Conners outlasts Olsen to advance at U.S. Am

Corey Conners defeated Zachary Olsen, 2 and 1, in the U.S. Amateur quarterfinals on Friday at the Atlanta Athletic Club.
Corey Conners defeated Zachary Olsen, 2 and 1, in the U.S. Amateur quarterfinals on Friday at the Atlanta Athletic Club. ( Tracy Wilcox )

Friday, August 15, 2014

JOHNS CREEK, Ga. – A year ago, Canadian National team coach Derek Ingram gathered his crew to watch the final round of the 2003 Masters.

“I wanted our guys to know we can do that, too,” he said.

No need to remind Ontario native Corey Conners of Mike Weir’s 6-foot putt on the 72nd hole to get into a playoff. It is a moment burned into his memory, even if he couldn’t bear to watch it.

“I was so excited, I ran out of the room,” Conners, now 22, said. “I was sitting on the steps and I heard my dad clapping and cheering, and I ran back in and saw the replay.”

Conners is one victory away at the U.S. Amateur from earning an invitation to the Masters after knocking off Zachary Olsen of Cordova, Tenn., 2 and 1, in a quarterfinal match at Atlanta Athletic Club’s Highlands Course.

After winning the Jones Cup in February and receiving a sponsor exemption to the RBC Canadian Open in July, Conners is playing with a new sense of confidence and self-belief, Ingram said. At the Canadian Open, Conners happened to hit balls next to Matt Kuchar on the practice range and ended up holding his iPad and relaying numbers when Kuchar asked if he could use his Trackman.

What did he learn from the experience? “I’m not too far off,” Conners said. “Still a few things to work on.”

On a warm and sunny afternoon, Conners and Olsen played a tightly contested match. Conners pulled ahead for good at the 10th hole when Olsen failed to get up and down and made bogey. He struggled to adjust to greens he deemed softer in the quarterfinals than during the previous days of competition.

Conners stretched the lead to 2 up when he coaxed in a 40-foot left-to-right birdie putt on 11. Conners has been using the AimPoint Express Read putting technique since the spring, and on this putt he read 6-8 feet of break or, as he put it in Express Read terms, “Hashtag Handful.”

“That was a big putt for me,” Conners said.

So was stiffing a wedge at 12 to make birdie and halving the hole after Olsen reached the par 5 in two shots. His Canadian teammates went wild.

“I love the Woohs,” Conners told them after the match.

Olsen wasn’t done yet. He won the 13th hole with a par putt, and drained a clutch 8-footer at 15 for a sand save. The pressure shifted to Conners, who poured his par putt into the heart of the hole to maintain his lead.

The match turned for good at the uphill, par-4 16th. From 206 yards, Conners drilled a 6-iron inside 10 feet and the crowd applauded. From just a few yards closer, Olsen chose 5-iron and his shot drew for the flag.

“I hit it just like I wanted to,” he said. “I expected to be within 10 feet.”

So did the fans surrounding him. But the silence from the gallery ringing the green suggested something different. Indeed, his ball landed past the hole and chased into the rough. Facing the sort of delicate chip where he couldn’t risk landing the ball on the green, Olsen opened the flange wide and played it like a bunker shot. Credit the execution but not the result as the ball stuck like Velcro in the fringe.

“If it goes an inch more, it rolls on the green and may have even gone in,” Olsen said.

When his par putt raced by the hole, Olsen ended up conceding the hole. Two up with two to go had all of Canada thinking of Gary Cowan, the last Canadian to win the U.S. Amateur, in 1971. Conners sealed the deal at 17 to return to the semifinals, where he will meet Denny McCarthy of Rockville, Md. A year ago, Conners ran into the buzz saw that was eventual champion Matthew Fitzpatrick, who spoiled dreams of the Masters by chipping in twice. (Traditionally, both finalists in the U.S. Amateur receive a Masters invitation.) Conners is the first to repeat in the semifinals since Patrick Cantlay in 2010 and 2011, when he made the finals.

“I feel like everything is clicking,” Conners said. “Why stop here? Just keep going.”

All the way to a Masters invite and perhaps the most prestigious title in amateur golf.

“That falls under the category of, things we can’t control,” said Ingram, his coach, “so we’re not going to spend our time or energy worrying on that until Sunday night.”