ORLANDO, Fla. – Sam Burns is yet another gifted young talent looking to climb into that crowded “Future Star” category in today’s game.
He’s in the early hunt at the Arnold Palmer Invitational trying to become the PGA Tour’s next baby-faced winner.
Despite a late slip in Thursday’s first round, Burns is in contention with his 4-under 68 leaving him just three shots behind the leader, Matt Every.
Heck, at 23, Burns would be the old man among the youthful wave of winners on the PGA Tour over the last year.
Sungjae Im won the Honda Classic on Sunday at 21 years, 11 months and 2 days old.
Viktor Hovland won the Puerto Rico Open last month at 22 years, 5 months and 5 days old.
Joaquin Niemann won A Military Tribute at Greenbrier last September at 20 years, 10 months and 8 days old.
Colin Morikawa won the Barracuda Championship last July at 22 years, 5 months and 22 days old.
Matthew Wolff won the 3M Open last summer at 20 years, 2 months and 23 days old.
Burns, who missed the last month of last season mending a fractured ankle, took notice.
“It was awesome seeing that,” Burns said. “I’m happy for those guys. I played with those guys in junior and college golf.”
It bolstered confidence he can follow suit and win on the PGA Tour, knowing how he matched up against them growing up.
“Absolutely,” said Burns, who was the NCAA’s Jack Nicklaus Player of the Year as a sophomore at LSU. “I believe that 100 percent. They’re all incredible players. For me, it’s just a matter of going out there and doing it.”
If you think these guys are motivating each other to greater heights, you are missing what’s taking them to another level.
Burns and Co. aren’t measuring themselves against each other this week. They’re measuring themselves against Rory McIlroy, the world No. 1.
“I’m not looking at the guys I grew up playing with anymore,” Wolff said. “I’m looking at the best players in the world. You look at Rory right now, you see how he’s playing.”
Wolff was climbing the leaderboard early Thursday until a triple bogey at the sixth hole helped set him back with a 73. He went directly from scoring to the range to work on his swing after his round.
“I’m just trying to figure out a few things in my game,” Wolff said. “Until it clicks, and I get a few breaks, I’m just trying to play well day to day, to prepare as well as I can.”
Wolff, a former Oklahoma State standout, broke through for his first title outdueling Morikawa, a former Cal-Berkeley star, at the end of the 3M Championship.
Three weeks later, Morikawa broke through to win at the Barracuda Championship.
“I don’t think my motivation, or their motivation, is off whether one of us is winning a bunch or playing well,” Morikawa said. “But it’s nice to see.”
Morikawa is in the early hunt at Bay Hill with a 70.
Back in the day, rookies were mostly content learning their craft, working their way up the ranks in a sort of apprenticeship.
Now, they arrive believing they can win.
Wolff was asked how many PGA Tour events it took him to start believing he could win.
“It was before I turned pro,” Wolff said.
Wolff left the Waste Management Phoenix Open more than a year ago believing he could win. That was his PGA Tour debut, when he was a 19-year-old amateur, four months before he turned pro. Rickie Fowler won at 17 under, with Wolff making the cut and tying for 50th.
“I played well,” Wolff said. “I just didn’t get any putts to drop. I hit the ball better than the guys I played with that week. I just knew there, from that point on, 'I’m good enough to play out here and win.’ Now, I’m just looking for the next one.”
Morikawa said he teed it up in his pro debut at the RBC Canadian Open last summer focused on trying to make the cut and learn as much as he could. He took the same approach to the U.S. Open, but he left the Travelers Championship believing he could win. It was his third start as a pro.
That was the event where Morikawa, Wolff and Hovland received so much attention making transitions to the pro ranks. It was the professional debut for both Wolff and Hovland.
“I kind of changed my mindset at the Travelers,” Morikawa said. “I heard something from Brooks [Koepka]. I heard Brooks say in his time in Europe, he went from making cuts to top 25s to top 10s to 'We’re out here to win every week.’ I kind of skipped the top 25s and top 10s to 'Let’s go out and win.’
“Why not? This is what I’m here to do, to win, not just make cuts.”
That means trying to beat McIlroy and every other top player this week.