As the PGA Tour season reaches an apex in the FedEx Cup Playoffs, top pros are playing for a lot more than a single tournament championship.
The BMW Championship, taking place Aug. 26-29 at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, Md., is the penultimate event of the Tour’s schedule. Its field consists of the top 70 players in the season-long points standings, with only the top 30 at the end of the event advancing to next week’s Tour Championship in Atlanta. And for good measure, it’s one of the final chances for players to impress their Ryder Cup captains ahead of the team event Sept. 24-26.
Sam Burns, a 25-year-old who has enjoyed a breakout season on Tour, embodies the multidimensional stakes as well as anyone. He’s 12th in the FedEx Cup standings on the strength of a win, two runner-up finishes and a T3, but a strong performance in the Baltimore suburbs would vault him toward the top of the staggered leaderboard next week. He’s also 17th in the U.S. Ryder Cup standings and on the fringes of the conversation to be among Steve Stricker’s captain’s picks, but he surely needs to show out these next two weeks to have a realistic chance.
Burns is off to exactly the kind of start he needed at Caves Valley, firing an 8-under-par 64 to share the lead after the opening round. He ripped off eight birdies in the first 14 holes and finished his day without a bogey.
“We had a good plan coming into today,” Burns said after the round. “It was nice being able to touch it in the fairway and then just trying to put it in the right spot on the green. I think that’s the biggest thing around this place — the greens are big, but you can have 20 feet and still have it breaking six feet, so trying to avoid those areas, give ourselves the easiest putt, and we were able to make them.”
The course, which features four par-5s and multiple short par-4s, is offering plenty of birdies to the field. Caves Valley played 2.8 strokes under par Thursday (scoring average of 69.2 on a par-72) and only seven of 69 players shot over par.
Burns is joined at 8-under by Jon Rahm, the defending champion of this event and the No. 1 player in the world, and four-time major champion Rory McIlroy. After that trio of leaders sits Sergio Garcia at 7-under, Abraham Ancer (playing alongside Burns) and Patrick Cantlay at 6-under and 12 players tied for seventh at 5-under.
A win this week would be an exclamation point on Burns’ rise to PGA Tour stardom. It’s his third season on the circuit, and while he showed flashes during the first two, his highest FedEx Cup finish was 94th. Burns put himself in contention several times earlier this season before finally breaking through at the Valspar Championship in Tampa. He followed that up with a runner-up finish the following week, and while his form generally dipped in the summer months, Burns has now shot 64 in four of his last eight competitive rounds.
It’s hard to watch Burns pile up birdies and not think about the Ryder Cup, and what a win could do for his chances to make the 12-man American squad at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin. Burns admits he “would do anything to be on that team,” and his inclusion would feel especially sweet after being left off the Walker Cup team as an amateur despite being the 2017 Division I Player of the Year. In some ways, though, that snub has prepared him to accept what he can’t control regarding these selection processes.
“Just knowing that it’s not all necessarily in my control, I’m just going to go out and try to play the best golf I can,” Burns said. “If it works out, incredible. If it doesn’t, I’ll be rooting hard for the team.”
There’s a lot of golf still to be played, and plenty more birdies to be made, at Caves Valley this weekend. And no matter how low Burns and the rest of the pros can score, everyone speaks glowingly of the Baltimore area’s first PGA Tour venue in 59 years.
“The golf course is great. Caves Valley has done a great job getting this place ready,” Burns said. “We’re excited to be here, [it’s a] really cool place, I like the layout. You can see different holes, and it’s a big property and it’s really beautiful looking. It’s been a joy to be here.”
Three Notes From Thursday:
1. Rahm’s 64 is just the latest chapter in an all-world summer. The Spaniard’s last three starts have culminated with a win at the U.S. Open, a tie for third at the Open Championship and a solo third after leading all week at last week’s Northern Trust. Go back one start further and he led the Memorial Tournament by six shots after three rounds before having to withdraw due to a positive COVID-19 test. (Rahm also missed the Olympics due to another positive test.) He is the No. 1 player in the world and playing at a level few have reached in the last decade.
At the close of play Thursday, Rahm is a +275 betting favorite. DataGolf gives him a 28.9 percent chance of claiming the title, a preposterous number for a Thursday co-leader. But that’s the kind of golf he has been playing.
2. McIlroy’s first-round performance is only so much of a surprise — he’s Rory McIlroy, a four-time major champion with a particularly successful record in the playoffs — but most of his 2020-21 season hasn’t looked like this. He’s 28th in the points standings, and he has fallen to 16th in the world, his worst position since 2009. But after going home this week and putting a different driver, 3-wood and putter in the bag, McIlroy was able to take advantage at a course that rewards his prodigious driving distance.
3. The big story off the course this week? That would be the alleged halting of the Brooks Koepka-Bryson DeChambeau beef. The two have exchanged jabs over social media all summer and had shown a clear disenchantment well before that. But with the Ryder Cup four weeks away and both players already locked into roster spots, Stricker told Sports Illustrated he spoke with both players and received assurance that the two would be on the same page in Wisconsin. “As far as I’m concerned,” he said, “it’s been put to bed.”
This, of course, won’t stop some fans from heckling DeChambeau, as has been a constant all summer. But it means we likely won’t see any new barbs between the rivals, at least not for a few weeks.
Photo Credit: Stan Badz/PGA TOUR