A 24-year-old potential star with an incredible pedigree, tremendous showings at places like Torrey Pines, Riviera and now a win at the Valspar Championship. It has all the makings of an up-and-coming Ryder Cup success story on the American side. The only problem? Sam Burns, who beat Keegan Bradley by three on Sunday at Innisbrook Resort, has almost no chance of actually making the U.S. Ryder Cup team.
This is not a commentary on Burns or his talent. He was a Haskins Award finalist in 2017 when Braden Thornberry won it. The Haskins is tantamount to the Heisman Trophy in college football, and Burns has not let off the gas since that stellar sophomore season at LSU. He won on the Korn Ferry Tour in 2018, knocked on the door repeatedly on the PGA Tour at tournaments like the Farmers Insurance Open, Honda Classic and Genesis Invitational. Now he's a champion on the biggest tour in the world, ranked No. 44 in the world ... and yet he would still be on the fringe even if there were two U.S. Ryder Cup teams.
The biennial event will have gone three years between competitions when the U.S. and Europe tee it up later this fall at Whistling Straits. That's because of the COVID-19 pandemic, of course, which also changed the way players qualify for the event. Instead of four captain's picks, U.S. captain Steve Stricker will have six. Instead of two years' of events counting toward the team, three years' worth of events will count.
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This makes the U.S. side more clear-cut in some ways, and it highlights just how magnificently loaded the team is that somebody like Burns will have to go on the heater of his life just to sniff a captain's pick. Burns is a good player. Really good! The fabric of the U.S. side would probably be improved just by having him in the room if he plays team events anything like he played the back nine on Sunday at Innisbrook. Fist-pumping every big putt, standing up to every big shot. It was an absolute tutorial in closing -- books and supplies not included.
It made me wonder if he has a chance to make it to Whistling Straits this year. Unfortunately, he almost certainly does not. Here are the players currently ahead of him in the Ryder Cup rankings.
- Dustin Johnson
- Bryson DeChambeau
- Justin Thomas
- Collin Morikawa
- Xander Schauffele
- Brooks Koepka
- Patrick Reed
- Tony Finau
- Webb Simpson
- Daniel Berger
- Jordan Spieth
- Billy Horschel
Let's pretend for a moment that Koepka is not well enough to play and that Horschel comes off the heater he's been on. Here are the next few players ahead of Burns.
- Patrick Cantlay
- Harris English
- Scottie Scheffler
- Max Homa
- Jason Kokrak
- Ryan Palmer
- Will Zalatoris
- Matthew Wolff
- Kevin Kisner
- Gary Woodland
- Kevin Na
How deep is the U.S. side right now? Patrick Cantlay is the No. 12 player in the world, and he's on the outside looking in on the top 12. If qualifying ended today, the No. 12 player in the world would need a captain's pick just to be on the team. Fifteen of the top 25 players in the world are American. It's easy to see why the U.S. is currently a -150 favorite. It's also easy to see why somebody like Burns, as talented and enthralling as he is, doesn't have much of a chance.
Sunday was a breakthrough for Burns, who was No. 37 in the Ryder Cup standings going into the week. He will contend to be on Ryder Cup teams in the future, and his narrative -- remember, he was left off the Walker Cup team in college despite being player of the year -- will be an intriguing one.
The Ryder Cup is less of a prism through which to view him -- at least at this point in 2021 -- and more of a mechanism to discuss both how loaded the Americans are and also to discuss what Burns' future looks like. Though he reminds me a bit of Daniel Berger in the way he carries himself, the best comp for Burns might actually be a Ryder Cup hero (turned villain?) of the last decade, Patrick Reed.
Burns is a really good but not elite ball-striker. His putting, though, is terrific, which is where the Reed comp comes in. Data Golf compares Burns to Reed as well as Cameron Smith and Kevin Na. While it's unlikely that Burns will ever be as good around the greens as Reed (because who is?), I do think he has a chance to be a better ball-striker. Currently, Burns is nearly at +1.0 strokes gained ball-striking (off the tee plus approach shots) this year, which is not a stratosphere Reed has occupied over the course of his career.
Players evolve, too. Heck, Burns has evolved even over the last few months and transformed himself into a champion on the PGA Tour. Whether that leads to a Ryder Cup in the future remains to be seen, but the intangibles certainly showed on Sunday. When the chips are down, I want the guy going after pins, ramming putts home and fist-pumping every big moment. That was Burns against Bradley on Sunday. That seems to be who he is. It would be great to see it on an even bigger stage with much more at stake. If not this year with the path seemingly blocked by richer thoroughbreds, then maybe at some point in the not-so-distant future.