When the sun rose Sunday morning, Sam Burns was the least likely remaining candidate to claim the 2023 WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play. That didn’t matter to the 26-year-old, however, as he throttled Cameron Young 6 & 5 in the championship match at Austin Country Club to claim the fifth, and biggest, title of his PGA Tour career.
“It was very exhausting. What a great week,” said Burns. “Coming into this week I was really looking forward to this event — it’s the first time I’ve played it and I knew I wanted to win it cause it’s the last one. This has been an absolute blast for me. To come here for my first time and play as well as I did and get to compete against the best players in the world, I am so grateful and I don’t know what else to say, I can’t think straight right now.”
The day began destined to crown defending champion Scottie Scheffler or heighten the expectations for world No. 3 Rory McIlroy ahead of the 2023 Masters – the lone major championship missing from his career grand slam aspirations.
An exclamation point put on the newly budding player-caddie relationship of Young and Paul Tesori would have made for a nice story with the parallels drawn to Scheffler and his caddie, Ted Scott, abundant and already in sharpie for some.
Even when Burns shot out in front of his pal Scheffler, 3 UP through the first three holes of the semifinals, the inevitability of the world No. 1 was still felt. Scheffler battled back with a flurry of his own. By the time the two took to the inward half, it was the Texan, not the Louisianan, who was in command.
“I knew it was going to be a tough match with Scottie,” said Burns. “I love him to death, but he’s really good at golf and very frustrating to play. I got off to a great start. I knew he was going to battle back and I didn’t have my best stuff halfway through the round. I was able to dig deep there on the back nine and started to challenge him a little bit more.”
Scheffler’s lead doubled with a birdie on the 10th – his fourth in five holes – and his march to successfully defending his WGC crown was on. Burns absorbed his competitor’s counterattack and clawed even with birdies on Nos. 13 and 15 before a pinpoint iron shot on 17 force-fed Scheffler a taste of his own medicine.
The crowd favorite wouldn’t go down without a rebuttal, as a birdie on the closing par 4 meant extra holes were required. Scheffler had his chance to slam the door shut on the second playoff hole, but once his birdie bid slid by, Burns smelled blood in the water. A birdie on the next was enough to secure his place in the championship match where the reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year was awaiting.
While Young was arguably the most impressive player through the first four days, playing his first 81 holes (five matches) in 32 under, Burns was the one who now felt destined to win. The Bronx bomber would win only one hole, the par-4 2nd, in the title fight and grabbed an early 1 UP advantage. While Young slowed down as the physical demands of 72 holes in two days began to rear its ugly head, Burns sped up.
Eight birdies over the course of the final 10-hole stretch – he totaled 48 birdies for the week – flipped a small deficit into a ballooned lead as Burns’ putter became hotter than a summer day on Lake Travis. By the time the pair stepped off the green of the par-4 13th, a 6 UP lead and the final World Golf Championship trophy were in the hands of Burns.
A winner three times in the 2021-22 season, Burns has often taken the backseat to his American counterparts such as Scheffler, Patrick Cantlay and Max Homa despite a comparable number of trophies. His performance in Austin is just another reminder when he is on — specifically his scorching putter — the world No. 10 can contend and win these bigger championships.
The major championship résumé will need to improve if his notoriety is to rise, but he remains just 26 — the same age of his good friend, Scheffler, who parlayed a similarly dominating performance in Austin into a green jacket in Augusta, Georgia just two weeks later.
“I don’t know, to be honest,” Burns said of his expectations for the 2023 Masters. “This hasn’t really sunk in and I’m looking forward to getting home and sleeping in my own bed tonight.”
Here is the breakdown for the rest of the leaderboard at the 2023 WGC-Dell Match Play.
Cameron Young (Finals): Young failed to get it done in the finals against Burns, but he was outstanding throughout the week and among the best players at Austin Country Club. I say among the best players because match play doesn’t always reward the best players in a given week. It did in Young’s case, though, as he made 40 birdies and an eagle in his first 100 holes and played them in 39 under par. He was pretty much flawless until the championship match in which he failed to get it out of neutral and Burns made him pay. It was yet another runner-up finish (that’s five in his last 22 starts worldwide), but also his first really great showing on the PGA Tour this year. It came with new caddie Paul Tesori on the bag, and it’s a reminder that Young is likely going to once again be an absolute threat at the major championships this year. Grade: A+
Rory McIlroy (Semifinals): McIlroy played his first six matches in -37 and somehow didn’t play for the title after he was upended by Cam Young in a thriller on Sunday morning that went extra holes. Regardless, it was a successful week for McIlroy, who hit perhaps the shot of the year on Thursday in the second round when he drove the 18th green against Denny McCarthy. The four-time major winner seemed to straighten out his driving problems from the Players Championship and thrived with a Scotty Cameron putter in the bag. He looks as ready for the Masters as he’s ever been, so all that’s left is for him to go and actually don the green jacket. Grade: A
Jason Day (Quarterfinals): Quietly, Day has been one of the handful of best players in the world so far in 2023. He made it all the way to the afternoon matches on Saturday before falling to the ultimate buzzsaw in Scheffler, who made eight birdies on him and nearly made a hole in one to close him out on the 17th hole in their fifth match of the week. Regardless, there’s a ton to be optimistic about for Day going into the Masters — and major season in general — this year. Grade: A
Jon Rahm (Group Play): Rahm lost to both Rickie Fowler and Billy Horschel in the group play stage. It wasn’t a total disaster, but there is some reason for concern going into Augusta. He was 5 over without a birdie on an easy golf course against Horschel and lost to him 5 up. That’s a far cry from the kind of play Rahm put together over most of the first three months of 2023, and while he has to be considered a problem at the first major of the year, he’s no longer the clear-cut (or even not clear-cut) favorite. Grade: D-
Will Zalatoris (Group Play): Zalatoris lost 3 and 2 to Andrew Putnam, 5 and 3 to Harris English and then withdrew against Ryan Fox in the third round. This is notable because he’s a top 10 player in the world but also because he’s been incredible at the Masters over the first few years of his career. He only has one top 10 finish so far in 2023 and can’t be considered one of the favorites for a tournament he should definitely be considered a favorite for here in two weeks. Grade: F