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Conners Makes Advance Scouting Pay Off
June 05, 2017 Springfield, Ohio By Bob Baptist
Corey Conners carded seven birdies and an eagle en route to a 9-under 61 on Monday. (USGA/Matt Sullivan)

If ever there was a good time to miss another cut – even if it was for the third time in his last five tournaments – last week was the time for Corey Conners.

His early exit from the Web.com Tour event in Raleigh, N.C., on Friday gave the 25-year-old Canadian and his caddie a day to drive to Ohio for a U.S. Open sectional qualifier and another day to map their strategy at the qualifying site, Springfield Country Club, a 119-year-old Donald Ross design.

"When I saw the course, I said it was kind of a blessing to miss the cut almost because some knowledge really helps out there, knowing where to put it on the greens and some of the slopes you can funnel your ball off of," Conners said. "So that was definitely a big help playing that practice round."

Conners played the course like no one before him had on Monday, breaking the course record by two strokes with a 9-under-par 61 in his first trip around it. He added a 67 in the afternoon to finish as the qualifying medalist at 12-under 128 and earn one of four berths in the U.S. Open next week at Erin Hills.

The 61 bettered the previous record by longtime Springfield Country Club club pro Steve Zappe in the 1930s and tied by Peter Tomasulo in the 2008 U.S. Open sectional qualifier at the course. The 128 tied Tomasulo's 2008 record for the 36-hole qualifier at the course.

PGA Tour pro Stuard shot 66-65 for second place at 9-under 131. Two other pros, Brice Garnett (66-66–132) and Ryan Brehm (70-63–133), took the remaining spots.

Conners and Brehm played in the same grouping. Brehm, a PGA Tour rookie, shot 30 for his last nine holes, birdieing the last two, to avoid a playoff for the final qualifying spot.

"We made it look easy, I guess. But it wasn't," Conners said.

Rain interrupted the first round only 11 minutes after the first group teed off at 7 a.m. The delay lasted until 8:15 a.m., when the first round resumed in warm and breezy conditions under partly sunny skies.

Conners, a second-year pro who was runner-up in the 2014 U.S. Amateur, birdied his first hole out of the box, No. 10, holed out for eagle from 100 yards at the par-4 14th and was off and running.

He led by five strokes after 18 holes and played his first 24 holes without a bogey. Two bogeys in his next four holes shaved his lead to one, but he showed a finishing kick with three birdies on his last eight holes.

"I didn't really worry about it at all," Conners said. "I made a 15-footer for birdie at No. 11 and that kind of righted things a little bit and I just plugged along from there."

Conners, in his first season on the Web.com Tour, will not have seen Erin Hills until he shows up next week. He's heard about it, though.

"I think it's quite treacherous, to say the least," he said. "But I'm really excited."

"I've always said when I get a chance to play a U.S. Open, I really like my game for that. I drive the ball really straight and hit my irons really solid, and I know how far the ball goes with my irons. I'm excited for the possibilities."

Stuard, 34, has played twice in the U.S. Open, in 2013 and '14, and missed the cut each time. But he's not the same player he was then, having won his first PGA Tour title last year at New Orleans.

"I definitely feel like I'm a better player. Winning definitely gives you a little boost of confidence," he said. "It should be a situation that suits me. I'm pretty steady tee to green and usually have a good feel for the greens, so I'm looking forward to having another shot at it."

Garnett, 33, missed the cut in the 2012 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club but also thinks he's a better player now after playing the past three years on the PGA Tour.

"I wasn't ready for that level of golf. It was just new to me, how firm and fast golf courses can get," he said. "After three years on the PGA Tour, I feel my game is a little more accustomed to changing conditions like a U.S. Open (offers)."

"You just kind of have to go with the flow and hopefully you're finding fairways."

It will be the first major championship of any kind for Brehm, 31, a PGA Tour rookie who for a long time Monday was lost in the shadow cast by his playing partner, Conners. Brehm shot par 70 in his first round.

"I bogeyed (the final hole) of my first round and I was just kind of hanging around," he said. "After I saw the scores, I said, 'Hey, we'd better get this in gear.'"

He was only 2 under par with nine holes to play before coming home with birdies on Nos. 10, 12, 15, 17 and 18. The decisive one at the final hole came from 7 feet and broke about that much, Brehm said.

"After that putt went in, I said, 'Wow, we've got a chance,' he said. "You never know."

Bob Baptist is an Ohio-based freelance writer.