LOS ANGELES – Sam Burns wanted to show respect to the tough Riviera by playing it safe. It led to a 5-under 66 on Friday to match the 36-hole record at the Genesis Invitational and build a five-shot lead over the weekend.
Among those chasing after is Dustin Johnson, the world’s No. 1 player and a past winner at Riviera. Another shot back was Jordan Spieth, who is starting to feel at home at the top of the standings.
Burns kept his bogey-free day intact towards the end of the round, as he passed the eighth green, his 17th of the morning. He cut it about 10 feet short – anything too strong could lead to big trouble – and made the par putt.
He also covered two of the par 5s, taking so much roll on the firm turf at the 476m 12th hole that he only had a pitching wedge in the green and made a five foot putt.
“When we were in a tricky spot, we just took what the golf course gave us,” Burns said. “There have certainly been times when I’ve tried to force it a little bit, but this is just not a golf course you want to do that.”
Burns was 12 under 130, which matches the record last set in 2004 by Mike Weir and Shigeki Maruyama.
Johnson led a group 7 under 135 despite playing the three par 5’s in just 1 under for the week. Part of the problem is that Johnson only hit one fairway on the par 5s. That was the last he played on Friday, the 17th, and it created a simple up-and-down motion that brought him a little closer.
He also has a simple solution to improve his par-5 performance.
“Ride it in the fairway,” he said. “I feel like I’m playing very well. I just need to get a little more out of the rounds.”
Joaquin Niemann finished eight pars for his round of 68 and was five shots behind. He and Johnson were joined by Tyler McCumber and Jason Kokrak, who each shot 68 in the morning.
McCumber is the miracle worker this week. His finger was caught opening a window in his hotel room Tuesday, and his best option was for a doctor to remove the nail from his left index finger. He did that Wednesday, hit about five balls and thought he could give it a shot.
“It’s pretty wild how quickly the body adapts to things,” McCumber said. “I thought it was a little better today to focus on the wave and not really worry about the finger.”
Riviera has injured some of the game’s best players.
Rory McIlroy made only one birdie in his round of 76 and missed the cut. Justin Thomas followed his opening 77 with a 73 and missed the cut. US Open champion Bryson DeChambeau did that after a 69.
McIlroy had the PGA Tour’s longest active cut streak at 25 events dating back to the 2019 British Open at Royal Portrush. The streak now belongs to Xander Schauffele at the age of 22.
Burns is a 24-year-old from LSU who has what it takes to win when he falls into place. He finished sixth at the Barbasol Championship when he was still an amateur, and it only took him a year on the Korn Ferry Tour before playing in the big leagues. It’s not a matter of breaking through, and he’s off to a strong start at Riviera.
“I’d like to think I have all the tools to win here,” said Burns. “There are a lot of good players – really good players. I try not to get caught up in that and just try to get better every week.”
Riviera plays fast and difficult this year with such nice weather and occasional gusts of wind. Aside from Burns and his great 36-hole play, none was better than 7-under-par.
Ten players in the 120-man field played two rounds in the 1960s while playing in ideal weather.
“It’s one of those rare weeks where you can’t get away with firing flagpoles,” Spieth said. “There isn’t much rough, but when you get into the rough it takes enough spin off to where you can’t get into the pins. Often when you miss the greens it’s harder to get it closer than where you would may have hit your approach.
“It’s such a different experience from what we normally have on tour.”
Spieth was three shots behind at the start of the weekend at the Phoenix Open, shot 61 and shared the 54-hole lead. He finished in fourth place. Last week at Pebble Beach, he had a one-shot lead after 36 holes, leading through two going into the final round before drawing a draw for the third round.
Now he’s six shots behind Burns, but in a decent position on the scoreboard. It is an upward trend.
“It’s not like you can chase people on this golf course,” Spieth said. “So I’m happy with where I am, but just eliminate a few small mistakes here and there and try to keep clean cards on the weekend and let the rest take care of themselves.”
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