The first day of spring also coincided with the last day of the PGA Tour’s four-tournament Florida Swing this year, and the final tournament of the Sunshine State’s moment in the sun for 2022 provided the best weather, the biggest crowds, the best scoring and the most drama of the four events.
Sam Burns repeated as the champion of the Valspar Championship, dubbed the PGA Tour’s “most colorful tournament’’ thanks to its paint company sponsor, by beating Davis Riley with a 33-foot birdie putt on the second hole of a sudden death playoff. The winning putt came at the par-4 sixteenth hole – the start of the treacherous three-hole Snake Pit that concludes the respected Copperhead course at Innisbrook Resort in Palm Harbor.
The winning putt circled the hole before dropping in, spoiling what would have been a Cinderella-type win for Riley who started the day with a two-stroke lead, then had to bounce back from a triple bogey on the par-5 fifth to force the playoff. He had a chip shot from green-side rough to continue the playoff after Burns’ bomb went in, but his desperation shot went long but didn’t leave him deflated.
“I got punched in the mouth early and had to hit the reset button,’’ said Riley. “But he won in the moment. We’ve probably played against each other since we were 11-12 years old. He just did what he needed to do.’’
“I was really excited,’’ said Burns, who climbed into the No. 10 spot in the Official World Golf Rankings, and he also soared to second in the FedEx Cup standings. “The last couple weeks I tried to not get too high or too low. When the putter came through it was really cool.’’
The winning putt came on the same No. 16 green where he made a key birdie putt en route to his win in the 2021 Valspar. The event was played in May then, and Burns gained more respect for the trio of finishing holes known as the Snake Pit.
“That’s its M.O.,’’ he said. “It comes down to some dramatic finishes, and crazy things happen on that stretch.’’
Burns took a break from the tour after three consecutive missed cuts on the West Coast and he also bypassed the Honda Classic, first of the tournaments on the Florida scene. When he returned he was ready to play. A tie for ninth at the Arnold Palmer Invitational and a tie for 26th at The Players Championship preceded his rousing win on the Copperhead layout.
The Valspar tournament came down to a battle of 25-year olds after Justin Thomas and Matthew NeSmith faltered on the final hole of regulation play. Burns and Riley played their 72 holes in 17-under-par 267 and Thomas and NeSmith came up one stroke short. Those four players comprised the final two twosomes of the day. No one else really challenged that foursome.
In the other Florida tournaments this last month Austrian Sepp Straka won the Honda Classic with a 10-under performance. Scottie Scheffler was 5-under to take the Arnold Palmer Invitational and Australian Cameron Smith was 13-under in capturing the weather-plagued Players Championship. Those performances paled in comparison to the shot-making on display at Copperhead.
Though NeSmith and Riley haven’t had the success that Burns and Thomas have had on the circuit, NeSmith shot a course record-tying 61 in the second round and Riley had 62 in the third.
Burns, meanwhile, took another big step toward behind recognized as one of golf’s top stars. He won his first PGA Tour event at last year’s Valspar Championship, then won again at the Sanderson Championship in Mississippi last fall. Now he has three wins in a year’s span.