps – then the 9-footer he made just to save bogey at 17 in regulation would qualify as 1b. It would mean he still shared a piece of the lead when Riley birdied 17 behind him. With birdies scarce at the par-4 18th, that was big.
It all unfolded at Copperhead’s fearsome Snake Pit, a closing three-hole stretch that begins at the dogleg-right 16th and, year over year, doesn’t run short on drama. That hole pretty much kept Burns from securing his PGA TOUR card in 2018, when he was 21, as he made triple bogey in the final round and slid from T3 to T12, missing out on Special Temporary Membership. He went back to the Korn Ferry Tour for more seasoning – in hindsight, a blessing.
Last May, Burns made a clutch birdie at 16 set up by a laser-like 7-iron, giving himself a four-shot cushion for the homestretch. Sunday’s happenings in overtime were even dialed up a notch.
“That’s its M.O.,” Burns said of the Snake Pit. “It comes down to some dramatic finishes and crazy things happen on that stretch. So to be on the good side of that last couple years is definitely something that I don’t want to take for granted.”
Thomas was seeking his first victory since last March, but didn’t get much to happen on Sunday. A bogey at the par-5 11th proved costly, and despite birdies at Nos. 13 and 14, when he found a deep right-side fairway bunker with his drive at 18, he was forced to lay up and destined to finish no better than one short.
“I just didn’t make enough birdies,” said Thomas, who made three. “I didn’t execute when I needed to.”
He did stick around after Riley finished to give his Roll Tide friend a spark before the playoff began. “You know what to do,” Thomas told Riley.
Riley did know what to do, but so, too, did Burns. The two have been training for days like Sunday at Innisbrook for more than a decade, groomed for these moments, and Burns secured the trophy. Losing is never easy, but it can be educational, and Riley vowed to look at his day, and his week, in a positive light.
“I knew I could win golf tournaments at the highest level,” Riley said. “But yeah, I just, I think just the way I handled adversity, and knowing that I don’t have to have my best stuff to have a chance to win a golf tournament, that proved a lot to me.”
Burns left Tampa ready to jet off to Texas for this week’s World Golf Championships-Dell Technologies Match Play. Riley was headed east, traveling to the Dominican Republic to play in the Corales Puntacana Championship. They won’t be headed in two directions for long. Those at Copperhead got the sensation we’ll be watching these two battle for lots of trophies in the days and years ahead.