Oxford hosts PGA Web.com Tour stop

By RICK CLEVELAND,

You want a favorite for this weekend's North Mississippi Classic, Mississippi's brand new stop on the PGA's Buy.com Tour?

He would have to be Sam Burns, the 21-year-old former LSU golfer, who won the Buy.com Tour's last stop, The Savannah Classic. Burns birdied the last three holes to win the $99,000 top prize by a single shot over Roberto Castro. After opening with a 72, Burns shot three straight rounds of 65.

There are plenty reasons to pick Burns, the 2016-17 Nicklaus Player of the Year in college golf. Here's one: Recently, Burns played with Tiger Woods in the final round of the PGA Tour's Honda Classic. There they were on the first tee at PGA National in Palm Springs, Fla., Woods all dressed up in his Sunday red. The gallery, as is usually the case when Woods is in contention, was like a stepped-on ant bed. So Burns looked over at Tiger and said, “Crazy, isn't it, all these people came out to watch me?”

Tiger shot 70. Burns shot a bogey-less round of 68.

Burns is from Shreveport. He knows this territory. He will win on the PGA Tour. It's just a matter of time. But do you want a really local favorite in Oxford?

He would have to be Ole Miss's own Braden Thornberry, the reigning NCAA Champion. Last May, when Thornberry shot 11-under par to win college golf's national championship by four shots, Burns finished 13 shots back in a tie for 32nd.

Thornberry, a junior at Ole Miss, just turned 21 last week. He won't be cowed by playing against professionals. He finished fourth in the PGA Tour's St. Jude Fed Ex Classic last June. He would have won $240,000 for that finish, but had chosen to remain an amateur.

It will be more than a little interesting to watch the careers of these two, Burns and Thornberry. Burns would be a junior at LSU. Thornberry is a junior at Ole Miss. For now, they have chosen different paths.

When both were sophomores, Burns averaged 70.05 strokes per round at LSU, while Thornberry averaged 69.57 per round at Ole Miss. Burns won four tournaments at LSU. Thornberry won five at Ole Miss.

If you want a significant comparison, try this one: Jordan Speith averaged 70.91 strokes per round in his one season of college golf at Texas before turning pro.

Obviously, these guys, Thornberry and Burns, can play.

Burns announced his plans to remain professional last spring in a tweet. “Thank you LSU for the past two years of memories I will never forget,” Burns tweeted.

Thornberry announced his plans to stay at Ole Miss to The Golf Channel.

“I'm still working on some consistency,” Thornberry said. “Coach (Chris) Malloy has really groomed me and I've gotten better every single semester. I think it would be kind of a dumb decision for me to leave early...”

So while most of the North Mississippi Classic field was at Oxford CC early this week preparing for the tournament, Thornberry was 90 minutes away competing for Ole Miss in the Old Waverly Collegiate at West Point. He will play in the SEC Tournament next week.

While Burns has been highly successful in his first year of professional golf, Thornberry has kept on keeping on in his third year of college golf. In nine tournaments (heading into Old Waverly) as a junior, he has averaged 69.8 strokes per round. That's more than three shots per round better than any of his teammates. He has won one tournament, has finished in the top 10 eight times and finished in the top five six times. He has finished no worse than 12th.

That's consistency.

There is no right or wrong in the decisions Burns and Thornberry made. Both did what they considered best for them. You could argue Burns is a year ahead in his professional golf career. You could argue Thornberry has gotten to enjoy (at least) one more year of college golf.

This weekend, their careers intersect once more. Should be fun.

Rick Cleveland is a Jackson-based syndicated columnist. His email address is rcleveland@mississippitoday.org.

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