Kawagoe, Japan: Unheralded Austrian Sepp Straka was the surprise leader after a weather-interrupted first round of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics golf tournament Thursday as home favourite Hideki Matsuyama and British Open champion Collin Morikawa suffered frustrating starts.
World number 161 Straka took advantage of early benign conditions to set the pace with a bogey-free eight-under par 63 at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
He leads by a stroke from Thailand’s former Asian Tour Order of Merit winner Jazz Janewattananond.
Matsuyama and Morikawa both finished at two-under par 69, either side of play being suspended for more than two hours in the afternoon because of a lightning storm.
World number three Morikawa is spearheading a powerful four-man USA team in a tournament that had some of the gloss taken off by the late Covid withdrawals of world number one Jon Rahm of Spain and American Bryson DeChambeau.
World number four Justin Thomas, who has won four of his 14 PGA Tour titles in Asia, saw a series of putts lip out as he recorded 18 straight pars for a 71.
“It’s really hard. I would love to have some kind of old useless club that I could break over my knee right now,” said a frustrated Thomas.
“I’m hitting good putts and they’re just lipping out instead of lipping in.”
Best of the Americans was Xander Schauffele, whose sleep was interrupted by a power outage at his hotel on Wednesday night, but still fired a three-under 68.
“An emergency light came on,” said Schauffele. “We had to unscrew a light bulb or sleep with the lights on. It was out for probably five hours.”
On the same score was countryman Patrick Reed, who only arrived on Wednesday from the United States as a late replacement for DeChambeau, did not have a practice round and only “about 35 minutes of sleep” because of jet lag.
“Adrenaline got me going early on today, which allowed me to kind of keep going, but really the body hung in there a lot better than I expected,” said Reed.
Ireland’s four-time major winner Rory McIlroy, playing with Morikawa, was another big name unable to find his best in a two-under 69. Fellow Irishman Shane Lowry, the 2019 Open champion, shot a one-under 70.
Low scoring had been expected, despite punishing rough, after a massive thunderstorm swept through the area overnight, softening the 7,447-yard par-71 course, and enabling players to fire at the pins.
Straka, who had missed six cuts in his last seven outings on the PGA Tour, took control with three birdies in a row from the 13th to reach seven-under par.
“Those are holes where if you just put it in the fairway on this course you can really take advantage and I got hot with my irons. Was really knocking down the flag stick,” said Straka before another birdie at 17 saw him finish at eight-under.
Thomas Pieters finished two strokes behind playing partner Straka but was relieved just to be playing after feeling ill overnight. “I felt horrible this morning,” said the Belgian after his 65.
Joining him in a share of third place on 65 is Mexico’s world number 61 Carlos Ortiz.
Casey in the hunt
Paul Casey of Britain kept in the hunt with a four-under 67 while teammate Tommy Fleetwood, who said this week he was “loving” his Olympic experience, opened with a 70.
“So cool that was,” beamed Casey. “Not an ounce of nerves, a hundred percent excitement, which is really, really cool.
“I thought about it for so long, because to me you can’t class yourself an Olympian until you’ve actually started your competition.”