The massive, jostling galleries. The clicking cameras. And most of all, the famous man in the iconic red and black ensemble.
It was Sunday’s final round at the Honda Classic and Tiger Woods was in contention, tied for 11th, seven shots out of the lead, which meant the attention of the entire golf world was laser focused on the twosome that teed off at 11:45 a.m. CST at PGA National.
Tiger Woods … and that other guy.
That other guy was former LSU golfer Sam Burns. That other Tiger. And instead of becoming distracted, intimidated and unglued by playing golf alongside the No. 1 attraction in golf — equivalent to playing golf in a circus tent with uncouth louts yelling “Bababooey!” for four hours — the kid stayed in the picture.
He was unflappable. Apparently, Burns does not possess flaps. Burns even had the moxie to pull a witticism out of his golf bag as he and Woods headed to the first fairway to find their tee shots.
“I looked over at him and said, ‘Man, it’s crazy all these people came out to watch me today, isn’t it?” Burns said.
OK, it wasn’t Lee Trevinoesque, but it was a definite tension breaker. They laughed. Then they got down to business. Burns played solid. Steady. And slightly better than the legendary Mr. Woods. Tied with Tiger at even par heading into the round, Burns shot a bogey-free 68 to Tiger's 70 to finish at 2-under par 278, making birdies on two of the first three holes then grinding out 15 straight pars.
Burns tied for eighth while Woods tied for 12th. If it had been match play, Burns would have won 1-up.
“It hasn’t hit me yet” that he outplayed Tiger, Burns said. “I’m a bit worn out. I’ll think about it the next couple of days. It definitely helps my confidence, for sure. Any time you play in front of that many people and play a good round, it’ll help your golf going forward.”
When Tiger was 21 years old, he won the 1997 Masters. Burns, 21, isn’t there yet, but this isn’t bad. Like the Woods of two decades ago, he looked comfortable in the moment. Like he expected to be there.
That, his former coach said, is because he did.
“It’s not like it caught him off guard,” LSU coach Chuck Winstead said. “He’s always had a lot of confidence and a lot of ability. He always sees himself as someone who should be in one of those positions.”
Burns has the pedigree. Once the world’s No. 1-ranked junior amateur, Burns won the 2017 Jack Nicklaus collegiate national player of the year award, then tied for sixth in the PGA Tour’s Barbasol Championship this past July in Auburn, Alabama, before turning pro. Two weeks ago, he tied for second in the Web.com Tour’s Club Colombia Championship in South America, six strokes behind former LSU golfer Ben Taylor.
Those were great achievements, but neither the Club Colombia nor Barbasol had the field the Honda did. Besides Woods, 13 of the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings coming teed it up in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, this week.
And Burns beat all but one of them, winner Justin Thomas. He pocketed a tidy $191,400 in earnings. Talk about making the most of your sponsor’s exemption.
Next week the PGA Tour heads to Mexico City for a World Golf Championship event. As a PGA Tour part-timer Burns isn’t qualified, but his top 10 in the Honda gets him a spot when the PGA Tour heads back to Florida in two weeks for the Valspar Championship near Tampa.
Now it’s back to the PGA Tour/Web.com Tour juggling act. Burns wants/needs to play every PGA Tour event he can but needs to try to make the top 25 on the Web.com money list to earn his PGA Tour card for 2018-19 (he is currently 13th). He will skip the next Web.com event, also in Mexico, to play the Valspar, but then goes back to the Web.com Tour for the Chitimacha Louisiana Open, March 22-25 at Le Triomphe in Broussard.
“I’m super-busy,” Burns said, “but I’m enjoying it.”
That’s all great of course, but what do people always ask other people when they meet someone famous?
What was Tiger like?
“We had a blast,” Burns said. “He was great all day. He helped me deal with the crowds, kept them tame. He was really nice.”
If Burns' career continues on this ascending arc, one day someone will be asking a young golfer, “What was Sam like?”