Conners, Hadwin embracing challenge of competing on golf’s big stage

corey-conners-pga-championship

Corey Conners, of Canada, hits a tee shot off the 12th hole during the first round of the PGA Championship golf tournament. (Charles Krupa/AP)

FARMINGDALE, N.Y. – For the Canadian contingent at this year’s PGA Championship, the scores don’t reflect either the prep work or the excitement both Adam Hadwin and Corey Conners had for competing in another major.

Get used to it Canada: these guys are going to be leading the charge on the biggest stages in golf for years to come.

This week spectators confused the pair on more than one occasion (although, fine, they do wear clothes from the same company), and Conners – or ‘Caan-ners’ as it’s pronounced on Long Island – got chirped by a New York Rangers fan for the Toronto Maple Leafs’ first-round exit (“I’m sorry?” Conners replied).

But despite them being treated as interchangeable PGA Tour pros in the back of the pack on this year’s leaderboard at Bethpage Black, they’re PGA Tour winners. They’ve got a shot to represent the International side at the upcoming Presidents Cup. And there’s a chance they will be Canada’s Olympians at the 2020 Olympics.

They’re ready for the big stage.

“I’m hoping to play in a lot of major championships in my career, so it’s nice to know what they feel like,” said Conners. “I’m definitely ready for them.”

Conners struggled Saturday to a 6-over-par 76, his worst of the week. He admitted his golf was “sloppy,” but although he said he’s been disappointed with how he’s scored, he’s still had a fun experience so far at his first PGA Championship.

It’s the second major of 2019 where he’s found the weekend, after finishing T-46 at the Masters. This is the fourth major of his career after also qualifying for the 2017 U.S. Open – which this year is taking place at Pebble Beach, and Conners will try to qualify in two weeks’ time.

Conners lead the PGA Championship Thursday in ball-striking but has struggled all week with the short game, a reflection of his season as a whole – he sits 196th in Total Putting on the PGA Tour – but his coach Derek Ingram says Conners’ overall game is set up well for majors.

“I feel he will win a major at some point in the future,” Ingram said by text to Sportsnet. “The experience and getting comfortable at majors may take a bit of time, and finding his personal formula for – just like with regular PGA Tour events – but I feel he will have more chances to win at both regular PGA Tour events and majors.”

Hadwin, meanwhile, made his first cut in three tries at the PGA Championship.

He has been steady, if unspectacular, and shot an even-par 70 on Saturday. His best result at a major is T-24, at the 2018 Masters. He said this week he put a new putter in the bag and changed his putting grip, so he’s been getting adjusted to that.

Hadwin admitted he hasn’t felt good on the greens in about 18 months, hence the change, and hadn’t had a top-20 finish (as an individual) on the PGA Tour since February.

But he said majors do something different to his attitude.

“It’s a major championship. If you can’t get up for this, you’re going to struggle,” he said.

By the time mid-afternoon rolled around Saturday, Hadwin was leading the field in strokes gained: approach-the-green. In other words, he was flushing it. This peaked on the par-3 14th, when he nearly made an ace.

According to Hadwin’s coach, Ralph Bauer, the product of Abbotsford, B.C. also has all the tools to compete in majors the rest of his career.

“The great part about Adam’s game is he is above-average in every area of the game, he isn’t afraid to go low, and is very comfortable on big stages,” Bauer told Sportsnet. “Conditions change at majors from day-to-day so much more than regular tour events and his well-rounded game is very well suited to adapt to different conditions.”

Hadwin admitted when he first played in majors he would arrive Saturday before the tournament began to get in extra practice. Now, he’s treating them like normal events.

“I know guys like to talk about the importance of majors and I agree with them, you want to get up for (majors),” said Hadwin. “But at the same time I want to win anything I play, so I’ll prepare like I would for a normal event.”

Both Conners and Hadwin said they embrace the more challenging golf courses major championships are contested on. Conners said challenging golf courses set up well for his game, while Hadwin said he liked playing courses that reward good play and punish someone who struggles.

And while Hadwin and Conners are well back of Brooks Koepka’s record-setting pace – like everyone, really – they know their major championship careers are just getting started.

“I know my game is good enough to compete (in majors),” said Conners. “I haven’t played my best but lots to be learned from it, and definitely some confidence going forward.”

Good attitudes, lots of learning, and with opportunities in their sight. The only thing left for Adam Hadwin and Corey Conners to do at majors is to contend – and that will come sooner rather than later.

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