Tour Championship long shot Corey Conners has plenty to gain at East Lake

Butch Dill/USA TODAY Sports

Tour Championship long shot Corey Conners has plenty to gain at East Lake

PGA Tour

Tour Championship long shot Corey Conners has plenty to gain at East Lake

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ATLANTA – Corey Conners began Round 1 of the Tour Championship nine shots off the lead.

At least this time he was forewarned.

Back in 2016, while Conners was grinding away on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica, he shot an opening-round 63 to take the lead at the 69 Avianca Colombia Open.

Then Ken Looper went out and shot a 12-under 60 early Friday, moving to 17 under overall, and Conners was stunned to find himself eight shots back before hitting a shot on Friday.

He also had a clear view of Looper on the 18th green as he prepared to hit his opening tee shot.

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“I see the number posted and I’m like, ‘what the heck?’” Conners said. “Welcome to professional golf I guess.”

Conners hung in there to finish solo third for the week and earned $11,900 in the process.

The stakes are a little higher at this week’s Tour Championship in Atlanta, where a solo third is good for $4 million.

Conners shot 2-under 68 Thursday at East Lake and moved to 3 under overall having started the tournament 1 under. That moved him to T-15 and closer to the lead, which stayed at 10 under but is now held by Xander Schauffele, Brooks Koepka and Justin Thomas.

The 27-year-old Canadian is maybe the unlikeliest contender in the field after cracking the top 30 in the FedEx Cup standings during his second season on Tour. He already checked a Masters appearance off the list thanks to his win at the Valero Texas Open, making the cut at Augusta National for a T-46 finish.

It is a massive leap for Conners after missing out on the entire playoffs in 2018, one which could set him up for years to come.

“Our goals (used to be) just making cuts and hoping to play well on the weekend,” caddie Kyle Peters said. “Now our goals are a little bit higher than that. Our goals have changed now that we’re here.”

Being here means a chance at the $15 million first-place check, more than three times as much as Conners’ career earnings to date.

“I’m not thinking about that so much, but I know if I play really good golf then, yeah, there’s gonna be a nice prize at the end.”

Conners had a solid crew following his opening round Thursday in Atlanta, undeterred by sweltering early-afternoon temperatures. Wife Mallory, who gained viral fame for her anxious reactions during the final round of the Valero, walked every hole per usual alongside Conners’ parents.

They saw a smooth round with two birdies and one bogey and no major harm done, leaving the door open for Conners to move further up the board with a low one on Friday. Peters said they were just a tad more aggressive than usual Thursday due to the scoring format. Things like taking driver over 3-wood on a hole or two, going after a tucked pin they might normally avoid.

Whatever he finishes this week, it’s a triumph for Conners to be here regardless and comes with plenty of its own perks, like a return trip to Augusta National, spots in the World Golf Championship events, etc.

“It’s a huge deal to be able to look back on the last few days and appreciate a good season and good play,” Conners said. “It feels great. I’ve been working really hard on my game and learning a lot the past few years. Getting here is a really big deal and exciting to me. (But) I don’t want to just sit back this week. I want to get after it.”

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Said Peters: “I think our main goal at the beginning of the season was to finish inside the top 125,” Peters said. “Making it here is a huge accomplishment. Really happy to be here and a nice start today too.”

Considering where he started the season, he’s almost playing with house money in Atlanta. But the potential payoff for one of the biggest long shots in the field is astronomical.

“I’m really excited to be here,” Conners said. “It sucks to not be closer to the lead, but some good golf can take care of that.”

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