The first shot of Sarah Burnham’s high school career soared straight down the fairway.
The second shot went nowhere. The seventh-grader grazed the top of the ball and it dribbled slowly toward the green.
“We’re going to have the good and the bad, so get used to it. She’s young,” Wayzata High School coach Mike Schumacher recalled thinking to himself as he left to watch other golfers.
But after the round, Schumacher checked Burnham’s scorecard and noticed a “3” for the first hole.
“Turns out, from 150 yards she holed out for birdie,” he said. “Stories like that — I’ve got hundreds.”
There might be more to come. Burnham, a 19-year-old who lives in Maple Grove and will be a sophomore at Michigan State, won a sectional qualifier May 18 in Independence, Minn., to earn a spot in this week’s U.S. Women’s Open in Lancaster, Pa.
“It’s very special, I mean, it’s the greatest tournament for women’s golf,” Burnham said. “It’s like I’m playing in the Super Bowl or something. It’s hard to put into words still. It’s crazy.”
Those around Burnham credit her dogged work ethic for her early success. The Minnesota Golf Association women’s player of the year at age 16 says she works four or five hours every day, but several former coaches and teammates say that sometimes reaches eight.
The day before Burnham won the 2013 Class 3A state championship, she practiced 4-foot putts for an hour and a half. The next day, she didn’t miss a putt from that distance.
Burnham’s father, Kurt, a former Marine, says his daughter has come home with stingers in her hands from practicing in 40-degree weather. Jay Meyerhoff, the pro at Rush Creek Golf Course, recalls Burnham being on the practice green at 7 a.m. and still being there four hours later.
“No matter what the weather, she’d always be out there if the course was open,” Meyerhoff said. “It didn’t matter if there were snow flurries, 35-degree weather, rain. If there isn’t lighting, she’s out there practicing.”
Former Wayzata teammate Jessica Nelson said she was intimidated by Burnham when they starting playing together because she’d heard the young golfer was “incredible.”
“She’s very dedicated in all aspects of her game. She just uses all the skills she works on and executes them on the golf course,” said Nelson, who was a senior with Burnham when Wayzata won the 2014 Class 3A team title with a record score.
Schumacher, who has coached a combined 24 years of both boys’ and girls’ basketball and 15 years of football, called Burnham the best individual athlete, including eventual-NFL players Dominique and Marion Barber, he’s had at Wayzata.
Schumacher first saw Burnham when she was 9, and when he first saw her hit a drive thought, “Oh boy, this kid’s going to be good.” The first putt he saw was a 45-footer, downhill, that went in.
At age 9, Burnham was discovered by PGA professional Steve Fessler while playing at a camp at Pheasant Acres in Rogers. Fessler worked with Burnham on her short game, and she soon began to see Rush Creek staff instructor Aaron Jacobson for her long game.
Within two years, Burnham qualified for the U.S. Children’s World Championships in Pinehurst, N.C.
Last summer Burnham played in a few American Junior Golf Association and Future Collegians World Tour tournaments. She also qualified for match play at the U.S. Women’s Amateur in Glen Cove, N.Y., by tying for 15th place during stroke play.
Burnham continues to add new facets to her game. For the past year and a half, she has worked with Andy Thompson at Totally Driven golf center in Edina on a putting technique called aim points. It helps her read the slope of the green by using one’s feet and fingers.
“I’ve been using it like a year and a half now, and my putting has improved dramatically,” Burnham said.
Burnham finished second on the Michigan State women’s team a 76.27 scoring average and tied for 18th at the Big Ten tournament as a freshman.
“Sarah is always expecting more. She did a lot of incredible things during her freshman year at Michigan State, but I think she’s still waiting for a big win in one of these tournaments,” Spartans coach Stacy Slobodnik-Stoll said.
For Burnham, that starts Thursday in Lancaster.
Though she said it’ll satisfy her “for life” if she makes this weekend’s cut, Burnham’s aim is just to enjoy the experience and try to play at the peak of her game.
“We try to teach our players, you earned the right to be here,” Slobodnik-Stoll said. “It’s just golf. You do it every day, and this is what we practice for. It’s just another round. She’s going to play the best she can and she has the tools to do that.”