ROCHESTER, N.Y. – Corey Conners’ long-time coach Derek Ingram helped his pupil go through his routine as best he could Saturday at the PGA Championship, but the circumstances were a little different. He was in the last group of the day. And he was the final guy off the driving range.
“This,” Ingram told Sportsnet.ca, “is what we work for.”
This, in this instance, was having a chance to win a major championship two decades after his childhood hero, Mike Weir, did the same.
And through 54 holes, Conners is in as good a spot as he could ask for.
He’s 5 under at Oak Hill Country Club and is just one shot back of the lead held by Brooks Koepka. He’ll be in the penultimate pairing for Sunday’s finale alongside Bryson DeChambeau, sitting tied for second alongside Viktor Hovland.
Conners, who is 90th on the PGA Tour in third-round scoring average, was solid and steady on Saturday – and that’s all that was needed. He shot an even-par 70, bucking the trend of his usual moving-day efforts this season.
The Canadian held the lead alone for some of the back nine before making his lone bad swing of the day on the par-4 16th. His drive ended up in a fairway bunker and he hit his approach shot thin, directly into the thick rough in front of the bunker. The ball was lost. He had to drop. And he couldn’t scramble enough to save par, ending up with a double-bogey six.
Conners saw everyone around him look up and he thought the ball had skipped out of the bunker, but it was not to be.
“The ball was below my feet and didn’t quite adjust for that. Wish I could have that one back,” Conners said.
Still, Conners’ righted the ship with two pars on Nos. 17 and 18 to save the day. He and caddie Danny Sahl had a laugh about what happened on No. 16 and life went on.
The rain poured through the balance of Saturday and there were plenty of tough mental hurdles to get over. Conners has held the lead at a major just once before, and the names around him – Koepka, Rose, Scheffler, and McIlroy, are all proven major winners.
Still, Conners said he was happy with both his scorecard effort and what happened between the ears on Saturday. Ingram, Conners’ coach, told his pupil that he had to “love it ugly.” Sometimes things don’t always go the way you need it to go in the heat of the battle, but to love it ugly – and love it pretty – are keys at majors.
“I managed my calmness and freedom out there pretty well despite the challenges through the weather. I’m happy with how I handled myself, and also pretty happy with the score,” Conners said.
Mackenzie Hughes was the last Canadian to be in such a position at a major, as he was in the final group at the U.S. Open in 2021 and tied for the lead. He faded Sunday, however, and finished tied for 15th.
Conners doesn’t seem fazed by anything through 54 holes. His usual exceptional ball-striking has been firmly a strength to this point, as he sits fifth in Strokes Gained: Approach the Green through 54 holes. He’s also 15th in Strokes Gained: Off the Tee.
The surprise of the week is how well Conners has been rolling the rock with his putter. Again, for a guy who is 134th on the season in Strokes Gained: Putting, the fact that he’s remained inside the top 10 in that statistic through three rounds has buoyed his confidence. A ton of hard work to this point on the greens is paying off in spades.
“I played solid the last few days, so just trying to do more of the same and have some fun out there and play with freedom,” Conners said.
Twenty years has gone by since Weir’s Green Jacket victory, and while Brooke Henderson is re-writing the record books on the women’s side,
Conners knows this is top-tier opportunity to join his childhood idol in Canadian golfing lore.
When he was 11 Weir won the Masters. Conners was so nervous when Weir had his par-saving putt to force a playoff that he had to leave the living room. His dad’s cheer was what made him realize Weir made it, and he returned to watch his fellow Canadian don the Green Jacket. He was just getting into competitive golf at the time and that victory, Conners said, inspired him to want to make it as a pro.
Two decades on, Conners is just one shot back of the lead going into the final round of a major. His tee-to-green game continues to be elite. He’s putting the best he’s done all season. And, mentally, he’s ready to go. If you gave him this Saturday-night position on Wednesday before the tournament began, would he have taken it?
“Yeah,” Conners said with a big smile, “sounds pretty sweet to me.”
The other Canadians to make the cut struggled on Saturday. Adam Svensson and Adam Hadwin shot a 3-over 73s, while Taylor Pendrith shot a 4-over 74. Svensson and Pendrith are tied for 20th while Hadwin is tied for 42nd.