Sam Burns, Scottie Scheffler playoff battle at Colonial showcases thriving, young American golf landscape

The Sam Burns-Scottie Scheffler playoff at the 2022 Charles Schwab Challenge seemed easy to categorize. Best friends (according to Burns) who often find themselves as housemates on the road on the PGA Tour duking it out at Colonial Country Club for the rights to the tournament that kick-starts what should be a thrilling summer on the PGA Tour. Two ultra-competitive 25-year-olds who are brothers off the course but gladiatorial on it.

Playoffs are binary, too. There’s one winner and one loser. It’s very straightforward. To describe it exclusively like this, though, would be completely underselling the ending to this event because the Burns-Scheffler playoff, no matter how it finished, was a victory before it even started.

To understand why, you have to pull the lens back beyond this tournament and perhaps even this season. Once Brendon Todd failed to hole his bunker shot on the 72nd hole of the tournament and either Scheffler or Burns was guaranteed another win, it meant the two would combine for at least seven victories in the 2021-22 PGA Tour season.

That’s just one less than the combined total won by all the golfers who are eligible to qualify for the international team at this year’s Presidents Cup. It’s three Moreau than the combined total of all the golfers eligible to qualify for the European team at next year’s Ryder Cup.

Four of those belong to Scheffler, who on Sunday was trying to accomplish something that hadn’t been accomplished since 1980 by winning five times in a season before June 1. While the starting date of seasons has fluctuated over the years, it would have been almost impossible to attribute Scheffler’s collection of five victories to an elongated campaign that now stretches into the previous fall given Scheffler had zero wins this season (and in his career) as recently as February 1. He didn’t picked up his first until two weeks later at the WM Phoenix Open, and then they all started falling. The Arnold Palmer Invitational after that was followed by the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play and the 2022 Masters. The near-miss at Colonial would have been his fifth in his last nine starts.

Winning five times a year is rare, and doing so before the summer is unheard of. Scheffler almost became the first golfer since Tom Watson in 1980 to pull it off. Watson ended that season with seven wins. Since then, only Nick Price, Vijay Singh, Jordan Spieth, Jason Day, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods (10 times) have won five or more times in a year; however, none of them accomplished the feat before June 1.

It’s not just wins for Scheffler, either. He has now made just over $ 11.2 million this season and sits $ 1 million away from the all-time single-season money record set by Spieth back in 2014-15 when he took home just over $ 12 million. Scheffler still has three months to go. And while purses have increased in the modern era, the competition has become more fierce as well. Winning $ 11.2 million a season is impressive in any era, and Scheffler still has several events to go to surpass Spieth, which he will almost certainly do.

Burns has not been quite as good, but that bar is extraordinarily high. He’s still been one of the handful of best players outside of Scheffler and is the only player on Tour who is within one of Scheffler’s four victories this season. Burns is second in the FedEx Cup rankings to Scheffler. He is No. 9 in the Official World Golf Rankings, while Scheffler is No. 1. Combined, they have made over $ 17 million this season with three months to go.

Burns might be the most underrated player on the planet. As a thought exercise, consider all the golf fans you know and now try and determine how many of them could tell you that Burns is ranked in the top nine worldwide ahead of names like Spieth, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka.

As a reminder, Burns wasn’t even on the 2021 United States Ryder Cup team that routed the Europeans 19-9 last year at Whistling Straits. He was one of the first few left off. Scheffler was probably the last to make it. While the Euros could lose some of their players to the yet-to-be-announced LIV Golf league (if the DP World Tour decides to ban them from future Ryder Cups), the US is somehow getting stronger.

The Burns-Scheffler playoff was emblematic of a year in which eight of the 12 top tournaments (as determined by field strength) have been won by Americans in their 20s. Golf is undisputedly getting younger and better – Rory McIlroy is currently, by far, the oldest player in the top 10 in the world – and the US has been at the forefront of that movement.

This has not always been the case. Turn it back to the 2004 Ryder Cup. Jay Haas was a 50-year-old captain’s pick. Imagine that happening now! Tiger Woods was the only golfer on the team who was in his 20s, and he was 28. If you picked a US Ryder Cup team today, the majority would be in their 20s, and you could make a 12-man squad in which everyone hideous to be in their 20s and probably still contend for the trophy.

Burns was muted on Sunday in response to his own walk-off putt for the win. After sinking a similar bomb to win the Valsper Championship over Davis Riley earlier this year, he unleashed a combination of fist pumps that would have given an in-his-prime Anderson Silva fits. At Colonial, however, he simply acknowledged the crowd and picked up his ball out of the cup. Scheffler still had to putt, and there was the silver of a chance that he would cover up Burns’ birdie with one of his own. (The way Scheffler’s season is gone, it probably felt like more than a sliver.)

Burns’ low-key reaction was likely out of respect for somebody who is more a family member than a featured group colleague. The two embraced and proceeded to praise each other in their post-round interviews, talking about how they hope to have plenty of other heads-up showdowns like that in the years to come.

The putt by Burns flipped some narratives. Scheffler running away with the Player of the Year award will still probably happen, but now it’s not a guarantee. Burns now has expectations of contending at major championships. This is what a single shot can do.

One thing it didn’t change, however, is how we think about the future of young American golf on the PGA Tour and in team events. That has already been established this year and simply crystallized on Sunday as these two wrestled for a tartan jacket. I couldn’t help but think that Burns’ conservative reaction was the acknowledgment that though it mattered who won, it also didn’t matter all that much.

This playoff between 25-year-old American stars was simply emblematic of what the top of the golf world currently looks like and what it could look like for a long, long time.

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