Burns shakes off early miscue to take Safeway Open lead

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NAPA, Calif. (AP) — Sam Burns overcame an early double bogey and used steady iron play and strong putting to take the Safeway Open lead Friday. Harry Higgs was right behind, cutting his deficit in half with his last swing.

Burns made nine birdies in a 7-under 65 to get to 15 under at at Silverado Resort, with Higgs two strokes back. Higgs closed with an albatross for a 62, the best round of the day in the PGA Tour’s season opener.

First-round leader Russell Knox (69), Cameron Percy (68) and D.J. Trahan (65) were 12 under. James Hahn (65) and Doug Ghim (66) were 11 under.

Burns began the day a shot off the lead and started on the back nine. He ran into immediate trouble when his tee shot on the 160-yard, par-3 11th went into the water. After a drop, Burns got onto the green in three and two-putted from 14 feet.

Burns quickly turned that disappointment into motivation. The 24-year-old from Louisiana birdied the next three holes. After making the turn at 3 under for the round, Burns birdied Nos. 1, 4, 5 and 9.

“Woke me up, I guess,” Burns said. “It picked me up, like ’Hey let’s go.” Just kind of stuck with it and the golf course opened up for me the rest of the day.”

Burns needed it on a day when Higgs ended his round with a remarkable 2 on the 564-yard, par-5 ninth. Higgs hit 331-yard drive, then holed out from 230 yards with a 4-iron.

“What a wonderful way to end the day and also just really weird,” Higgs said. “Being the last hole, it’s so final. I hope that I can like calm down. My brother and I were joking, I was looking forward to a nap all day long and I might be too jacked up now to actually fall asleep.”

Higgs didn’t see the ball roll into the cup and wasn’t even certain what happened. With no fans and minimal spectators, there was no immediate reaction other than a few people who were standing nearby.

“The volunteer off the left just started screaming and then he said, ‘It’s in the hole, it’s in the hole!’” Higgs said. “I don’t really remember what I did. I just took my club and threw it on the ground. It was just full panic. I’m sure it looked funny and ridiculous. I mean, what a great way to finish.”

Thirteen players had to finish the first round early Friday after Thursday’s play was suspended due to darkness.

Conditions continue to improve, paving the way for lower scores across the board. With the forecast for warmer temperatures over the next two days, it’s likely scores will continue to drop.

Consider that last year’s winner, Cameron Champ, shot 17 under over the four days. The tournament record is 18 under, shared by three people including two-time Safeway Open winner Brendan Steele.

Burns, who has never won on the PGA Tour, isn’t concerned about setting records as much as he is continuing a steady comeback from a right ankle injury in mid-2019 that slowed his progress.

“I think for me I’m just going to go out tomorrow and focus on what I can control,” Burns said. “For me, that’s on my mind and that’s picking good targets and hitting shots.”

Burns has done just that through two rounds. He hit 16 of 18 greens on Friday, is 30 of 36 overall, and has complemented that by draining nearly 200 feet of putts.

“I’ve made zero adjustments other than just trying to stick with the practice routine that we have in place,” Burns said. “A lot of what we do is just making sure the ball’s starting online, and we do stuff around the hole (to) get the feel of visualizing the putts breaking. Just trying to get the feel of these greens and they’re rolling really nice.”

Steele (70) was 9 under, six shots off the pace.

Phil Mickelson (67) was 6 under in his tune-up for next week’s U.S. Open at Winged Foot.

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