Denny McCarthy

Math whiz Corey Conners figures out Ocean Course, takes lead in PGA Championship


KIAWAH ISLAND, S.C. – Corey Conners had a backup plan if he didn’t make his hay in the world of golf.

a man standing on a baseball field: PGA Championship © Provided by Golfweek PGA Championship

The Canadian was likely going to be an actuary, having earned a Bachelor of Science in Actuarial Mathematics from Kent State University. This came after he switched majors after leaving the Biochemistry program because the chemistry labs were nearly five hours long and cut into his practice time on the golf course.

Yes, Conners has some skills between the ears.

Has some talent on the golf course, too. His decision-making and analysis worked just fine on Thursday as he figured out his way around the Pete Dye brute known as the Ocean Course at Kiawah in just 67 strokes to take the first round lead of the 103rd PGA Championship.

“I’d say it’s impossible to be stress-free around this golf course. You can’t fall asleep out there on any holes. It’s very challenging,” Conners said. “I was fortunate to have a good day. Made it as least stressful as possible on myself. I hit a lot of really good shots and holed some nice putts early in the round, and that really helped boost the confidence. Played with a lot of freedom.”

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At 5 under, Conners is two shots clear of the field, with a group of players at 69, including four-time major champion and two-time PGA winner Brooks Koepka, 2011 PGA champ Keegan Bradley and Viktor Hovland. Defending champion Collin Morikawa came home with a 70.

On the other end of the leaderboard were a few of the game’s best players, including Rory McIlroy, who won the Wells Fargo Championship in his last start. He and 2017 PGA winner and 2021 Players champion Justin Thomas each shot 75. Sergio Garcia turned in a 77, Adam Scott turned a 78.

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson shot 76.

The Ocean Course is just the latest big stage in golf that Conners has performed well on. He finished third in the Arnold Palmer Invitational, seventh in the Players Championship and tied for eighth in the Masters.

He’s been a regular on the first page of leaderboards for a few months now as he seeks his first major title and second PGA Tour victory. He’s been on a steady rise up the world rankings, climbing from No. 196 when he won the 2019 Valero Texas Open to No. 39 heading into this week.

“I have a lot of belief in myself, and I’ve been playing well for quite a while,” Conner said. “I’m excited for the opportunity to play against the best players in the world and put my game to the test. I have a lot of confidence in my game and I’m excited for the rest of the weekend.

“Didn’t try to force it to happen but definitely saw myself having a good day today and hopefully can keep that up the rest of the weekend.”

Heading into the week much of the chatter was about the course being a haven for ball-strikers, and Conners is one of the best in the game. But Conners learned another part of the game is just as crucial, if not more crucial.

“I think one of most important things is the short game around this place,” he said. “A lot of major championships you can’t ball-strike your way to good rounds. You need to have a good short game. You need to get the ball up-and-down and you need to roll in birdie putts. Good ball-striking definitely helps. The wind and difficulty of the golf course, hitting it solid is very important.

“But you’re going to get in spots where you need to get the ball up-and-down and hole a putt or two, and you need to be able to do that, as well.”

MORE:

Looking for her first LPGA win, Wei-Ling Hsu shoots bogey-free 66 to take Pure Silk Championship lead

Phil Mickelson lights up Kiawah’s back nine in 32, sits 3 back at PGA Championship

‘We’re not done yet’: Kent State, the lone mid-major at the women’s NCAA Championship, is confident and ready to go

How popular is PGA Championship contender Viktor Hovland back in Norway? ‘Even grandmothers stay up to watch him’

Pay attention — Brooks Koepka is circling at PGA Championship and loves ‘when it’s difficult’

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