Four share lead at Valspar Championship

The Associated Press

Sam Burns prefers to look at what’s next instead of what happened, and that was a big part in how he responded for a 7-under 64 and a share of the lead Thursday in the Valspar Championship, his first time as defending champion.

He used the phrase “flush and move on,” and that’s what he did. Twice after taking bogey, he took aim at the flag on tough par 3s and make short birdie putts. That featured an 8-iron to 2 feet on the par-3 17th and a 15-foot birdie putt on the final hole at Innisbrook.

Burns shared the lead with past champion Adam Hadwin, the well-traveled David Lipsky and Jhonattan Vegas, who had a bounce-back of his own variety.

Burns was closing in on the lead set earlier in the day by Vegas when his bunker shot from right of the 16th green came out soft and he missed the 10-foot par. He followed birdie-birdie.

“It’s OK to be frustrated,” Burns said. “I think it’s just what do you do with that frustration? Do you let it carry over to the next shot or do you address it, flush it and move on? I think that’s the most important thing.”

He felt the same way about his title defense. Burns didn’t get caught up in memories of closing with a 68 to win by three shots last year. The Copperhead course, a sturdy test even in the ideal scoring conditions, was among his favorites even before he won.

“The thing about last year is it has nothing to do with this year,” Burns said. “So many things are different. There’s not much correlation between the two. … I’ll look back forever on that event, it being my first win. Wins don’t happen out here often.”

Danny Lee was among four players at 65, Justin Thomas was another shot back and Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka led the large group at 67.

Hadwin, who won the Valspar Championship in 2017, finished with a birdie to cap off a day of remembering why patience is so important to the way he plays. It’s all about knowing when to attack for Hadwin, and even a little bad judgment worked in his favor.

He went for a front right pin on No. 6 with a pitching wedge when he says he should have taken a safer approach with a 9-iron and leaving a 15-foot putt. No matter he chipped in for birdie. And on his final hole at No. 9, uphill and over a bunker, he had about the same yardage.

“I immediately went to the 9 in that situation, just get it long past the pin, try not to be too greedy,” he said. “And I ended up making birdie.”

His strategy is simple: “Keep it out of the water, hit as many greens as possible.”

Lipsky went to the same Los Angeles-area high school as Collin Morikawa. He’s 9 years older than the two-time major champion, and his road to the PGA TOUR wasn’t quite so smooth.

“I just wanted to play wherever I could,” he said. That took the 33-year-old Californian to a pair of wins on the Asian Tour and the DP World tour, and a Korn Ferry Tour win — the same day Morikawa won at Muirfield Village — that eventually led to a PGA TOUR card.

Lipsky played bogey-free at Innisbrook, which he described as one of “crusiest” rounds he could play. He was rarely in trouble. His birdie putts were on the short side. The few times he had to save par, the putts were never far out of range. And he signed for a 64. Cruising.

As for Vegas? He needed a round like this.

Still stinging was his finish Sunday last week at THE PLAYERS Championship. Despite hitting two balls in the water on the island-green 17th at TPC Sawgrass, Vegas came the par-5 ninth hole right on the cut line and 25 yards from the hole in two shots.

He he bladed a gap wedge over the green and into a bunker, made bogey and missed the cut.

The recovery process is off to a great start.

“Absolutely great,” Vegas said. “Exactly what I needed after last week. Game was there. I took advantage of the great conditions this morning. Greens are a little softer, not much wind, absolutely a perfect day out here.”

Vegas gave his round a boost with a 4-iron to 6 feet for eagle on the par-5 first hole after he made the turn. He had a 25-foot birdie on the par-3 fourth, a tough putt from right of the hole that can get away from players if they’re not careful, and a 6-foot birdie on No. 7.

The Copperhead course at Innisbrook is a stern test every year the event is played. Hopefully the greens keepers caught the correct weather pattern so the course will play the way they want it too. The 2nd year I played the event they planted the rye grass and got much higher temperatures than forecasted… this led them to have to excessively water the fairways… leading to mud ball after mud ball. Getting paired with Jim Furyk on Sunday was a treat and he put on a brave face despite the frustration with the golf course he was clearly feeling. We talked about how great of a course it was and what a stern test year in and year out it provides.  Then we approached the scoring tent and his vail of sanity was lowered as he berated the official in the scoring tent about, “what an embarrassment the course was and that they should be ashamed.” Needless to say I was shocked as he forced a smile for 18 holes all while knowing he was gonna blow up once he got to scoring. This must’ve been some sort of Bob Rotella exercise.

Innisbrook is the epitome of the horses for courses theory. Year in and year out superior ball strikers navigate their way to the top of the leaderboard. Adam Hadwin, Kevin Streelman, Sam Burns, DJ, Brooks, and JT to name a couple. You can’t argue with their flushiness, and they will be present on Sundays final round surely. 7 under is silly good around there as the Copperhead forces you to use pretty much every club in your bag. That’s what makes it such a great test. You will have sand wedge through 4-5 iron into the par 4s and the par 3s also make you think a lot with their meandering front numbers and difficult bunker carries that go deep into the green. The players will face up hill lies, down hill lies, and brutal side hill lies this week. This ain’t your typical Florida course folks. Stay Ture