Corey Conners earns first PGA TOUR victory at Valero
SAN ANTONIO -- At Kent State University, Corey Conners majored in actuarial studies and as the PGA TOUR media guide points out, he "is a bit of a math genius," the type of guy who kept his own stats long before his strokes gained were recorded by ShotLink.
But don't ask Conners to explain his final-round scorecard, one of the all-time rollercoaster rounds you'll ever see, at the AT&T Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio.
"It was crazy," said Conners, who made 29 birdies for the week. "I couldn't even tell you what I shot on the back nine."
The number geek inside him is going to love looking back and seeing 10 birdies circled, four squares for a string of bogeys on the front nine and just four pars en route to shooting 6-under 66 and a 2-stroke victory over Charley Hoffman for his maiden TOUR title at the Valero Texas Open.
The pride of Listowel, Ontario, was the last man to enter the field, surviving a 6-for-1 playoff in a Monday Qualifier to become just the fifth player in TOUR history to go from earning a spot in the field on Monday to champion on Sunday. When Conners arrived a week ago, his clubs didn't make the flight and so he didn't get to play a practice round at The Club at Sonterra, where 73 players attempted to earn one of four spots into the field. It was just another manic Monday for Conners, who for the third time this season made it through the pressure-cooker that is Monday qualifying in six attempts. All he had to do was drain a 20-foot bender for birdie on his final hole to shoot 67 and make the playoff and then can a 6-foot birdie putt to advance. But as his good friend and fellow TOUR pro Mackenzie Hughes noted, "It's not like he's a Cinderella story. He's got TOUR status and had nearly won this season out here."
Indeed, Conners had. But he finished No. 130 in the FedExCup standings in 2017-18 as a rookie, and was relegated to playing this season out of the No. 126-150 finishers (category 32a) on the prior season's FedExCup points list. It made it difficult to find any rhythm. Until this week, Conners's season could best be summed up as feast or famine. He finished second at the Sanderson Farms Championship in late October, a week after getting married to Malory, and T3 at the Sony Open in Hawaii in January. But he also had missed the cut in four of his last five starts.
With an attitude of nothing to lose, Conners capitalized on his opportunity, opening with 69-67. He chipped away at a 4-stroke deficit at the midway point of the tournament with a 66 on Saturday to trail overnight leader Si Woo Kim by one stroke entering the final round. He also impressed his fellow playing competitor Jordan Spieth.
"I thought his game was fantastic," Spieth said. "He came out firing."
He continued to do just that on Sunday. After a two-hour weather delay, Conners bolted out of the gate with birdies in four of his first five holes to claim a four-stroke lead. He looked unstoppable, but there was still a lot of golf to be played and by the time he walked off the ninth green with his fourth straight bogey, he trailed Hoffman (15 under) by one. Conners made only one par -- at No. 2 -- on the front nine.
"I'm usually pretty good at making pars," he said.
But there is a long distance from the ninth green to the 10th tee. It's so far, in fact, that players are required to take a cart. Sitting next to his wife, he used the time to hit the reset button.
"I just tried to think back to the last few days," he said, "all the great shots that I've hit and just say, 'Hey, you can do it, just stay aggressive and trust yourself.' "
Afterwards, his wife reminded him that she'd given him a pep talk too. "Stay confident," she said.
Conners reeled off three birdies to start the back nine, including a 34-foot birdie putt at No. 12.
"At that point, I thought, 'We're going to do this, just keep your foot on the pedal,' " he said.
Up ahead, others were charging too. Kevin Streelman got hot and made birdie at four of the final five holes to shoot 8-under 64 and post 14 under. His sixth-place finish is his best result this season. But he was soon eclipsed by Ryan Moore, who started birdie-eagle and matched Streelman's 64 for the low round of the day and the tournament. Moore signed for 17 under and finished alone in third. Kim was unflappable for three days but came unglued after his 9-iron splashed in the water at the par-3, third hole and he lost the lead. He carded an even-par 72 and finished T-4 with Brian Stuard at 15-under 273.
Conners tacked on birdies on Nos. 14, 16 and 17 to shoot a tournament-record 20-under 268, but noted that the 10-foot par save at No. 15 was critical. TV cameras caught the look of relief on the face of his wife, which soon went viral on social media.
"I know her emotions are pretty crazy," Conners said. "She was cheering hard for me. It was awesome to see."
Fortunately for her, Malory Conners had James and Kristen Steele of Boise, Idaho, to keep her company. The Steele's originally were the host family for Hughes when he played in the Albertsons Boise Open on the Web.com Tour. When Hughes graduated to the PGA TOUR, Conners took his place. The Steeles flew in for the weekend to watch their two favorite Canadians play. It was only fitting that Hughes, who first met a 12-year-old Conners at the CN Future Links before becoming teammates at Kent State, was waiting at the 18th green with a beer for his friend. Fellow Canadian Nick Taylor and his wife and honorary Canadians Joel Dahmen and Adam Schenk joined in the celebration. Conners finished with a par, just his fourth of the day -- "That's got to be the fewest pars I've ever made," he said -- as he toured the second nine in 30.
"I thought shooting 3-under par on the back nine with a one-shot lead might be good enough, but I got beat today and it just happens," Hoffman said. "My hat's off to him. He played his butt off."
As soon as Conners pumped his fist in jubilation as the final putt fell, Hughes gave Malory the cue and she dashed on the green and leapt in her victorious husband's arms.
"I think the first thing she said is, 'Is this real?' I said, 'Yeah, it's real. We did it,' " Conners said.
Conners became the fifth international winner on the PGA Tour in as many weeks and the first Monday Qualifier to win since Arjun Atwal at the 2010 Wyndham Championship. As PGA TOUR Commissioner Jay Monahan said at the trophy ceremony, "This is a life-changing moment for you and it was really great to witness it in person."
Instead of heading home, Conners is now headed to Augusta, Ga., the last man to punch his ticket to the Masters, where he competed as an amateur in 2015 and missed the cut. He also has a TOUR card through the 2020-21 season, which means no more manic Mondays.
"Which is pretty awesome," Conners said. "I won't be feeling as much pressure on Mondays, I'm sure."