Corey Conners was not supposed to be at the Valspar Championship. As in, he was literally not in the field this time last week. He played in a Monday qualifier, but failed to qualify. However, when Kyle Stanley withdrew, Conners got a spot. He's made the most of it, and at 9 under through 54 holes now leads a group by one that includes Tiger Woods, Justin Rose and Brandt Snedeker. That threesome collectively has 95 PGA Tour wins. This is Conners' 21st PGA Tour start.
And yet, he's not fading. Or at least not yet. Conners shot a cool 3-under 68 on Saturday playing just behind Woods to take a one-stroke lead into the final round. He came out of the gate hot with three birdies in the first four holes before sliding a bit down the stretch. Still, he hung on. Conners is third in the field this week in strokes gained tee to green and 11th in putting. He's got game. We'll see if he has staying power. Sunday could go badly, of course. It usually does with folks who tangle with Tiger on the weekend. But it also might not.
Just a reminder if you’re one of those rooting against Corey Connors - Tiger is battling for a redemption win. Corey is battling for a life changing moment that he may never have again.— Shane Bacon (@shanebacon) March 10, 2018
The 26-year-old played most of his 2017 on the Web.com Tour and notched seven top 25s to graduate to the big boy circuit. Prior to the Web.com Tour, he was banging it around on the PGA Tour Latinoamerica and the Mackenzie Tour. All that to say, this is new territory for him. He's never finished in the top 25 at a PGA Tour event. Now, he's not just leading a PGA Tour event going into Round 4, but leading a PGA Tour event with Tiger Woods one stroke back.
With such a narrow margin, Conners is not the favorite and not even close to it, either.
Valspar Championship updated— Jeff Sherman (@golfodds) March 10, 2018
Tiger Woods 9/4
Justin Rose 5/2
Brandt Snedeker 5/1
Corey Conners 13/2
Patrick Reed 15/1
Sam Burns 25/1
Ryan Palmer 50/1
Paul Casey 50/1
Adam Scott 50/1
Rory Sabbatini 60/1
Kelly Kraft 60/1
Webb Simpson 60/1
Louis Oosthuizen 60/1
Branden Grace 80/1
For Conners, Sunday would be a life-changer. That's not true of Snedeker and Rose, but they too have a lot at stake. For Rose, who shot a near-round of the day on Saturday with a 66, a win before the Masters (where he has performed beautifully in recent years) would give him a ton of confidence going into Augusta. Snedeker needs a win just to qualify for Augusta, where he hasn't missed a Masters since 2010.
Both know, however, that Woods is probably the man they're truly chasing, no matter how good Conners has been through the first three days.
"I think it's exciting to have him back for the casual golf fan, but now the true Tiger fan gets excited," Rose said, who will play in the final pairing with Conners. "I think the way it works best is if you're either with (Tiger) or behind it. You play in group in front of him is probably the toughest because everyone is trying to gain a vantage point. I'll ... be ... the group behind him. Should work out well."
Snedeker will play for the second straight day with Tiger.
"It was great," Snedeker said of his round on Saturday after firing a 67 in front of Woods. "I can confirm he's back, the roars are back. It's fun to hear the crowd going crazy again and realize how excited we are in having him back out here and playing the way he is. He's playing great.
"I was able to feed off a lot of energy today. That's probably why I played so good. Get me to focus real hard on every shot and did a good job of that today. Do it again tomorrow, probably be crazier tomorrow. I couldn't have fun today, I need to find another job. Playing with Tiger Woods in the second to last group at Tampa and the crowd going crazy, both playing good, it's fun doing."
Still, Snedeker is focused on the task at hand: Win and get into the 2018 Masters.
"I got to win," he said. "Win tomorrow. I got one goal tomorrow and that's to go out there and play as good as I possibly can and see if that stacks up at the end of the day. My game is good enough, I'm confident enough, I'm back to feeling the way I did four, five years ago. I'm excited about what tomorrow holds."
I think we all probably are.
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