Corey Conners tied for 1st-round lead at RBC Canadian Open, offering glimpse of bright golf future
Listowel, Ont., native shoots 5-under 67, defending champ McIlroy at 1-under
It wasn't even 8 a.m. before Corey Conners sent a jolt through the crowd at the RBC Canadian Open.
The Listowel, Ont., native's first approach shot of the day (he began on the 10th hole) landed on the fringe to the right of the flag. Slowly, the ball trickled toward the hole, and for a moment it was like each member of the crowd had just taken a shot of espresso in unison.
The ball stopped a couple of feet short. If you'd hit that shot, your putter would have stayed in your bag. Conners, the 31-year-old two-time PGA Tour winner, calmly walked up to the elevated green and tapped the ball in.
It was the first of five birdies for Conners on Thursday at Toronto's Oakdale Golf and Country Club, where he shot a 5-under 67 to put himself in the mix to become the first Canadian to win the men's national open since Pat Fletcher in 1954.
England's Aaron Rai and Americans Chesson Hadley and Justin Lower also shot 5-under, while reigning U.S. Open champion Matt Fitzpatrick sat at 4-under. Two-time defending Canadian Open champion Rory McIlroy finished at 1-under.
It's the first PGA Tour tournament since Tuesday's surprise announcement that the organization is merging with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, which backs breakaway rival circuit LIV Golf.
McIlroy was often at the centre of the drama between the leagues. He said after his round alongside England's Justin Rose that it was refreshing to just play golf.
"We started to get in a conversation walking down the first and we're like, 'No, let's stop this. Let's just focus on our golf and we'll say what we want to say when we get inside.' So it was nice to play a round of golf and focus on something else for those five hours we were out there," he said.
Meanwhile, Fitzpatrick is aiming to repeat history from last year, when he parlayed a top-10 finish in Canada to his first major victory the following weekend. The U.S. Open begins in one week in Los Angeles.
"Obviously there's positive vibes coming into this week, going into next week, so I'm just looking to play well and take confidence going into next week," he said.
Conners, at No. 29, is the top-ranked Canadian player in the world. He's one of 10 Canadians on the PGA and LPGA Tours, and one of 21 in the field this week.
Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont., Calgary's Roger Sloan and Taylor Pendrith of Richmond Hill, Ont., all sat at 3-under through the first round. Ben Silverman (Thornhill, Ont.) and Adam Hadwin (Abbotsford, B.C.) fired 1-under rounds, while Mike Weir (Bright's Grove, Ont.) and Aaron Cockerill (Stony Mountain, Man.) shot even-par 72.
Conners is the first Canadian to lead at home after 18 hole since Weir in 2008, and the first to lead after any round since David Hearn held the 54-hole advantage in 2015.
"I feel like Canada and golf in Canada is just continuing to increase its momentum and something like that with the Canadians seriously in contention with a chance to win very, very late on Sunday would be massive," Hughes said. "So, we got a few guys up there kind of close so hopefully one of us can keep if going all the way to Sunday."
Winning would be 'dream come true'
Conners wasn't made available to media following his round due to personal reasons. Speaking Wednesday, he said it would be a "dream come true" to win at home.
"It's an event that's circled on the calendar from the beginning of the year where I want to be playing my best and be feeling my best this week.… You try and build your schedule to make sure that you're playing, but not playing too much leading up to them," he said.
"It's a big deal this event. It always will be."
Hughes said he hopes to inspire future generations of golfers by playing at home.
By 2032, Golf Canada's goal is to have 30 players on the PGA and LPGA Tours. Currently, there are 10.
By the organization's own admission, it's a lofty goal. But it's also one that seems achievable — especially when examining the depth of Canadians across the golf world.
Conners, Hughes and Adam Svensson have won on the PGA Tour this season. Brooke Henderson was victorious at the LPGA's season-opening Tournament of Champions.
On Sunday, there were Canadian champions on the PGA Tour LatinoAmerica, the women's Epson Tour and the senior PGA Champions Tour.
But national men's team coach Derek Ingram told CBC Sports there's still work to do.
"We don't want to rest on our laurels. All I'm looking at is how can we get more players out there, get more wins and do an even better job," he said.
Outside of Henderson, the 25-year-old who is already the winningest Canadian golfer ever with 13 wins, and fellow LPGA player Maddie Szeryk, 26, Canada's Tour pros range in age from 29 to 35 — old enough that most would remember Mike Weir winning the 2003 Masters, but young enough to believe that could be them one day.
Weir said Tuesday it would be "fantastic" for a Canadian to end the 69-year drought at the men's national open.
"Nothing would make me happier and put a smile on my face and go shake whoever's hand that is and congratulate 'em. Because it's due," he said. "We have such a great crop of guys now that could get it done. Where, maybe in my day, there was a couple of us. Now there's multiple guys that could win this championship. So it would be a thrill."
While golfers tend to peak later than other athletes, there doesn't appear to be that rising young star waiting in the wings.
Ingram said Canadian golfers often develop later due to long winters and upbringings in multiple sports. Conners, for example, won a provincial high school hockey championship. Ingram credited his superior ball-striking to hockey.
"We're proud of it. We played other sports and those other sports were bringing athleticism to golf and it's helping our players become better, but just a little bit later," said Ingram, who doubles as Conners' personal coach.
The Canadian Open is also a yearly opportunity for Golf Canada to give some of its up-and-comers a chance to tee it up next to the likes of McIlroy and Fitzpatrick.
Canada's Graham DeLaet, a former PGA Tour pro who now works as an analyst, also said his first opportunities to play the national open were "pinch-me moments."
"If you ever want to do this for a living legitimately on the PGA Tour, this is the stage and you have to get used to feeling that pressure," said DeLaet, who spoke to CBC Sports on behalf of Think Turkey's charitable "Make Birdies Count Challenge" at the tournament.
"It's huge for the development of young players whether they're amateurs or pros. They just mix it up and see what it is that the best players in the world do week in and week out."
A Canadian being among those top players would provide a shining example.