Canada’s Corey Conners one stroke off lead heading into final round in Texas

Corey Conners
Corey Conners (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

SAN ANTONIO – Si Woo Kim‘s narrow miss of a second hole-in-one on consecutive days at the Valero Texas Open was deceiving.

It was another highlight shot, but he missed the following birdie putt and his four-shot lead was trimmed to one over Canada’s Corey Conners, a Monday qualifier, after Saturday’s third round at the PGA Tour’s last stop before the Masters.

Kim aced the 16th hole at the TPC San Antonio on Friday, and he missed it by inches on the way to a third-round 3-under 69 after opening with consecutive rounds of 66. He was at 15 under and Conners, trying to become the first Monday qualifier to win on the PGA Tour since 2010, was a stroke back after shooting a 6-under 66.

“Yeah, I think about yesterday, like I can’t believe it, and then it was pretty close today, too,” Kim said of the near-ace. “I saw that first bounce and then I thought it would go in for sure.”

Charley Hoffman, the 2016 Texas Open winner, moved up the leaderboard with a birdie-birdie-eagle finish and the week’s best round of 64. He was two back of Kim at 13 under.

Scott Brown turned in a second straight 67, and Jhonattan Vegas also shot 67. Both were at 11 under with Kyoung-Hoon Lee (69) and four strokes back.

Rickie Fowler and Jordan Spieth started the day tied for second, four shots back. Both finished eight shots out of the lead after shooting 73s.

Kim flirted with the 16th hole on the second bounce on Saturday. This time, the ball rolled past the hole to inside four feet for what looked like an easy birdie. He missed, Conners made his from inches shorter and they shared the lead again.

“I thought it went in again,” Conners, of Listowel, Ont., said. “That was a heck of a shot. There was a bit of a distraction there. I was able to get refocused and hit a nice one after him.”

But Conners returned the favour on the next hole, missing a birdie from inside seven feet.

Kim, winner of The Players Championship in 2017, got out of a greenside bunker at the par-5 18th and sank a four-foot birdie to get the one-stroke advantage.

“Playing with Corey, the first six holes, crazy, like every shot is right on it and then he putted good,” Kim said. “I was just trying hard myself. Just trying to hit my shot, just trying to hit my putt. That’s why it was a pretty good back nine.”

Conners is trying to become the first Monday qualifier to win on the PGA Tour since Arjun Atwal nine years ago. Before that, no one had done it in 24 years. The winner is invited to the Masters if not already eligible – Conners is looking for an invitation.

Conners birdied the opening three holes, including a near-ace at the third, and almost had a fourth to start the day when his 58-foot putt rested a couple of inches from the cup on No. 4.

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He birdied again at the fifth, which gave him a share of the lead with Kim, and joined Kim in birdieing the seventh.

Conners, 27, was a finalist in the 2014 U.S. Amateur, but he has not won on the PGA Tour or any of its affiliate tours. This season he has finished second in the Sanderson Farms Championship and after Monday qualifying was third at the Sony Open.

“I’ve been in this position a few times before where I’ve been near the lead,” Conners said. “I’ve got some good experiences to draw off of and hopefully I can get over the edge.”

Conners, who has only partial status on tour this year, has two top-three finishes this season. He is 66th in the FedEx Cup standings. The top 125 at season’s end get full cards for next season

Hoffman’s hot finish came with a birdie at the 14th. He wrapped it up with a 22-foot birdie putt at 16 and a 15-footer at 17 before he reached the green in two at the downwind 607-yard finishing hole.

“It was a big number (250 yards) to get it to the front of the green,” Hoffman said. “It was all of a 3-wood. I flushed it right up there. The only question was whether it would hold the green or not.”

Fowler bogeyed his first two holes, part of five on the day. Even with an eagle on the 18th, Fowler dropped 14 spots to 16th and 7 under.

Spieth was in the last group of the day with leaders Kim and Conners, but he quickly joined Fowler in going the other way. He didn’t hit a fairway until the 11th hole and by that time had two double bogeys.

After his front-nine 42, Spieth’s first birdie came on the 12th. He added four more on the backside.

“I actually look at today as progress,” Spieth said. “I needed the start today to recognize there are things that still need adjustment. I made those adjustments mid-round and was able to shoot 5 under. The back nine today was by far the best I’ve played, the most control I’ve had of the ball and the best I’ve felt putting in a couple of years.”