Person of Interest: Canadian Austin Connelly set to make Open debut

In this edition of Canada 150, we spotlight Canadian golf pioneer George Knudson.

There are two Canadians in the field this week at the Open Championship, and one of them is a kid named Austin with a Texas accent.

Joining Adam Hadwin in representing the maple leaf at Royal Birkdale is Austin Connelly, a European Tour player and dual citizen. He’ll be playing in his first major thanks to winning a four-man playoff at a qualifier in England earlier this month.

A highly-touted amateur who turned pro at 18, Connelly drained a 15-footer on the first playoff hole to help him earn the third and final Open berth at the Royal Cinque Ports Qualifier.

On the European Tour website, he’s billed as a “Slight Canadian with a much heralded amateur career.” That’s a solid start, but here’s a closer look at the Texas-born Canadian:

Name: Austin Connelly
Age: 20
Birthplace: Irving, Tex.
World ranking: 524
Height: Five-foot-7
Weight: 150 lbs.
2017 notables: Two top-10 finishes on the European Tour
2017 stroke average: 71.26

Dual duties

Connelly has represented both Canada and the U.S. during his golf career, but most recently he’s had the maple leaf beside his name.

He was born in Irving and he grew up there, but he has deep roots in Canada. His dad, Bill (who’s often his caddie, but won’t be this week), was born in Toronto. Connelly spent many a summer playing golf in Nova Scotia while visiting his grandparents, and he’s a member of the Clare G&CC in Church Point, N.S.

He joined Golf Canada’s national amateur team in 2014, then represented the U.S. at the Junior Ryder Cup the next year as an 18-year-old. A few months after that, he was back to representing Canada. At the 2015 Pan American Games in Toronto, then ranked ninth in the world among amateur golfers, Connelly finished eighth, and second among Canadians.

He answers questions about his dual citizenship all the time, and over the years the answer has always been the same: The goal is to become No. 1 in the world, and he’ll try to get there however he can. So far, Canada has been key for his development.

Boy wonder

What were you doing at age 4? Connelly was driving the golf ball 120 yards. He started golfing at 18 months. Tiger Woods, of course, was his childhood idol.

A special thanks to Golf Canada for resurfacing this news story on four-year-old Connelly:

The Spieth effect

Connelly had committed to the University of Arkansas, but he opted to skip college and turn pro at 18 after speaking to a few guys on Tour. This included his friend, Jordan Spieth, the fellow Texan with two majors to his name and a total 10 wins on the PGA Tour at age 23.

If Jordan Spieth told you to skip college, you’d listen, too.

The pair also share a swing coach in Australian Cameron McCormick, and they’re part of the same management company.

Connelly’s pro career hasn’t gotten off to quite the red hot start Spieth’s did (whose does?), but he’s been pretty solid: He finished 7th on the Mackenzie Tour’s money list in 2016 (his best finish was T2 at the ATB Financial Classic), then got a pass to the final stage of Web.com Tour Q-School. When that didn’t go well (he fired three rounds in the 70s and finished T89), he had a backup plan to head to the European Tour, where he earned conditional status via its Q-School. He’s also a full-time European Challenge Tour member for this season.

The Open Championship will mark his seventh tournament on the PGA Tour schedule. Connelly debuted as an amateur in 2015 and made both cuts at the AT&T Byron Nelson and the RBC Canadian Open. In 2016 he made just one cut in four tournaments, and his T60 finish at the AT&T Pebble Beach Pro Am netted him $15,050.

Confidence in blustery conditions

England’s Royal Birkdale, this week’s host of the oldest of golf’s majors, is quite the test. It’s super windy, and when Padraig Harrington was last crowned the Open champion there, in 2008, he did so with a three-over-par final score. Next best was Ian Poulter, at seven over, and among those who made the cut, there was a +31 finish.

But Connelly believes his game could play well here. As he told Joe Colorado of the Halifax Herald: “I think links golf suits my game very well. With the trajectory and shot shape that I have in penetrating, low draws, I’m confident that it’s going to translate well on the course.”

Connelly is not a Rory McIlroy or Dustin Johnson long-bomber off the tee, but the big hitters may struggle at Royal Birkdale unless they’re hammering the ball low and straight. Connelly is known for hitting fairways, and he grew up playing in Texas winds at Hackberry Creek GC, which could help, even if he doesn’t have a lot of experience playing links golf. In other words, this Canadian’s American upbringing could come in handy.

Connelly is in a group with Aussie Matthew Griffin and Englishman Matthew Southgate, and they’ll tee off at 7:09 a.m. on Thursday. Hadwin tees off earlier, at 6:36 a.m., with a pair of Americans in Andrew Johnson and Todd Hamilton, the long-shot winner of the 2004 Open Championship.