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With a win, a runner-up, and a third-place finish, Corey Conners is off to the races this season, and rightfully brimming with confidence heading into next week’s PGA Championship at Bethpage Black.
“I think it’s going to be a perfect golf course for me,” the 27-year-old told Postmedia this week.
The mild-mannered Canadian finally has been able to take a breath after a whirlwind April that saw him capture his first PGA Tour win at the Valero Texas Open and grab the final spot in the Masters. From Augusta National, Conners went straight to the RBC Heritage Classic at Hilton Head, before pairing up with good friend Mackenzie Hughes in the team-format Zurich Classic a week later.
“I definitely was worn out mentally and physically so it feels good to kind of recharge a little bit and get into a routine at home,” he said.
Conners spent time at his house in Florida with wife Malory but they also took the opportunity belatedly celebrate his maiden PGA Tour victory. As great as that Sunday was, just hours after he won it was back to business aboard a plane headed to Augusta National.
After seven tournaments in eight weeks, it was time for a break.
“We actually went to the Kentucky Derby which was kind of a bucket list event to go to,” Conners said. “I wore some colourful attire, for me anyways, I’m pretty conservative usually. Really fun experience. Had some money bet on the horse that was disqualified, so I wasn’t pleased.”
Conners’ traditionally conservative golf game also has shown a dash of colour this season. A longer than average driver off the tee and prodigious ball-striker with a beautifully fluid swing, the actuarial math major from Kent State rose to the PGA Tour playing a relatively risk-averse style.
That had to change this season when Conners was forced to Monday qualify for tournaments after failing to finish inside the tour’s top-125 last season to keep his full playing card. The notoriously difficult Monday play-in rounds see upwards of 150 players competing for just a few spots in the field, forcing players to be hyper-aggressive. Perhaps surprisingly, Conners flourished in the pressure cooker format, making it through Monday qualifying three times this season, including that fateful week in Texas, when he became just the second Monday qualifier to go on to win in 30 years.
“After getting through Monday qualifying, obviously you’re playing well, playing aggressive, just keep that up through the tournament,” Conners said of his game plan. “That was the focus in Texas. Try to hit it close, and don’t be afraid of missing. I’m hitting it as well as I ever have, so be aggressive and try to take advantage of that.”
Conners may have found something in his game on those difficult Mondays, but with an audible relief in his voice, he said this week that he’s happy those days are behind him.
“Hopefully forever,” he said. “They are not a lot of fun.”
Conners arrived mid-week in Toronto to do some work with sponsors, but the trip also afforded him an opportunity to get some early practice in at Hamilton Golf and Country Club, which is already in great condition ahead of next month’s RBC Canadian Open.
The plan is to fly to New York on Sunday and arrive at Bethpage Black early afternoon to start preparing for the PGA Championship, where he and Adam Hadwin will carry Canada’s hopes. The season’s second major begins Thursday, as the PGA Championship has moved from its traditional August date to May, ahead of June’s U.S. Open and July’s British Open in the recent schedule reshuffle.
Conners’ opinion that the difficult course will be perfect for him is more a testament to the state of his game, because he’s actually never played Bethpage Black, a public course on Long Island, 40 miles outside Manhattan.
“I know it’s long and tough and that’s something I’m really excited for,” he said. “I think it will set up well from me. Have to drive it well, iron it well, do everything well. You can’t hide any weaknesses out there. I’m going to try to get a couple early looks at it.”
“I feel great about every aspect of my game so I’m excited to get there and excited for a tough test that I think I’ll do really well on.”
After earning a spot in the Players Championship, getting his first tour win, playing in the Masters, and now the PGA Championship, it’s hard to imagine there is a goal for this season that Conners hasn’t already accomplished. But the Listowel, Ontario-native explained that many of his goals are process oriented rather than outcome oriented. He has made a career out of good routines and feels he’s been doing the right things for a couple of years now, and that’s not going to change with success. He said his focus is to continue to improve every day, to practice smarter every day, to have a daily routine that gets the most out of his game, and to develop the right plan for the right tournament every week.
On the course, his revamped 2019 goal is to qualify for the season-ending Tour Championship at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta in August. The final event of the FedEx Cup playoffs, the Tour Championship field features just the 30 top players. Conners ranks 20th in the season-long standings, but staying there will require either another big finish or some improved consistency. Aside from his win, place, and show finishes this season, he has missed nine cuts in 15 tournaments. The hope is that the inconsistent results had something to do with Conners’ inconsistent schedule before the win in Texas, or that increased confidence and comfort on tour will carry him to greater heights.
For many young players on tour, the final step is convincing yourself that you belong. Conners’ coach Derek Ingram says there are generally two types of players on tour: the almost absurdly over-confident, and those with a quiet confidence but a deep belief. Ingram — who will be at Bethpage with Conners — says his longtime student falls soundly into the second category and believes the win in Texas could unlock his potential.
There certainly seems to be a noticeable change in the mild-mannered Conners heading into the PGA Championship.
“I know I can get myself in the mix, obviously a top ten finish would be awesome,” he said. “I know it’s a major championship and a really strong field, and there’s going to be lots of people going after it, but I feel confident in my game and hopefully I can get the job done.”
None of this is to say that Conners isn’t the same small-town guy he was before his breakthrough win. There are no new Ian Poulter white Ferrari’s in his garage since his US $1.35M payday. We checked. He still drives a jeep.
“My wife Malory and I went shopping to buy some clothes because we hadn’t really planned to be on the road for that long, but other than that nothing really,” he said of any post-victory shopping sprees. “We already have, in our minds, a really nice house and nice things so we won’t be going out to blow a lot of money. Try to save. A honeymoon is definitely high on the list. We’ve put that off for the past six months, so we’ll try to make that happen.”
In this age of hyper-aggressive young golfers, winning week-to-week on tour almost always requires a sublime par-shattering performance. Conners had 10 birdies on Sunday during his breakthrough victory in Texas. Gone are the days of playing safely over the first two rounds to make the cut, waiting to put the pedal down on weekends. Now, most weeks on tour that philosophy will have you lapped by the leaders by Friday afternoon.
But all that can change at majors.
At Bethpage Black this week, patience once again becomes a virtue. With rain and cooler temperatures in the forecast, the course will play very long. However, those expecting the brutal difficulty of the ’02 and ’09 U.S. Opens will be disappointed because the PGA Championship prefers birdie roars to crying golfers, but even a kinder, gentler Black course requires ample respect.
It could be that Conners’ recently developed aggressive side that served him so well in Texas, might have to take a back seat to the more conservative style he came up with. And that is just fine by him.
“I think I’m more patient by nature,” Conners said. “I almost have to force myself to be aggressive so I think naturally my style will fit well at this course.”
“I’ll try to be aggressive when I can but for the most part I’m pretty good at being patient and not getting too down or too up or getting ahead of myself.”
But what about new Corey? What about firing at flags and dominating Monday qualifiers? What about the Kentucky Derby, the colourful attire, the fancy hat?
“I didn’t wear a hat.”
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019