News & Opinion

Conners makes most of his alternate world

PALM HARBOR, Fla. – Corey Conners can laugh now. It wasn’t funny Monday, though, when he shot 1-under 71 in Valspar Championship qualifying and knew that score wouldn’t be anywhere near low enough to earn one of the four spots available. It took 7 under, as it turned out. Conners missed by six strokes.

“I hate Mondays,” Conners said with a laugh Thursday after he shot 4-under 67 and held a one-stroke lead after the first round of the Valspar Championship (scores).

Wait. Who is Corey Conners, and how did he go from not being in the field to leading the tournament?

A few hours after he finished Monday, Conners got a phone call from the PGA Tour. Someone dropped out and he was in, based on his status: he finished 20th in last year’s Web.com Tour finals to earn a promotion to the big leagues.

“It was obviously a great feeling,” said Conners, a 26-year-old Kent State University alumnus from Listowel, Ontario. “I had the mindset of trying to take advantage of a good break.”

That’s just what he did. It was impressive, considering that elite players such as Rory McIlroy (74) and Jordan Spieth (76) didn’t break par. Conners did it despite getting only one practice round, on Tuesday, at Innisbrook Resort’s Copperhead Course. The course is used for a pro-am on Wednesday, and Conners wasn’t in that field.

“I tried to get as much work done as I could Tuesday and take some notes,” Conners said. “My caddie guided me around a little. I’ve got a good memory and kind of remembered what I wanted to do on each hole.”

Copperhead played tough because of blustery conditions – temperatures in the mid-50s most of the morning and gusty breezes.

Conners’ name is probably familiar only to serious golf fans. Conners was runner-up in the 2014 U.S. Amateur at Atlanta Athletic Club, losing to Gunn Yang of South Korea, but that finish earned him an invitation to the 2015 Masters Tournament. Conners planned to turn pro that fall but decided to remain an amateur until the following April.

“Not everyone gets an invitation to the Masters,” he said then.

What made his decision easier was the previous U.S. Amateur, in which he lost a tough match in the semifinals to eventual winner Matthew Fitzpatrick. Conners watched the 2014 Masters, saw the two amateurs who made the field and remembered thinking that could’ve been him.

Another deciding factor was his copy of the 1997 Masters videotape, which Conners estimated he watched a few hundred times. Conners missed the cut in Augusta, but he enjoyed his Masters moment on golf’s biggest stage.

Now he’s having his PGA Tour moment, having competed on the Mackenzie, Latinoamerica andWeb.com tours during the past two years.

Things are going fair to middling. Conners has made the cut in nine of 10 events. However, his best finish has been 29th, at the Farmers Insurance Open.

“I haven’t had the best results on the weekend,” he conceded. “So I’m trying to learn and get in a better rhythm and stay focused. Everything is solid. I definitely feel like I’m due for a good week.”

On a tough day for scoring, Conners was bogey-free until the 18th hole. Except for a nice save at the 12th, where he nearly holed a greenside bunker shot, and the 16th, where he lipped out a shot from in front of the green, he enjoyed a largely stress-free round.

If not for a gutsy shot in the Web.com finals at Canterbury Golf Club in Beachwood, Ohio, last year, Conners might not be enjoying his PGA Tour moment in the sun this week. 

“It was the last hole. I kind of knew I needed a par to get my PGA Tour card,” he said. “I pulled my drive left and had to hit a low, running 6-iron that got up on the green. I two-putted for my par. It definitely was important, and I executed that shot really well and gave myself a tap-in for par.”

His status has gotten Conners into every Tour field so far except the Genesis Open at Riviera and the Waste Management Phoenix Open. His next stop will be in two weeks at a new Tour event in the Dominican Republic. He is not in the field for next week’s Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, but said, “I could maybe pay my way in if I could finish well here.”

He won’t have to worry about that until the Valspar Championship is over, and no matter what, he won’t have to play in another qualifier. The API event doesn’t have one.

“I say it every time I don’t play well in those things,” Connors said with a chuckle, “but I hate Mondays.”

Thursdays, he loves. 

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle