Sam Burns stood on the front of the first tee Wednesday and closed his eyes.
Perhaps he was picturing the University Club course he knows so well. Perhaps he was thinking this might be his last competitive round there as an LSU Tiger before turning professional. Perhaps he was thinking about getting left off the list of three finalists for the Ben Hogan Award, one of the trophies given to the nation’s top collegiate golfer.
“You can’t control those things,” Burns said, “you just let it motivate you.”
Whatever motivations fueled the LSU sophomore, they worked to his and the Tigers’ benefit. The No. 2-ranked player in the country, he gritted through a wind-blown final-round 75 to hold off No. 1 Wyndham Clark of Oregon by one stroke for individual medalist honors and lead top-seeded LSU back to the NCAA championships.
“To come out here and get a win on my home golf course, in front of our fans, is really special,” said Burns, who finished at 4-under par 212.
His year has been beyond special. The Southeastern Conference player of the year, Burns now has four individual titles in 2016-17 and has yet to finish outside the top 10 in any of his 14 starts.
“I can’t say coming into this year I expected that,” Burns said.
Whether or not Burns returns for his junior season he wasn’t saying. Right now there’s a summer full of amateur golf ahead of him, starting with the NCAA championships, May 26-31 at Rich Harvest Farms near Chicago. Then it’s on to the U.S. Amateur at Riviera and the Walker Cup nearby at Los Angeles Country Club.
The team title was the thing for Burns and LSU. It’s the fifth straight trip to the NCAA championships for the Tigers, who won it in 2015, and seventh trip in the past eight seasons, but it was LSU’s first team regional title.
“It’s really kind of hard to imagine given all the great players who have come through LSU,” coach Chuck Winstead said. “But we’ll take it.”
The Tigers shot 6-over 294 in the final round to finish at 2-over 866, eight strokes ahead of Duke. Defending NCAA champion Oregon finished third and Virginia fourth to also advance.
LSU’s Luis Gagne tied for third at even-par 216, while Eric Ricard tied for seventh at 3-over 219. Philip Barbaree rallied on the back nine to shoot 74 and tie for 24th while Brandon Pierce tied for 39th.
After LSU and Burns had wrapped up their titles, there was still the matter of deciding the fifth and final team to advance. Jacksonville beat Northwestern in a two-hole sudden-death playoff determined by the best four scores among each team’s five players.
It’s the first trip to the NCAA championships for Jacksonville, whose only other NCAA regional came 11 years ago when PGA touring pro Russell Knox was a Dolphin.
“We’re excited,” Jacksonville coach Mike Blackburn said. “We had some lofty goals, and they worked their butts off. We couldn’t be happier.”
The Dolphins were almost done in by a bizarre two-stroke penalty before the playoff. Pulling his scorecard out of his pocket on the fourth hole (his 13th after starting on No. 10), senior David Wicks’ ball fell out, kicked off his shoe and sank into a pond next to the green.
Stripping down to his underwear, Wicks waded into the water but never found his ball in the five minutes allotted to search for it.
“David probably found 20 balls,” Blackburn said. “But he rebounded, finishing the day with five straight pars to keep us in the race.”
Arkansas’ Mason Overstreet, who fired a brilliant 5-under 67 to move up 27 spots to sixth place at 2-over 218, also moves on as the top finisher from a team who didn’t advance. The Razorbacks finished eighth, a spot behind Kentucky.
Albert Badosa-Soler of Nicholls State, also competing individually, tied for 65th.