Stevens pushes Connors to limit in Valero Texas Open; Korn Ferry Tour notes

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SAN ANTONIO — Moments after Corey Conners made the winning putt for par, a spectator at the Valero Texas Open yelled: “This is home! We love you!”

True, TPC San Antonio is home — to both of Conners’ wins on the PGA TOUR, separated by four years and 101 starts. The 31-year-old Canadian shot a bogey-free 68 on a frenetic Sunday to become the 10th multiple-time winner of the sixth-oldest tournament on TOUR.

Conners closed with 15 under par, a shot ahead of upstart Sam Stevens and two better than Sam Ryder and Matt Kuchar. He led the field in Strokes Gained: Tee-to-Green and Approach the Green in a dominant display of golf that began with an 8-under 64 in the first round.

Stevens, the PGA Tour rookie and former Oklahoma State golfer who watched from the sidelines while his teammates such as Viktor Hovland, Matthew Wolfe and Austin Eckroat won the 2018 NCAA Championship, is coming into his own as a 26-year-old. The grandson of Kansas golf icon Johnny Stevens and equally successful father Johnny Stevens, Sam grew up traveling from Wichita to frequently play in the Oklahoma Junior Golf Tour events run by 2023 Oklahoma Golf Hall of Fame pending inductee Morri Rose. He finished tied for third last week in the Corales Puntacana Championship and his brilliant 6-under finishing round Sunday forced Connors to par the 18th hole to maintain his one stroke advantage.

Stevens delivered eagles at the par-5 eighth and the short par-4 17th, and the last one put him within one stroke of the lead.

“Those two holes, that’s the kind of stuff you need to have happen if you want to win,” said Stevens, who had an 8-foot birdie putt to tie Conners on the 18th green. He missed.

“I was pretty confident he had it in the bag when I missed that putt,” Stevens said.

The consecutive top-5 finishes boosted Stevens to 43rd in the FedEx Cup standings and $1,516,105 in earnings. He has made eight cuts in 15 events and has four top-25 finishes.

Conners was a Monday qualifier in 2019, when he won his first pair of Valero Texas Open boots. He likes the sturdiness of the course, he said, and numbers prove it: through 20 rounds at TPC San Antonio, Conners has made 101 birdies. He had 23 this week.

“It was definitely a battle out there today, but I trusted my ability and thought about a lot of good shots I had hit previously in the week with certain conditions,” he said. “It was definitely tough out there, but I’m really happy and proud of the way I battled.”

Conners started his round a shot out of the lead held by Patrick Rodgers. The leader after the second and third rounds, Rodgers lost that fragile advantage with a bogey at the par-4 fourth. Tied with Rodgers at the time, Conners birdied the par-4 sixth. Rodgers missed the green and made bogey.
“I knew some birdies were going to happen,” he said. “I was going to give myself enough chances.”

Conners played prudent, workmanlike golf on the back nine, bogey-free and measured. He made just one birdie, at the par-4 15th. It was all he needed.

Many challengers rose. But Conners built a lead no one could touch, even on an afternoon of lower scores than the previous three rounds had seen. Conners avoided the predicaments others could not — cacti, exposed limestone, cedars, oaks, tension, anxiety, insecurity. Many in the field had never won on TOUR. All but Conners, Chris Kirk and Hideki Matsuyama were trying to win their way into the Masters Tournament.

The Oaks Course at TPC San Antonio played more than a stroke lower in the final round than it did in the other three. Chez Reavie shot 65. Rickie Fowler shot 66. So did Stevens, who recorded two eagles. Ryder, who trailed Conners by two after three consecutive birdies on 10 through 12, also shot 66. All of them played themselves into the top 10. None of them could catch the Canadian.

“I’m not sure he missed a shot for 18 holes,” Rodgers said.

Connors earned 500 FedExCup points, the first-place prize of $1.548 million and the assurance that his victory in 2019 was no fluke.

“It’s amazing to have my second,” said Conners, who spent his high-school years in Listowel, Ontario, a town of 7,500 about two hours from Toronto.

NOTES: Rhein Gibson of Edmond continued his hot start to the 2023 Korn Ferry Tour season, shooting 16-under and tying for 10th in the Astara Chili Classic. Gibson won the Astara Golf Championship in Bogata in February. Former Jenks High School and Oklahoma State golfer Brendon Jelley made his second consecutive cut on the Korn Ferry Tour in his rookie season, tying for 43rd at 11-under after closing with a 68 Sunday.

The Korn Ferry Tour is coming to Oklahoma this summer with the Compliance Solutions Championship June 22-25 at Jimmie Austin OU Golf Course in Norman.


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Ken MacLeod

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