Golf

Having learned to win in Texas, Corey Conners aims to bring cool mindset home at Canadian Open

Since his first win in 2019, Canada's Corey Conners has established himself among the top players on the PGA Tour. On Sunday, he can become the first Canadian man to win the national open since 1954 as play begins Thursday at Toronto’s Oakdale Golf and Country Club.

31-year-old says win at national tournament would be 'dream come true'

A golfer wearing a Maple Leafs jersey watches a putt.
Corey Conners wore a Mitch Marner Maple Leafs jersey at the 'Rink Hole' at the 2022 Canadian Open. (Minas Panagiotakis/Getty Images)

It's a Sunday in San Antonio, and Corey Conners looks like he's been there before.

Playing in the final group at the 2019 Valero Texas Open, the Canadian's day is a whirlwind. He makes four birdies in his first five holes to open a sizeable lead, but he immediately gives it back with four straight bogeys to close the front nine.

This is where Conners is supposed to wobble. The Listowel, Ont., native probably shouldn't have been in the field to begin with — he'd missed the cut in eight of 12 events that season, and he only made the field after emerging from a six-person playoff at a Monday qualifier.

And really, it was a stroke of luck for Conners to play on Monday at all. One of those missed cuts came at a relatively low-level tournament in the Dominican the previous Friday — had he played through to Sunday, it would have been tough to get to Texas by Monday.

In the playoff hole, an awkward par 4 with a dogleg left and water all the way through, most players hit a safe four-iron, ensuring a clean but long shot into the green. Instead, Conners, after a consult with then-caddie Kyle Peters, got aggressive and pulled a three-wood. The decision led to a birdie and moved Conners into the main event.

Conners carried that momentum with rounds of 69, 67 and 66 to land in Sunday's final threesome alongside Tour veterans Si Woo Kim and Charley Hoffman. Kim, the 54-hole leader, stalled out early. Hoffman played steady, bogey-free golf.

A woman jumps into a man's arms.
Malory Conners leaps into Corey's arms after he won the 2019 Valero Texas Open. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

And Conners, despite that up-and-down start, stayed in the fight. On the back nine, he made six birdies, and with each putt, Conners' demeanour hardly changed. Meanwhile, there was wife Malory next to every green, celebrating wildly each time her husband's ball rattled the cup.

Conners went on to win his first PGA Tour tournament by two strokes, becoming the first player since 2010 to win after Monday qualifying, and just the fourth ever. No one has done it since.

One day later, Conners was in Augusta, Ga., for his first Masters as a professional.

"It was a blur," Peters said of the wild two week-stretch that ended with Conners placing 46th at the major. "It went so fast."

WATCH | Conners wins 2019 Valero Texas Open:

Golf Wrap: Conners wins Valero Texas Open, earns invite to Masters

5 years ago
Duration 2:38
Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., won the Valero Texas Open on Sunday, less than a week after qualifying, earning the final available slot in the Masters.

Since that first win, Conners, now 31, has established himself among the top players on the PGA Tour, including a second win in Texas this year. He's also collected three top-10 finishes at the Masters, he's qualified for two Tour Championships, and he's now ranked 29th worldwide, tops among Canadians. 

On Sunday, Conners can become the first Canadian man to win the national open since 1954 when the RBC Canadian Open begins Thursday at Toronto's Oakdale Golf and Country Club.

"It would really be a dream come true," Conners said Wednesday. "It's certainly not easy to do. But I'm excited to be teeing it up and feeling good about my game. It would certainly mean a lot to me personally. But I think playing for golf fans all across Canada, I know that it would be pretty sweet for them as well."

Coach Derek Ingram, who doubles as Canada's national men's team coach, joined forces with Conners about a decade ago when Conners was still an amateur.

He's been there through the highs and lows, including that win in San Antonio.

"Then, I think he was still dipping his toe into seeing how good he could be as a PGA Tour player. And then he realized, 'Oh wow, I can win. I'm good enough to win,'" Ingram said. "Now, he's built a game step by step over the last three or four years where he can compete in the biggest events."

Major improvements

In 2021, Conners led after the first round of the PGA Championship, but he gave it back the next day and finished tied for 17th overall.

Then, at last month's PGA Championship, Conners found himself tied for the lead through two rounds. He played in Saturday's final pairing alongside world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler. As Scheffler stumbled early, Conners made two birdies and 13 pars through 15 holes.

That's when disaster struck: a shot from a fairway bunker on 16 plugged directly into the lip in front of him (a shot you rarely see on the PGA Tour, except Norway's Viktor Hovland did the exact same thing a day later.)

It led to a double bogey, who ceded the lead to eventual winner Brooks Koepka. A closing 75 on Sunday saw Conners wind up tied for 12th — a finish unrepresentative of his week in contention.

"There was a few decisions that I would have liked over. They kind of festered through the round. I wasn't really able to reset and get refocused," Conners said. "So if I could do it over again, there was a couple moments out there where I would have took a few more deep breaths and sort of reset my mind and focused on the game plan and just settled down a little bit more."

To Ingram, the disaster on Saturday had little to do with Sunday. He noted Conners' level-headedness and the consistency in his approach.

"Corey is a bit of a hockey player. He played the game, loves the game, and he takes some of that to his golf," Ingram said.

A golfer holds up his ball and smiles.
Conners celebrates a hole-in-one at the 2021 Masters. (Charlie Riedel/The Associated Press)

Conners joked that he has a "boring personality" that he tries to bring with him onto the course.

"Keep putting one foot in front of the other and and I feel like that's the way I've always been in everything that I do. It works out in golf for the most part," he said. "And I'd certainly say there's situations out there where I'm uncomfortable but [I try] to remember good things that have happened over times."

In 1999, Mike Weir shared the 54-hole lead with Tiger Woods at the PGA Championship. He flamed out with an 80 on Sunday, but famously won the Masters four years later. Now, Conners looks like the best bet to become the second Canadian man to win a major.

Peters said Conners' most recent PGA Championship was a step in the right direction.

"He never gets too excited, never gets down on himself, which is one of the best attributes I think you can have on the PGA Tour," Peters said. "He's got a good head on his shoulders."

Graham DeLaet, a former Canadian PGA Tour pro who now works as an analyst, briefly crossed paths with Conners toward the end of his playing career.

He said Conners exudes a "quiet confidence."

"To play at the highest level in golf … you have to have a little bit of an arrogance about you, whether you show it or not," DeLaet said. "He knows what he's capable of."

'I don't miss greens'

Peters recalls Herb Page, Conners' coach at Kent State University, advising his student to work more on his chipping.

"And Corey is like, 'No, I don't miss greens.'"

He wasn't completely wrong. Ask those in golf what makes Conners so prolific, and you'll inevitably hear about his ball-striking — how smooth and how consistent his iron play is. Only 10 players have hit a higher percentage of greens in regulation this season, which means Conners leaves himself plenty of birdie putts.

Ingram compared Conners' swing to major champions Ernie Els and Fred Couples.

"He's just got incredible tempo and rhythm to his game and ability to move. He also hits the ball in the middle of the club face basically every single time," Ingram said.

He said people "gush" over Conners' swing. Count DeLaet among them.

"His iron play is phenomenal. He plays his ball striking just with so much confidence. Like, I mean, his swing is awesome. The timing is perfect, the way he delivers the club to the ball. And then it's really like if he putts well, he's in the mix," DeLaet said.

A man, woman and baby celebrate together on a golf course.
From left to right, Malory, Corey and Reis Conners celebrate his victory at this year's Valero Texas Open. (Alex Bierens de Haan/Getty Images)

Conners' ball-striking has long been a strength. Ingram said the biggest differences in his game from a decade ago are everything else: he's "longer and stronger," his wedge and bunker play have improved, and he's cut down on three-putts.

Ingram credits Conners' work ethic, saying he trains "like an Olympic athlete." Indeed, Conners competed at Tokyo 2020, placing 13th.

"There's no rocks unturned. Every part of his game, including diet, nutrition, sleep, fitness and every area of his golf game, mental part of his game, everything," Ingram said. "And yet he still has a great life and has fun and loves other things."

Ingram noted that Conners has taken a liking to cooking. Peters said he started playing hockey because of Conners, who once won a provincial high school championship.

"We're playing with all the Canadians and that's all you hear about during the practice rounds. And I think they kind of sparked that fire in me a little bit," Peters said.

Daughter provides perspective

The biggest change in Conners' life came in November 2021, when Malory gave birth to daughter Reis.

"Life on Tour changes when you have a baby. You've got a few more responsibilities away from the golf course, from maybe not getting enough sleep and stuff like that. And it seems to me like he's handled that really well," Peters said.

Despite the obvious possible disturbances to routine, there's a joke among pro golfers that having a kid provides the "perspective" that's often lost in the frustrating game of golf. Though there aren't stats to back it, that realization is said to lead to success.

Fast-forward to April 2023. Conners is back at the Valero Texas Open — and back in Sunday's final group.

Now, though, there isn't much drama. Conners is an established pro, albeit one riding a four-year win drought. The start to his season's been uneven, which these days means he's made the cut in 10 of 12 events, but only landed one top-10 finish.

Entering the day one stroke back of the lead, Conners makes three birdies on the front nine to move into top spot alone. And though his putter prevents even more birdies, he finishes the day with a bogey-free four-under 68 to win once again.

"I don't think there's one person in the world, including me and him, who thought it would be four years between wins," Ingram said.

WATCH | Conners takes trophy in Texas once again:

Canada's Corey Conners wins Texas Open for 2nd time

1 year ago
Duration 2:00
Corey Conners of Listowel, Ont., beats American Sam Stevens by one stroke to claim the Valero Texas Open for his second career PGA Tour victory. The Canadian also won the same event in 2019.

As Malory and Reis walk out onto the 18th green to celebrate, you can see the emotion start bubbling on Conners' face.

"Having [Reis] there, seeing me win, although she won't remember it, I'll remember her running out to the green after the rest of my life, and that was certainly an aspect of it that was really special," Conners said.

On Sunday in Toronto, Conners is hoping to recreate that scene again. Peters said he prepares for the Canadian Open as though it's the fifth major. DeLaet, a veteran of the tournament, said the week has a "different feel."

And while winning that elusive first major might still be Conners' top goal, Ingram said the Canadian Open is a close second.

"That would be a dream come true for him for sure. I think he might cry."

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