LSU Tigers of New, Old, Earn U.S. Open Spots

Sam Burns posted two sub-70 rounds and then got through a 6-for-2 playoff to earn a spot in his first U.S. Open.
Sam Burns posted two sub-70 rounds and then got through a 6-for-2 playoff to earn a spot in his first U.S. Open.  (USGA/John Gress)

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GERMANTOWN, Tenn. – After earning his place in next week’s U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, 49-year-old David Toms texted encouragement to 19-year-old Sam Burns.

“Go get your spot,” Toms said to the rising sophomore at Toms’ alma mater, Louisiana State.

As he’s done often during his promising career, Burns followed Toms’ advice, scoring a birdie on the first playoff hole to bag one of the final two spots out of 10 available Monday in the Memphis, Tenn., sectional qualifier at Germantown Country Club and Ridgeway Country Club.

Burns, the only amateur to advance out of the 121-player field, was joined by Sunghoon Kang, of the Republic of Korea, who also nailed down his spot with a birdie Like Toms, Burns is a product of Shreveport, La. Burns remembers watching Toms sink the last putt to win the 2001 PGA Championship at Atlanta Athletic Club.

“I was maybe 5 or 6 years old,” Burns said. “I remember wanting to do that one day. He’s been so influential to a lot of us growing up.”

Burns and Kang were part of a 6-for-2 playoff after they tied Robert Aiken, Robert Garrigus, Brian Gay and Whee Kim at 6-under-par 136. Divided into two groups of three, they each played No. 1 at Germantown Country Club.

Moments after Kang holed a tricky downhill 20-footer for his 3 on the 411-yard, par-4 first, Burns coaxed his 8-footer into the hole, then waited. Aiken, Garrigus and Gay each failed on their birdie putts.

After realizing he was headed to Oakmont, Burns kneeled in reflection, then exchanged hugs with friends, his coach and his parents, all of whom made the 6½-hour trip from Shreveport.

Next week, Burns plans to hit up Toms, who will play in his 19th U.S. Open, for a practice round.

“It will happen,” Burns said. “We’ll get together.”

Kang’s playoff birdie assured him of his second U.S. Open start. In 2011 at Congressional, he tied for 39th on a rain-soaked course that allowed players to attack. He expects Oakmont to be different.

“I’ve heard Oakmont is playing really hard, so I’ve got to be more conservative,” Kang said. “Patience will have to be a virtue.”

Consecutive bogeys left Kang at 2 under for the day going into his final nine at Ridgeway Country Club. After notching an eagle on the par-5 11th, Kang scored his playoff berth with clutch birdies on 17 and 18.

While Burns and Kang worked overtime for their Oakmont tickets, Andres Gonzales and D.J. Trahan stood together as medalists with 11-under-par 131s.

They took different paths to the top of the leader board. Gonzales bagged birdies on his first three holes at Germantown and carded a 64, then fired a bogey-free 67 at Ridgeway to cruise into his second U.S. Open.

The 33-year-old Gonzales, of Lakewood, Wash., felt good throughout the day.

“It means a lot to be playing in our national championship,” Gonzales said. “I started off real strong and got into a good rhythm. Near the end of the day, I wasn’t hitting my iron shots as sharp, but they were at least on the green, so I was able to two-putt a lot.”

While Gonzales glided, Trahan, of Plano, Texas, stormed to the top with a 62 during his second round at Ridgeway, notching four birdies and an eagle on his first seven holes. Trahan’s eighth birdie of the round, on the par-5 18th, finished his day in style.

Tom Hoge, of Fargo, N.D., carded a pair of 67s to place third at 134, while Toms was one of five golfers to finish at 135. That group included J.J. Henry, a three-time winner on the PGA Tour who notched a 26th-place showing when Oakmont last hosted the U.S. Open in 2007.

“I think it’s my best U.S. Open finish,” Henry said. “That being said, you know the course is going to be tough and the scores are going to be high. I’m hitting the ball great, but I’ve just got to dial in my putting the next 10 days.”

Derek Fathauer, Andrew Landry and Dicky Pride also came in at 7 under to earn spots at Oakmont.

Aiken and Garrigus picked up the first- and second-alternate spots, respectively, after a playoff. Gay matched Garrigus’ bogey but withdrew and conceded the spot.

While that was going on, Burns was checking his cellphone for texts and still exchanging congratulatory hugs. He and his family were hitting the road for Shreveport for a late-night drive home.

“I’m sure my dad will ask me to drive at some point,” he said, “but I won’t need caffeine to keep me awake.”

James Dent is an Illinois-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.