Conners parlays course record into U.S. Open berth

Corey Conners has been trending in the wrong direction as a rookie on Tour, finishing out of the top 50 with three missed cuts in his last five events.

But an early exit last weekend at Raleigh, N.C., allowed him to play a practice round before the U.S. Open qualifier Monday at Springfield Country Club, and the undulating greens on that 119-year-old layout are definitely something you want see before competition.

“When I saw the course, I was kind of thinking it was a blessing to have missed the cut almost,” he said. “Some knowledge really helps out there, knowing where to put it on the greens and some of the slopes that you can funnel the ball off of.”

Conners shot a 9-under-par 61 to break the course record and followed that with a 67 for a 128 total to earn medalist honors and claim one of the four qualifying spots up for grabs for the June 15-18 U.S. Open at Erin Hills in Hartford, Wis.

His 61 included a hole-out for eagle on the par-4 14th. The previous record of 63 was held by Steve Zappe, the club pro from 1924-65, and Peter Tomasulo, who did it at the 2008 qualifier. SCC is normally a par-72, but two par-5s (2 and 12) played as par-4s.

“I always said if I got a chance to play the U.S Open, I really like my game for that,” said the 25-year-old Canadian and 2014 U.S. Amateur runner-up. “I drive the ball really straight and hit my irons really solid.”

He certainly did that while carding nothing worse than par through his first 24 holes. After bogeys at 7 and 10 in his afternoon round, he ripped off birdies at 11, 15 and 17.

“Everyone says they could have gone lower, but I definitely could have made a few more,” he said. “I had a lot of good chances.”

While many in the field of 77 were flummoxed by the dastardly greens, the former Kent State golfer and 2012 Mid-American Conference champion was mostly able to keep the ball below the hole and had a strategy for when he didn’t.

“I putted a lot off the toe of the putter and kind of deadened the hit,” he said. “I had 4- to 6-footers that if you just breathed on the ball, it would have gotten to the hole.”

PGA Tour winner Brian Stuard (66-65), player Brice Garnett (66-66) and PGA Tour rookie Ryan Brehm (70-63) also qualified.

Stuard is coming off a tie for 52nd at the Memorial Tournament, and the treacherous greens at Muirfield Village were ideal preparation.

“These aren’t quite as fast, but they have just as much slope — maybe even a little more,” he said. “I think getting used to putting all week on fast, slopey greens made it a little easier transition.”

Garnett played in the U.S. Open at Merion in 2013 and Pinehurst in 2014, missing the cut each time.

“It’s kind of a zoo at the U.S. Open. The golf courses are extremely hard. You’ve got to go with the flow and find the fairways,” he said.

He hasn’t played Erin Hills but expects the usual challenge.

“I’ve seen video of guys taking a couple steps off the fairway and being in two feet of grass,” he said. “It’s a great tournament to be in, and, hopefully, I’ll have a good finish.”

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