Reigning NCAA player of the year Sam Burns, 21, teed it up with Tiger Woods on Sunday at the Honda Classic — and beat the 14-time major champion by two. Several weeks earlier, our Jessica Marksbury sat down with Burns for a Q&A. Before turning pro, Burns had devoted the summer of 2017 to making the Walker Cup team — and wasn’t picked. He’s clearly moving on from the snub as he joins the pro ranks on Tour.
You’re the reigning NCAA player of the year, but you decided to leave LSU after only two years to go pro. Was there a particular moment when you thought playing professionally was a feasible future?
For me, it was about consistency over time. I felt if I could play consistently good golf, that would be good enough to allow me to play as a professional. Over the last year or year and a half, I think I’ve played consistently pretty well, for the most part. So I felt like that gave me some confidence going forward.
You played last summer’s Barbasol Championship and ended up tying for sixth. But there was one problem: You retained your amateur status, so you had to forgo a check for more than $113,000. That must have been painful.
As an amateur you don’t really think about that as much as I do now that I’m a professional. I’m like, “Man, it’d be nice to have that.” If nothing else, the big reward was the confidence I gained that I can play out there.
Were you aware of how much money you were missing out on at the time?
I didn’t really think about it until the next day. I said to myself, “Man, I wonder how much money I would have made?” So I looked it up, and I was like, “I should not have looked.”
You had good reason, though. You maintained your amateur status throughout the summer in the hope that you’d make the Walker Cup team, but you weren’t selected. How much did that sting?
Oh, a lot. That was the whole purpose [of remaining an amateur]. I have a lot of friends who were on the team, and that’s obviously something that they’ll get to look back on forever and be glad that they took part in. So to miss out on that was tough. It really was.
Many people were outraged on your behalf, including fellow LSU alums John Peterson and Smylie Kaufman.
John, Smylie and I are all good buddies. So they had my back on that, which is nice. If anything, I got a little publicity out of it, and that never hurts.
Well, you’ve dealt with adversity before. It was only two years ago that you played your very first Tour event on a sponsor’s exemption, the Valero Texas Open, and shot 89, 77. Was that discouraging?
Oh, my gosh. Yeah. Obviously the conditions that day, in the first round, were impossible. But to go out in your first round and do that…It was really, honestly, kind of embarrassing for me.
Hey, give yourself a break. You were just a teenager.
Yeah. But as a teenager I expected a lot of myself that week. And obviously I wasn’t ready for what it entailed. But looking back on it now, I think it helped me learn a lot about myself. I wouldn’t change it.
You’re still new to life on Tour. Are there any guys who have taken on the role of mentor with you?
Yeah, for sure. Will McGirt is one—I’ve come to know him and he’s become a friend. He’s helped me out a lot. Obviously David Toms, being from Shreveport, has had a huge impact. I’ve really leaned on him.
Really? In what way?
First it was figuring out an agent and an agency. He’s had a lot of experience with that, just from being out there for a while. He knows the ins and outs of it. It can range from “Where should I stay when I go play this tournament?” to “What are the places to avoid?” to “Where can I go to eat?” It can be anything. He’s been there, done that. So it’s really helped.
Despite the Walker Cup snub, you went on to be the medalist at second-stage Q-school in Texas, which ensured your place on the Web.com Tour this year. Was that a huge relief?
Yeah, it was great. Obviously the second stage can be terrifying, or it can get you on to the next one. And for me, being the first time, I didn’t know what to expect. But I got off to a really good start, and I think that being at the top of the leaderboard after the first two rounds helped a lot— I could just cruise the rest of the way. I’ve had a lot of buddies who’ve tried multiple times and missed it by one or two.
Now that college life is in your rearview mirror, what will you miss most about LSU?
Oh, gosh. The main thing is being down there with my buddies during football season. That was some of the most fun times of my life. And getting to have that with them, I’ll always be able to remember that and enjoy it. But also just being on a team and enjoying that. It’s definitely a cool experience.
ONE THING I KNOW FOR SURE
Leaving LSU to go pro was one of the hardest decisions I’ve made—but it was the right one. As a kid, it was always my dream to play professional golf. For me, it was all about timing. That was the question I asked myself: Is this the right time? Looking back on it, I think it was for sure. I had a lot of opportunities I just couldn’t pass up. I still have a bunch of friends at LSU, so if I ever want to go down there and hang out with them, I can. Going pro has definitely been a good decision so far.