By Greg Beacham, The Associated Press on January 19, 2024.
LA QUINTA, Calif. (AP) – Sam Burns shot the best round of his life with “RTR” shaved into the side of his head. The acronym for “Roll Tide Roll” was the LSU product’s follicular punishment for losing a bet with Justin Thomas.
Alabama sophomore Nick Dunlap apparently took it literally, however: The 20-year-old amateur sensation is right on Burns’ heels after two days of low scores and sizzling shot-making in the Coachella Valley.
Burns fired a career-low 61 on Friday to take a one-shot lead over Michael Kim and a two-shot lead on Dunlap at The American Express.
While Burns was at 17-under 127 after his second straight impressive round, Dunlap and South Korea’s K.H. Lee were 15 under. Fifteen players were within four shots of the lead in ideal conditions on three straightforward courses.
Adam Hadwin (65) of Abbotsford, B.C., was three shots off the lead.
Dunlap, the only non-professional in the 156-man field, shot 65 with six birdies on the front nine and another on the 18th to stay in contention. Dunlap joined Tiger Woods last year as the only winners of both the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Junior Amateur, which Dunlap won in 2021.
“It’s a cool spot to be in,” Dunlap said. “I’ve always said pressure is a privilege. I got a great opportunity to be here, and to feel what I felt on 16, 17, 18. … Hopefully if I keep playing well, it’s only going to magnify.”
Only seven amateurs have won on the PGA Tour since 1945. Phil Mickelson was the last one, doing it in Tucson, Arizona, in 1991.
“It’s going to be a kind of a shootout, it seems like,” Dunlap said. “So pedal to the metal, and try to make some putts.”
Burns scorched the Nicklaus Tournament course for seven birdies and two eagles, starting with an eagle on the fourth. He made a second eagle on the 11th and added four straight birdies from Nos. 13-16 to get in position for the third sub-60 round in this tournament’s history.
He didn’t get them, but his two finishing pars resulted in the best round of his career. Burns shot 62 at the BMW Championship last season and at the Byron Nelson in 2021.
“Obviously, everybody is shooting some good numbers, so (I’m) just trying to keep pace and trying to hit as many quality shots and get as many looks as possible,” said Burns, who has five PGA Tour victories. “I think the greens are really good around La Quinta and (Nicklaus) and Stadium, so I think it comes down to being able to make some key putts.”
Not everything went perfectly for Burns, who took off his hat after sinking his final putt and inadvertently revealed the “RTR” to the television audience. The Louisiana native took Thomas’ gleeful shaming good-naturedly on social media this week and again after his landmark round.
“Thankfully I get to wear a hat every day, and try to keep it on as long as possible,” Burns said with a grimace. “Celebrating (Nick) Saban’s retirement, as everybody else in Louisiana is.”
Kim is a product of Southern California’s junior golf scene, and he played repeatedly in the Palm Springs area during his youth. He used that familiarity with the American Express courses to shoot 65-63 in the first two rounds, including six birdies on the back nine of the Nicklaus course Friday.
“I even remember some of the shots I hit into them 10, 15 years ago,” said Kim, who grew up in San Diego. “So it’s fun to kind of go back into the memory bank and just remember some of the more stress-free times, I guess.”
First-round co-leader Alex Noren of Sweden holed a long birdie putt on the 18th on the Nicklaus course to shoot 68, leaving him three shots back of Burns. Zach Johnson, the other first-round leader, shot 69 on Nicklaus and was four back.
Burns fell just short of the third 59 in the history of this tournament, the former Bob Hope Desert Classic. David Duval did it in 1999 in the final round at the Palmer Private Course, and Hadwin matched it in 2017 in the third round at La Quinta Country Club.
Nick Taylor (67) of Abbotsford, B.C., and Ben Silverman (67) of Thornhill, Ont., were at 9-under 135. Taylor Pendrith (72) of Richmond Hill, Ont., was at 1-under 143 and Roger Sloan (68) of Merritt, B.C., was at even-par 144.
The cut will be made at 54 holes after the entire field has played all three courses. The final round is on the Stadium course, typically the most difficult of the three.
AP golf: https://apnews.com/golf