Burns played like he had been there before, and it led to his second win of the year.
He played mistake-free until it didn’t matter and ran off three straight birdies that allowed him to seize control Sunday and close with a 5-under 67 at the Country Club of Jackson to win by one shot over Nick Watney and Cameron Young.
Burns won the Valspar Championship at Innisbrook in the spring. He finished one shot out of a playoff at Riviera and lost in a playoff at the World Golf Championship in Tennessee.
The experience didn’t hurt.
“Having those experiences around the lead, I think those were really important for me. I learned a lot,” Burns said. “Having that under my belt today, that experience was definitely helpful, and coming down the stretch I felt a lot different than I have in the past — not necessarily more confident, but just in a better state of mind.”
Burns had four birdies in six-hole stretch on the back nine. The final three birdies were key. He made a 15-foot birdie putt on the par-3 13th, hit a 5-iron to 15 feet that set up a two-putt birdie on the next hole to take the lead and then hit a perfect pitch from behind the green on the reachable par-4 15th for a tap-in birdie.
Staked to a two-shot lead going down the 18th, he took a safe bogey from the greenside bunker to secure the victory.
Watney, coming off his worst season in more than a decade, closed with a 65 and had his best finish in more than three years.
Young’s hopes began to fade on the 14th with a clunker out of the rough into a fairway bunker that led to him having to make a 4-footer for bogey.
Still, he made a slick up-and-down from off the 18th green for par that gave him a 68 and a share of second, which sets him up well for the season. That starts with playing next week in Las Vegas instead of having to go through Monday qualifying.
“I love being in contention, I love feeling the nerves, so it was fun today. I enjoyed it, even though it might not have looked like it,” Young said. “I knew Sam was ahead of me and I had to make a couple and just didn’t, but I will another time.”
Sahith Theegala, the California rookie who began the final round with a one-shot lead, had control of the final round until he reached the back nine.
He failed to get up-and-down from a greenside bunker on the par-3 10th, missing a 7-foot putt. With a 7-iron in his hand for his second to the par-5 11th, he leaked the shot to the right and into the water, and missed a 4-foot putt to take bogey.
Two holes later, he three-putted from 18 feet for bogey. From there, it was about limiting the damage. He played the final five holes in 1 under for a 71. Theegala tied for eighth, which gets him into the field next week in Las Vegas.
For Burns, the 25-year-old from Louisiana is just starting to cash in.
Burns did well enough to earn some serious consideration from Steve Stricker as a captain’s pick for the U.S. Ryder Cup team. And now with his second win of the year — in his first start of the new season — Burns moves into the top 20 in the world ranking for the first time.
“I think getting the call from Stricker on Monday (after the Tour Championship) and hearing the news that I didn’t make the team was definitely very motivating and definitely kind of gut wrenching,” Burns aid. “So yeah, I think it’s definitely motivated me to try to be on the next team and continue to try to improve.”
Burns ended a trend in which six of the last seven winners of the Sanderson Farms Championship captured their first PGA Tour title.
He was among the few who had winning experience. Six players in contention at the start of the final round had recently earned PGA Tour cards through the Korn Ferry Tour.
Among the exceptions was Watney, first slowed by a lower back injury and then by a loss in confidence. He went back to working with Butch Harmon in the summer, and then put together a superb week with his putter, leading the field in the key putting statistic.
“There was definitely some lean times, especially last year, but I’m not trying to think about that any more,” Watney said. “I’m trying to continue to get better and this was a great step this week. I’m ready.”