The Canadian flag wasn’t always easy to spot atop the leaderboard at important golf tournaments, but it’s become a more familiar sight — almost an expected one — with the rise of players like Corey Conners and Mackenzie Hughes.
Just 12 days before they’ll represent Canada at the Tokyo Olympics, Conners and Hughes both had strong Saturday showings to finish the third round of the Open Championship inside the top 10.
Conners will play with Jordan Spieth in the penultimate Sunday pairing at Royal St. George’s in Sandwich, Kent, England, after a bogey-free 66 shot him up into a tie for fourth at 8 under. Hughes shot 68 to tie for sixth at 7 under; the Canadians are two of just eight players to score under par in all three rounds thus far.
Mike Weir’s 2003 Masters victory remains the only major title a Canadian male golfer has ever won. After they’ve knocked on the door all season, either Conners or Hughes could be next.
Each golfer is ranked inside the top 64 in the world, has one PGA Tour win to his name and has sat in the driver’s seat at a 2021 major. Conners, who’s claimed top-10 finishes at the last two Masters, also led after the first round of this year’s PGA Championship. A month later, Hughes was part of a three-way 54-hole lead at the U.S. Open.
Now they’re both in the hunt at the Open, where South Africa’s Louis Oosthuizen leads at 12 under.
Their career trajectories have sprung forth from similar upbringings in Ontario. Conners, 29, and Hughes, 30, started out as rivals on the Canadian amateur circuit and participated in Golf Canada’s junior development program.
“I was fortunate to be a part of that,” Conners said earlier this week. “It’s a great training platform, great development platform, and they provide all the resources that players need in order to get ready for NCAA golf, college golf or professional golf.”
They overlapped at Kent State, where they led the Golden Flashes to a top-eight finish at the 2012 NCAA championship, and were teammates again at the World Team Amateur Competition.
Conners and Hughes each mentioned watching one another’s rounds during the week. When Hughes began the championship with a 4-under 66, Conners said it “definitely motivated me to try and have a good round, as well.”
Conners has since surpassed his countryman. With a tougher, longer course layout awaiting the field Saturday, Conners made nine pars before taking advantage of some of the back nine’s easier holes — birdieing Nos. 10, 12, 13 and 14 to make his move.
At a links course where the fairways undulate and approach shots are key, Conners leads the field in greens in regulation with 81.48 percent.
Hughes, who’s making his Open debut, battled back from a pair of bogeys and made birdie at Nos. 14, 16, and 18, converting a 45-foot putt on the last hole to leave on a great note.
“I have the luxury of sort of coming from behind tomorrow, which is a bit — maybe call it a bit of an easier position to play in,” Hughes said. “I’ll try and use that to my advantage and hopefully get off to a good start and get myself in the mix.”
Conners was feeling the love Saturday from a certain subset of the gallery.
“There was a few Canadians out there, yeah,” he said. “They were the loudest of the bunch, I think, but it was cool to have a few smiles out there when they were yelling on words of encouragement.”
They’ll have even more to cheer in due time, whether it’s in the coming years, at the Olympics or, perhaps, Sunday afternoon.
–By Adam Zielonka, Field Level Media