Austin Connelly: Who is this 1st round Open Championship contender?

SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND - JULY 18: Austin Connelly of Canada hits his tee shot on the 5th hole during a practice round prior to the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale on July 18, 2017 in Southport, England. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images)
SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND - JULY 18: Austin Connelly of Canada hits his tee shot on the 5th hole during a practice round prior to the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale on July 18, 2017 in Southport, England. (Photo by Andrew Redington/Getty Images) /

Austin Connelly, a 20-year-old who went straight from high school to the pros, is contending after day one at the Open Championship

Austin Connelly was the Thursday surprise at Royal Birkdale. There are no shortage of big names at the top of the leaderboard after day one of the Open Championship. But among all the stars is a name you probably don’t know: Austin Connelly.

We’ve got U.S. Open champ Brooks Koepka, two-time major winner Jordan Spieth and Olympic medalist Matt Kuchar tied at the top at five-under.

Paul Casey is alone at four-under and not behind at three-under are the likes of Ian Poulter and Mr. 63 at the U.S. Open, Justin Thomas.

Connelly, one of the youngest players in the field at 20 years old, is in contention at three-under. Standing at just five feet and seven inches and 150 pounds, Connelly could be blown away when the winds pick up Friday.

In the meantime, he’s climbed to the top of the leaderboard in his first major championship start.

Ranked No. 524 in the world, Connelly was threatening the lead when he reached four-under through 15. His only bogey was at the par-4 sixth, regularly the hardest hole at Royal Birkdale.

A double bogey at 16 was his first big hiccup, but he recovered to birdie the par-5 17th and post an early 67.

“Links golf fits my game very well,” Connelly told Golfweek before the tournament.

"I haven’t played a ton of it. . . This course, it’s a good test and really good for me. You have to drive it straight. You have to really make sure you have the right shot shape on the ball."

So, who is this guy?

Connelly: Out of high school, straight into the pros

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While Connelly has the maple leaf next to his name on the leaderboard, he speaks with a slight Texas drawl. That’s because he was born and raised in Irving, Texas. He has dual citizenship in Canada.

According to SportsNet, Connelly spent a lot of time in Nova Scotia in the summers with his grandparents. His father is also a Toronto native.

Connelly was a highly-touted amateur, having competed for Canada’s national team, as well for the USA in the Junior Ryder Cup in 2014. Playing as an amateur he climbed inside the top-10 in the world.

Connelly initially planned to stay close to home in the Dallas area when he committed to Southern Methodist University. He then de-committed from SMU in favor of Arkansas.

Still contemplating his future, Connelly again decommitted in favor of turning professional.

It’s rare for North Americans to turn pro fresh out of high school. When Jordan Spieth advises you to give it a shot, though, it’s hard to say no. Spieth and Connelly also share swing coach Cameron McCormick.

Connelly spoke with some of his contemporaries on tour and made the leap.

Austin Connelly has experienced plenty of growing pains

The professional career for a guy who says his goal is to get to world No. 1 hasn’t gone exactly to plan, at least until today’s low round.

Connelly failed to qualify for the Tour in the fall of 2015, but was able to cut his teeth on a smattering of PGA TOUR, Tour and the Mackenzie Tour (Canada) events earlier in the year. Connelly made the cut in his first pro start at the Byron Nelson and in his second at the Canadian Open.

He latched onto the Mackenzie Tour full-time in 2016 and placed seventh on the money list,

Austin Connelly Open Championship 2017
SOUTHPORT, ENGLAND – JULY 17: Austin Connelly of Canada during a practice round prior to the 146th Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images) /

tantalizingly close to the top five and a Tour card. When the 2016 Tour Q school came around again, Connelly sputtered to a T89.

His backup plan sent him across the pond to European Tour Q school, where he owns conditional status and full-time status on its developmental Challenge Tour.

Connelly’s career moving forward

Now in 2017, Connelly hasn’t exactly set the world on fire but he’s shown glimpses which grow in impressiveness when you consider he’s grinding on tour in lieu of his junior year of college.

He advanced to the match play rounds at the World Super 6 Perth and tied for eighth at the Nordea Masters in European Tour starts. Ironically, these glimpses haven’t shown up on the Challenge Tour as he’s missed four of six starts. His last four worldwide starts are on the Challenge Tour and feature two missed cuts among T22 and T52 results.

“It’s been incredible; each different country has a different culture, and then all the different golf courses,” Connelly told Golfweek before the Open.

"It’s been a pretty cool experience for me so far. I’ve played reasonably well. It’s a bit of an adjustment coming over here with some of the golf courses, but I’ve been happy with how I’ve played on the main tour. I’ve held my own and I’ve been learning each week."

An up-and-down 2017 could trend back up in a big way this week if he keeps it up. With his family and girlfriend in tow to accompany him for much of his journey in Europe and beyond, Connelly sunk a 15-footer for birdie to earn the last Open qualifying spot at the Royal Cinque Ports site.

Next: 5 American sleepers at The Open Championship

If Connelly goes on to shock the world and win, he’ll be the youngest since Seve Ballesteros won at age 22 in 1979. Young Tom Morris is the youngest winner when he won at 17 years, five months in 1868.