Conners takes hard, rewarding road to Hawaii

Sports

Corey Conners chips onto the ninth green during the Tournament of Champions pro-am golf event, Wednesday, Jan. 1, 2020, at Kapalua Plantation Course in Kapalua, Hawaii. (AP Photo/Matt York)

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HONOLULU (AP) — Corey Conners returned to Hawaii this year with one notable difference.

He knew he had a tee time.

That’s no small deal for Conners, a 28-year-old Canadian who didn’t have a full PGA Tour card a year ago and wasn’t sure where he could play, much less when. Now he is a PGA Tour winner, already set for the four majors and almost certainly headed to Tokyo this summer to compete in the Olympics.

“It’s a pretty sweet feeling to be in this spot,” he said.

Conners won the Valero Texas Open last year, which earned him a spot in the Masters the following week and gave him a two-year exemption on the PGA Tour. Considering the road he traveled, the latter was more valuable.

As much as he appreciated all the perks that come with winning, such as an extra week in paradise at the Sentry Tournament of Champions last week at Kapalua, the Sony Open allowed Conners to appreciate even more what he has.

Conners first reached the PGA Tour through the Web.com Tour Finals, but missed the FedEx Cup playoffs by five spots and didn’t make it back. That meant he had only conditional status and could only get in tournaments that had room for him. So he hit the road, literally, trying to Monday qualify.

Without a full card, it’s not a matter of choosing, even if that means flying across the Pacific without a guarantee. A year ago, he teed it up at Ewa Beach Golf Club to try to earn one of four spots in the qualifier.

“I would have been very close (as an alternate) on Wednesday,” he recalled. “When I teed it up, I was fourth or fifth alternate. I was just trying to take care of business. I made a long putt on 18 and then got through in a playoff.”

And then he had a 64-64 weekend at the Sony Open and tied for third, and Conners was on his way.

It’s one thing to take a short flight from his golf base in Florida to Cancun, Mexico, for a Monday qualifier at the Mayakoba Classic, which he did in the fall of 2018. It’s easy to drive over to the qualifier at the Honda Classic. But going to Hawaii without knowing how long the trip will last takes commitment and desire, and Conners had plenty of both.

“It’s nice to travel all the way out here and be in the field,” Conners said. “It was an interesting spot to be in last year. I battled my way into events. Ultimately getting the win was huge for the next few years, just the freedom of a schedule.”

Conners was runner-up in the Sanderson Farms Championship in Mississippi in the fall of 2018, when it was still an opposite-field event and offered reduced FedEx Cup points and money. With the tie for third at the Sony Open, he was assured of having a full card for the following season. But he still couldn’t get into tournaments unless he were to win.

Those were strange times, especially the Florida swing.

The Arnold Palmer Invitational at Bay Hill, with a 120-man field, uses the FedEx Cup standings to fill the field. So does The Players Championship. Conners, with his good results in Mississippi and Honolulu, was around the top 50 in the FedEx Cup.

“I didn’t play the Honda — I tried to Monday — but I got in Bay Hill, and I got in The Players, and then I didn’t get in the Valspar Championship,” he said. “It was kind of funny.”

The Valspar Championship was nearly his big break a year earlier, in the spring of 2018. He was at a Monday qualifier — where else? — and shot 71, leaving him little chance of getting through. When he packed up his car, the tournament called to tell him he was in the field as an alternate.

Conners led after 18, 36 and 54 holes — by one shot over Tiger Woods going into the final round — until he closed with a 77 and tied for 16th.

A year later, he won the Texas Open, and those days of Monday qualifying are behind him.

“It feels good now,” Conners said. “At the time, it was stressful. I didn’t know what events I would be in, and I was traveling to Monday qualifiers. It was not that fun.”

But he can smile at the memory.

Even in the wind and rain, it’s good to be in Hawaii without an extra day of stress.

___

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