Minnesota's Sarah Burnham takes aim at Women's PGA

She might not show it on the surface, but Sarah Burnham will be a combination of excited and nervous when she takes the first tee at Hazeltine National Golf Club Thursday morning.

The Wayazata High School alum and former Michigan State golf star is in her rookie season on the LPGA Tour. She made her first cut last week at the Meijer LPGA Classic. Her earnings in a tie for 33rd there, her highest career finish, were enough to qualify for this week’s KPMG Women’s PGA Championship.

She was the last player to make the field, and she’ll be teeing it up this week against the likes of Michelle Wie, Paula Creamer, Jin-Young Ko, Lexi Thompson and several other of the best players in the world. Burnham tees off bright and early, the first group, at 7:40 a.m. Thursday. She’ll be paired with Tiffany Joh and Pavarisa Yoktuan.

“It’s awesome. I never thought this day would come. It was actually a goal of mine to play this event this year, but I knew I’d have to make some good money to get here,” Burnham said Tuesday after practicing at Hazeltine. “Obviously I was able to do that last week, so it’s great.”

Burnham finished with a 9-under par 279 last week, which earned her $13,208 in earnings. It got her in the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship field by $3.

She’s learning quickly in her rookie season that the life of a professional golfer can get hectic. She travels a lot and doesn’t get to return home a lot. That’s what makes qualifying for the field at Hazeltine this week so special. She played the course as a young, competitive golfer.

Burnham won the 2013 high school state golf championship, shooting a two-day 140 at Bunker Hills Golf Course in Coon Rapids. She went onto become a standout golfer at Michigan State, earning All-Big Ten honors three of out four years, and being named Big Ten Player of the Year in each of her last two seasons.

She said she had no vision early on in her college days of becoming a tour professional.

“My freshman year I had no desire or anything to go pro. I didn’t believe in myself, but I started to compete in college pretty well and I thought maybe I could make a run at it,” Burnham said. “Here I am today.”

This week marks just her seventh career tournament as an LPGA Tour professional. But she has the game to play with the best, and she’ll have dozens of hometown supporters when play starts Thursday.

Her caddie, Benjamin Kitts, says she’s already a top-10 ball striker on the LPGA Tour. She has the potential to play with the best in the game. She’s currently 96th in driving accuracy, and 57th in greens in regulation.

Just last week, Burnham beat Jeonguen Lee6, the No. 7-ranked player in the world and recent U.S. Women’s Open champion, in one round. The next day, Burnham topped Sung Hyun Park, the defending Women’s PGA champion.

“She’s plenty good enough to play at this level,” Kitts said.

That potential became reality last week, making her first cut. Three of her six rounds under par for the season came last week, and it helped her earn a spot in her first major.

The expectations, Kitts said, will rise with more consistent success on tour. Burnham said it herself – she can hit pretty much any fairway on a golf course and can hit the greens. It comes down to her short game, and making clutch putts.

As the golf saying goes: Drive for show, putt for dough.                  

“That was a big thing, her family was like ‘Ok we’ve got to make the cut.’ I’m thinking to myself like we could still win this golf tournament. I can see how well she can play so that never really was even a thought for me to make the cut,” Kitts said. “We’re not trying to make a $5,000 check here, we’re trying to make a $100,000 check. This is what it is every week and when you play well, you need to capitalize on that on tour.”

Burnham and Kitts have only known each other for about a month, through connections at Michigan State.

Her primary goal this week is to make the cut. The 156-player field features 99 of the top 100 players in the world and 29 major champions. After Friday’s play, the top 70 and ties advance to weekend play.

Regardless of what happens when competitive play starts Thursday, Burnham is going to take in the thrill of being the only Minnesotan playing in a major championship in her home state.

“It’s awesome. I’m so excited to be back home for the week. I get to sleep in my own bed and I get to compete in my home town. There’s nothing more I could ask for,” Burnham said.