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  • Corey Conners had to win a six-man playoff to make the Valero Texas Open last week. Then he won the tournament—and a spot in the Masters. If that wasn't enough, now he's contending.
By Joan Niesen
April 11, 2019

AUGUSTA, Ga.— Once an actuary math major at Kent State, Corey Conners might be the foremost expert at Augusta on the long odds he faced to qualify for this year’s Masters—much less to lead the field at –2 at the time he signed his scorecard.

Ten days ago, the 27-year-old Canadian teed off in San Antonio, in a six-man playoff at a Monday qualifier for the Valero Texas Open. Right there—without accounting for any of the hundreds of other variables that Conners himself would have probably used to predict the winner of that qualifier—that’s a 16.7% chance of making the tournament field, an 83.3% chance of going home. But he won. He stayed. He was one of 144 players who played last Thursday, and had anyone wanted to bet on him in Vegas, it would have been impossible. The name "Corey Conners" did not appear among the tournament odds at the start of its first round.

But Conners, against all (or maybe "no") odds, won, his first victory on the PGA Tour, a walking middle finger to math. He became the first Monday qualifier to win a Tour event since 2010, and he was off to Augusta, where he’d failed to make the cut in 2015 as the U.S. Amateur runner-up. “I did not think it was likely at all [that I’d be here],” Conners assessed Thursday after shooting an opening-round 70. “It was very unlikely that I was going to be here, I’ll say that—especially having to Monday qualify last week.” He paused. “I could have said I was almost certain that I wouldn’t be here.”

But Conners wasn’t just here. Buzzing with adrenaline, he played the fickle course like a veteran after just a few practice rounds earlier in the week. And the odds he’d do that, the odds he’d be standing in an assembled media scrum of writers who might not have recognized him before last week—well, we’d defer to Conners himself for the calculations, but he’s busy, and that’s a lot of long division, fractions of a percent.

On Thursday, Conners was in the first group to tee off on a cool morning, a station befitting his station as the tournament’s last man in. It was an early morning, and once again, Conners was an outlier, posting one of just six under-par rounds that anyone in the first group has finished since 2004. But the timing had its benefits: Conners' tee time followed ceremonial tee shots from Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. The young golfer watched the two legends swing from a path at the back of the tee, and when Nicklaus’s ball sailed, he turned and began to walk that direction. “He just congratulated me on the win,” Conners said of Nicklaus. “It felt pretty special. I never thought in a million years that Jack Nicklaus would know who I am. It felt pretty cool to watch him and Mr. Player tee off.”

From there, Conners was unremarkable until he wasn’t: a bogey on No. 3, a birdie on No. 6, a bogey on the next hole. He made the turn at +1, which held until the 13th hole, a 510-yard par-5. Conners put himself on the green in two, and then a 72-foot putt put him within three feet of the pin. He saved birdie there, and went to –1 with a birdie on No. 14. The 15th hole, then, was his probability-buster: a par-5 where his second shot landed eight feet from the pin. His eagle putt was dead-on, and had he not bogeyed No. 18, Conners might have carried a share of the lead deep into the afternoon.

“I felt quite comfortable,” he said. “I knew I was striking the ball really well. I was a little cautious on the greens. I know how tricky they are, and how they can make you look silly. I tried to be fairly cautious with a lot of my putts, and I think my comfort on the greens will grow.”

As the adrenaline wears off, Conners can take comfort in what Thursday proved: that he deserved his chance. It’s been a weird road to get here; Valero provided him and his family a plane to Augusta, and much of the early part of the week was spent securing a house for the week and picking up spare clothes for all the Masters-related events. Conners might be excused if he doesn’t know what time it is, or what day—but he and his wife aren’t strangers to the lifestyle. They spent the weekend after their wedding last fall at the Sanderson Farms Championship in Jackson, Mississippi, a honeymoon of sorts during which Conners placed second and brought in $475,200. It was the best finish of his career before last week; previously, he’d tied for eighth at the Fort Worth Invitational in May 2018. Tben in January, Conners tied for third at the Sony Open in Hawaii, finishing five strokes off the lead and just a stroke behind the runner-up, Andrew Putnam. Which begs the question—a question Conners pondered last week—of how he ended up in a Monday qualifier at all, considering he entered the Valero Open among the top 80 in the FedEx Cup rankings.

The answer: Conners was playing on conditional status until this week. No longer. Now, the only status he’s concerned about should be where his name will wind up on the leaderboard Friday. And there are odds for that: In Vegas, Conners is now 150/1 to win it all. It might not be a good bet, but at least it exists.

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HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)