Corey Conners’ stellar year rewarded with this week’s Hero World Challenge appearance

Corey Conners, of Canada, hits from the sixth tee during their singles match at the Presidents Cup golf tournament at the Quail Hollow Club, Sunday, Sept. 25, 2022, in Charlotte, N.C. (AP Photo/Julio Cortez)

Corey Conners is slowly but surely playing himself into the upper tier of men’s golf. Canadian fans don’t think it often because he’s seemingly always been there.

Conners has been a constant presence at the biggest events, including three top-10 finishes in a row at the Masters, a final-round 62 at the RBC Canadian Open this summer and a debut at the Presidents Cup this fall.

That’s why this week’s appearance at the Hero World Challenge shouldn’t be a surprise — but is still no less exciting.

“It’s definitely a different type of event — small field and not that many people — but it’ll be fun. It’ll be cool to be in the same event as the other guys in the field,” Conners told Sportsnet.

“Hopefully, I’ll go there and have a good week and get myself in the mix.”

Conners, ranked 33rd in the world, will be one of 20 teeing it up at the Tiger Woods-hosted event at the Albany Golf Club in the Bahamas, a late addition after Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama withdrew last week because of an injury.

The rest of the field is stacked with recognizable names: Jon Rahm, Justin Thomas, Scottie Scheffler, Jordan Spieth, Collin Morikawa (who married a Canadian last weekend), Olympic gold medalist Xander Schauffele and reigning PGA Tour Rookie of the Year Cameron Young.

Conners will be paired with 2019 British Open winner Shane Lowry for the opening round.

Woods, too, was set to tee it up until he was forced to withdraw Monday due to plantar fasciitis.

“It was a tough decision just because I want to play. I like playing, I like competing, but unfortunately, I can hit the golf ball and hit whatever shot you want, I just can’t walk,” Woods told reporters in Nassau on Tuesday. “And so, I’ve had a few setbacks during the year that I still was able to somehow play through, but this one I just can’t.”

[brightcove videoID=6316326849112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Conners has never played with Woods in his PGA Tour career, although his long-time pal and fellow Canadian Mackenzie Hughes has done it twice (Woods topped Hughes once, and Hughes bested his idol the other time leaving their “match” at 1-1). With Woods’ schedule — after he continues to recover from the horrific car accident of early 2021 — remaining very much up in the air moving forward, Conners knew there may only be a few opportunities left to play alongside the 82-time PGA Tour winner.

“It would be awesome to be paired with him. He’s been slowing down, obviously, so to get the opportunity to play with him … that’d be sweet,” Conners said before Woods withdrew. “I’m sure there will be some interaction with him (as he is the host of the event) and I’m thankful for the opportunity to play in his tournament.”

Woods’ on-course future has plenty more questions than answers at this point. Like Conners as a top-tier golfer, we tend to forget Woods is inching closer to 47 and is held together with screws and rods. He’ll be the first to admit he’s getting old. He can’t play on merely the hopes and dreams of the golfing public — his body needs to help out, too. He said Tuesday he plans to just play the majors and “maybe” one or two other events moving forward.

Woods will, however, tee it up alongside Rory McIlroy in the latest iteration of “The Match” against Jordan Spieth and Justin Thomas on Dec. 10 before returning to playing alongside his son, Charlie, in the PNC Championship, Dec. 17-18. Both events will see Woods riding in a cart — something he was adamant against doing on the PGA Tour.

“The Father-Son will be a very easy week, Charlie will just hit all the shots and I’ll just get the putts out of the hole, so pretty easy there,” said Woods, with his trademark smile. “When I was at home, I was shooting 4-, 5-, 6-, 7-under par like it was nothing, but I was in a cart. Now, you add in walking and that goes away. So, I need to get to (the point where) I can actually walk around and play that way. … I’m not able to do that right now.”

[brightcove videoID=6316326756112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

Although we look back on Woods’ year wondering what could have been, we can look back on Conners’ 2022 as another solid one.

He didn’t find the PGA Tour winner’s circle like his countrymen Hughes and Adam Svensson, but he finished 26th in the FedExCup standings — once again making the season-ending Tour Championship — and earned just under $4 million. His best finish came after topping Dustin Johnson to win the consolation match at the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in March. Conners’ long-time coach, Derek Ingram, likes to say his pupil just “ball-strikes people to death” — a nod to the Canadian’s world-beating iron play (he was second on Tour in Greens in Regulation this season).

Conners also earned a spot on this year’s Presidents Cup squad alongside fellow Canadian Taylor Pendrith — the first time that two Canadians played in the same year. That week, however exciting it may have been, ended on a sour note as Conners went 0-4 and was the victim of the Cup-losing point to the International side.

Still, Conners will end 2022 as Canada’s top-ranked male golfer once again (despite it being a limited-field event, there are still World Ranking points available this week in Albany) and will hopefully lean into the experience against the best in the world as more motivation to be part of this top-tier class heading into next season.

“It’s going to be an awesome experience,” said Conners. “It’s a pretty elite field, obviously, and it’s sweet to be part of it.”

The Hero World Challenge begins Dec. 1. Viktor Hovland will look to defend his title from last year after he topped Scottie Scheffler by a shot.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.