Corey Conners stayed for a few extra days after the Open Championship a week and a half ago at Royal St. George’s before taking the 12-hour flight to Tokyo for this week’s men’s golf competition at the Olympics.
It was a smooth flight, according to Conners, and while the distance between Point A and Point B make them a world apart – not to mention factors such as culture, time difference and climate – so too does the contrast between the competition Conners and his Canadian partner Mackenzie Hughes last played and the one that gets underway Thursday in Japan.
The Open Championship is the oldest of the majors that the Canadian duo grew up with, a familiar highlight on the schedule each year, while the Olympics is something that wasn’t on the radar for golfers until 2016 when Graham DeLaet and David Hearn represented Canada in the men’s competition in Rio de Janiero.
“I think that this is the highest stage that you could represent your country on and I’m not sure either of us thought that this was a possibility when we were growing up, so really cool to be here and, yeah, to do it alongside Corey, who is a great friend of mine, I couldn’t ask for much more,” said Hughes.
The travel and time difference is worth it, according to Conners, who added that this new experience has already added something special before the competition even gets underway.
“I think it’s just such a unique experience and the Masters happens every year. It’s probably a goal of both of ours as junior golfers and amateur golfers to try to earn our way to Augusta one day,” said Conners.
“Golf hasn’t been in the Olympics for a number of years, since whatever, before 2016, but once that happened, I was definitely excited to try and qualify for a team and I think we’re definitely going to leave here and, regardless of the performance, going to take a lot from the week and being able to call myself a Olympian is definitely really special, “ he said.
Also special is the team feeling this week, something they’re not used to on tour.
Hughes says there’s a sense of unity as a team that also includes staff and coaches. While most weeks on the PGA Tour, there’s a focus on FedEx Cup points and money, Olympic golf goes beyond the individual players.
“This week it’s not about any of that,” said Hughes.
“It’s just about making that podium, so it’s a bit of a different feel that way and you need to get off to a good start and get yourself in a good position. So, it will be a little bit of a different feel, but at the end of the day, it will be a lot of the same stuff that we do on a week-to-week basis, just the stage feels a bit bigger,” he added.
“Yeah, definitely feels special to put on the Canada shirt every morning, walking around with the Canadian flag on the golf bag and hat. It’s definitely a special feeling,” said Conners.
“‘I’ve been fortunate to represent Canada a number of times in amateur golf and junior golf and special every single time, but this has a little something extra and it definitely feels amazing to be representing Canada and, like he said, part of a team, but still obviously competing individually,” he added.
Hughes and Conners may be a long way from home, but they say they’re feeling the support of Canadians in Japan, particularly from their respective home towns of Dundas, Ont., and Listowel, Ont.
“Definitely tons of support from my hometown and people in Canada and I just feel like, yeah, people are very into the Olympics,” said Hughes.
“Every country is a little bit different, I guess, but I think in Canada we’re very proud of our own and very proud of our athletes and you definitely get that sense that all across the country. Whether you’re a golfer or not, people are pulling for you just as a Canadian, so it’s been really cool and it will be fun to be in the mix come Sunday for one of those medals,” he said.
“I know a lot of people back in my hometown are cheering me on. I got some pictures, people with Olympic flags kind of hanging outside their house and that’s really cool. I got a picture of a billboard that is in town with a picture of me, kind of, you know, cheering me on, supporting me,” added Conners.
“I know everyone in the town is behind me and I think a lot of communities across Canada, like he said, whether golf fans are not, I think Canadians are very patriotic and they will be rooting really hard for us. Yeah, it will be fun to have that support,” he said.
With that hometown support behind them, they have reason to feel at home in Japan. Conners has his wife Malory and Hughes has his wife Jenna, along as “personal coaches.”
“There’s lots of on-course instruction out there and I know that my wife only expects the ball to go in the hole from anywhere on the golf course, so it doesn’t matter where I am, it needs to go in the hole or it’s not up to par. So, I’m working on it, working on being perfect out there,” said Hughes, adding the presence of their wives was one reason for staying in a hotel closer to the golf course.
“I think, had (the athletes village) been a little closer, it would have been a pretty easy decision to make, but at the same time, we both have our wives here this week and they’re not allowed in the village, so that make it’s really tough and we’re both happy to have them here, so that definitely factored into our decision,” he said.
“I think staying in the village would be a really cool experience, but thought for my preparation and being ready to play and focusing just on golf. We are here to win a medal and I thought staying in the hotel, a little bit closer to the golf course, was the best option,” added Conners.
The Kasumigaseki Country Club East Course, the host club, is a par 71 and almost 7,500 yards. Founded in 1929, it was renovated in 2016 by Tom Fazio and his son Logan.
So far, it has a thumbs up from the Canadian contingent.
“The golf course is amazing, really like the way it looks, and the golf course is in the best shape you could ever have because they have not had a round of golf here since May 1st is what I was told, so hard to find many divots out there and the greens are perfect,” said Hughes.
“I love the way it sets up. It’s right in front of you, not really overly complicated I guess. The greens have a lot of undulation and slope, but there’s not really much tricky about it,” he added.
“You’ve just got to hit really good golf shots and put the ball in the fairway because the rough is quite tricky to play out of, so yeah, very excited for the challenge this week and I feel like it suits my game pretty well,” he said.
Conners said he echos those thoughts.
“Visually it looks good to my eye. Greens are rolling really nicely. There’s definitely some tricks, if you get the ball in the rough or can be much more challenging around some of the greens,” he said.
“There are some pretty deep bunkers around the greens, but it is right in front of you and, yeah, I feel like it sets up well for my game also,” said Conners, who will tee it up in the first two rounds with 2021 Masters champ Hideki Matsuyama and Marc Leishman.
That group will tee off at 8:41 a.m. local time in Thursday’s first round and 10:36 a.m. in Friday’s second round.
Hughes will play with Alex Noren of Sweden and Jazz Janewattananond of Thailand. That group starts at 9:47 a.m. local time on Thursday and 7:52 a.m. on Friday.
All of the tee times are here.