Valspar Championship: Newcomer Conners In Front, Tiger Not Far

An upstart is in front early, but Tiger is lurking

A last-minute entrant into the tournament holds the lead through 18 holes, as Corey Conners posted a 67 on Thursday to lead the Valspar Championship.

Conners leads by one stroke over Whee Kim, Kelly Kraft, and Nick Watney. There are a number of golfers at -2.

Tournament headliner Tiger Woods got out to a great start with a birdie at the first, and at one point was as low as -2 before giving a couple back. Still, he was the low man in his group with Henrik Stenson and Jordan Spieth, and he’s in red numbers at -1 largely due to a near-ace on the par 3 17th. At three back with three rounds to play and the leaders not being particularly experienced, to say Tiger is “in it” would be an understatement.

(Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

“We had to buy (hundreds) more hats, shirts.”

The merchandise area looked as though it was nearly overflowing with Nike gear and Tiger Woods gear. In fact, the store put in emergency orders for merchandise on Friday afternoon after Woods declared that he would play in the tournament.

Red shirts were, perhaps not surprisingly, a hot item. An employee at the merchandise tent stood in the corner near the Tiger-branded gear, helping customers find what they need and explaining the last minute nature of their orders.

The shirts and hats arrived just in time, in the middle of the week with the tournament about to begin. As ticket sales skyrocketed and the Innisbrook staff prepared for a flood of new people, every vendor had to scramble as well.

Remember, golf courses are about the only place this side of an airport where it’s acceptable to have an adult beverage before 9:00. The beer tents open up when the tournament does, and fans have not been shy about enjoying their favorite beverages during tournaments.

The gallery following Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth dwarfed everything else at the tournament on Thursday. Many of the attendees spent the morning session hovering around the first hole and practice area, knowing they had to get there early to get a good look at Tiger when he eventually teed off.

The crowd was full of people who had never attended a golf tournament before, but were coming to see Tiger. A woman from St. Pete Beach brought her mother, a lifelong golf fan from Tarpon Springs who never picked up a golf club. The mother, an elderly woman, was very excited to see Tiger Woods come by. She found a spot near the first tee, but not one with an actual view of the tee box. Little matter, as her face lit up when Tiger walked by. Some people yelled. She just waved at the passing golfers, excited.

Similar scenes were repeated throughout the day. There were children getting their first chance to see Tiger, and who knows how many more they’ll get? A number of people offered up to anyone who would listen that they had called in sick from work, and joked about possibly being seen.

(Tim Williams/Sports Talk Florida)

Tiger had the biggest gallery without any question. However, there are other stories that people in the crowd are following. Last year’s champion Adam Hadwin had a bit of a crowd behind him, and not just people trying to stay a little bit ahead of the featured group. After all, Hadwin comes from Canada, and America’s friendly neighbor to the north has quite a presence in Tampa Bay, particularly the part of Tampa Bay nearest Innisbrook.

In part because the Blue Jays train in nearby Dunedin for the Spring, there are a lot of maple leaf flags around the northwest part of the bay. On Thursday, there were numerous people in attendance wearing Blue Jays apparel, Team Canada gear, and pronouncing the word “sorry” as though the word “sore” were in there.

Hadwin won’t be the only player to get a boost from what Don Cherry might call “good ol’ Ontar-ya boys” as Corey Conners made waves on Thursday with a -4. One of the earliest tee times on Thursday, Conners is 26. He has played a total of two majors, missing the cut both times. He does not have a win as a professional golfer. Conners was also the runner-up at the 2014 US Amateur. This is his first full year on Tour, having played his way into a promotion from the in 2017.

Conners is an alternate. He came into this week thinking he would not be playing in the tournament, but was added to the field after a spot opened up for him. Last-minute entries rarely threaten in tournaments, and there are still 54 more holes of tournament play ahead, but with much of the focus on one of the all-time great PGA TOUR winners, the show was stolen on Thursday by a Canadian without a professional win.

The tee times flip for tomorrow, with those who went off in the afternoon Thursday being slated for morning rounds. Woods is one such early bird, slated for 7:56 alongside Jordan Spieth (+5) and Henrik Stenson (+3).

Reminder: Pro golfers, while amazing at something most people are barely competent in, are people like everybody else. Therefore, when faced with having to turnaround from a late tee time to an early one the next day, they can be at a disadvantage. At the same time, low numbers from Woods on Friday could send a ripple through the afternoon tee times, making the likes of Whee Kim and Corey Conners feel the pressure of not only being in front of a pro tournament but having Tiger lurking behind.

After a week of anticipation for Tiger’s appearance and this tournament in general, the Valspar Championship is underway in Palm Harbor. Tiger Woods is three off the lead and looking relatively sharp given the amount of time he’s had off. We are underway for Tampa Bay’s PGA TOUR stop.

Tim Williams has been covering sports since his days as a student at Northeastern University covering events such as the Beanpot. In the thirteen years since, he has covered college hockey, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the PGA Tour, and the National Hockey League. A native of the Tampa Bay area, Tim has returned home after living much of his life in the northeast, including sixteen years in the Boston area. These days the Managing Editor of Sports Talk Florida can be found on Florida's golf courses when he's not working.