BATON ROUGE, La. — Now that Leonard Fournette and Jamal Adams are gone, the next LSU athlete poised to make a breakthrough at the professional level may be swinging a golf club.
Shreveport native Sam Burns is having a sensational sophomore season — one so good that it wouldn’t be far-fetched if it were his last in college.
He ranks third in the nation in scoring (69.69 strokes per round) and second in score relative to par (-1.72). He also became the first LSU golfer to be selected the SEC Golfer of the Year by the league’s coaches since Perry Moss in 1991.
Considering that the program produced an NCAA Tournament individual champion (John Peterson) in 2011, that honor demonstrates just how difficult it is to be the most consistent golfer in the league during a season.
“What he can develop in to …” says LSU coach Chuck Winstead before his voice trails off, perhaps envisioning Claret Jugs and green jackets. “He’s got a very bright future. We’ll see. At every level, he’s reached the top. At the next level, that’s something he’ll aspire to do as well.”
Trick of the trade
For most casual LSU fans, the lone exposure to Burns comes from the ultimate arbiter of fame for the 20-year-old’s generation: a video gone viral.
From the bleachers.
— SEC Network (@SECNetwork) April 4, 2017
In a segment that appeared on SEC Network, Burns dunked a wedge shot from the stands at Tiger Stadium into a target placed at midfield. Suddenly, it wasn’t just hardcore golf nuts who had Burns on their radar.
“I was a little surprised [how big it got],” Burns said. “But, obviously, any time someone’s hitting a golf ball in Tiger Stadium, people are curious as to why. It was definitely pretty cool.”
Burns wasn’t sure what was going to happen that day, but when he got a request to bring his clubs to Tiger Stadium, he decided something cool was about to go down.
“I didn’t know much about it. My assistant coach told me they wanted me out there, so I was like, ‘All right,’ ” Burns said. “They had it set up. I always wanted to hit a ball in Tiger Stadium, so that was pretty neat.”
Football is actually in Burns’ DNA more than golf. His dad and brother played football at Louisiana Tech, and he was a football player in middle school. But in the summer between seventh and eighth grade, he started gravitating toward golf. It’s turning out to be a wise choice.
Nevertheless, even if he long ago left football behind, he wasn’t passing on the opportunity to have one moment of glory in Death Valley.
However, even though his trick-shot skills are good, Burns admits that they aren’t so amazing that he just walked up and did it cold turkey.
“That was like my 13th try or something,” he said. “It wasn’t a one-and-done deal.”
Already competing at the highest level
Burns already has accomplished one feat that has eluded former Dallas Cowboys quarterback Tony Romo. And, no, that’s not a setup for a Super Bowl appearance joke.
Romo is an accomplished golfer who has thrice attempted to qualify for the U.S. Open. He’s yet to break through. Burns already has.
Last year, Burns made it to the Open the hard way, getting through a local qualifying tournament in Hot Springs, Ark., before punching a ticket to Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh as one of 10 qualifiers from the Memphis Sectional. Among the players Burns beat out to reach the Open were veteran PGA Tour pros including Steve Stricker, Ryan Palmer and Ben Crane.
“It was pretty surreal,” Burns said. “Just to know you’re going to play in your first major championship is a pretty crazy feeling.”
Especially when you’re not yet done with college.
Burns played with mentor David Toms — a fellow Shreveporter and the most-decorated golfer in LSU history — during the practice rounds for the Open. Showing the prowess he’d eventually demonstrate at Tiger Stadium, he even aced the 13th hole.
Burns missed the cut with his two-round 9-over score (74-75), but he had the fourth-best score among amateurs in the field.
“It’s really eye-opening,” Burns said. “You get a taste when that’s something you want to do every week for the rest of your life. You get a taste of what it’s going to be like week in and week out. Obviously, that’s a major championship, so it’s not quite like that [every week], but you’re seeing the guys you hope to compete against.”
For LSU superfans who someday wish to brag about when they watched Burns in person, this week likely presents the greatest opportunity.
The Tigers are hosting an NCAA regional at the University Club in Baton Rouge from Monday-Wednesday. The top 5 teams in the 14-team regional will advance to the NCAA Tournament at Rich Harvest Farms in Sugar Grove, Ill.
In all likelihood, the Tigers will advance, putting Burns in a position to lead the team to its second team championship in three years, not to mention a shot at being the school’s first individual NCAA champ in six years.
“He has individual champion potential,” Winstead said. “Things have to fall right. You need some breaks along the way. But certainly he’s capable every time he tees it up.”
Going out with a bang?
The question then becomes what would come next.
At the least, Burns will remain an amateur long enough to play in the Arnold Palmer Cup next month, a Ryder Cup-style team event for the top college players from the U.S. and Europe.
“I’m really excited,” he said. “Just the legacy Mr. Palmer left the game. Especially with his passing, I think this one will probably be more memorable just because he won’t be there.
“Any time you play competitive golf and represent the United States and LSU, it means playing for more than just yourself. That will definitely be a cool factor.”
As for the decision on turning pro, Burns sounds a lot like fellow Shreveport native and recent NFL first-round draft pick Tre’Davious White, who came back for his senior season last year. The gist: Don’t leave school unless you’re absolutely sure.
“It’s one of those things, whenever you think you’re ready, you go do it,” he said. “But it’s a decision you have to be 100 percent confident of. You can’t go out there not knowing what you want to do.”