Straka leads Olympic golf on day of low scoring, surprises

KAWAGOE, Japan (AP) — Rikuya Hoshino did not have the first tee to himself Thursday for the start of Olympic golf.

The grandstand behind him, normally empty like at so many other venues at the spectator-less Games, was filled with volunteers in their Tokyo2020 shirts wanting to see the 25-year-old from Japan with the honor of hitting the first shot in the pandemic-delayed Olympics.

The other two players with him in the first group, Sepp Straka of Austria and Thomas Pieters of Belgium, took it from there.

Straka picked a good day to be dialed in with his irons in soft and still conditions. He made four birdies in his last six holes for an 8-under 63 to tie an Olympic record — not all that historical considering golf returned only in 2016 — for a one-shot lead over Jazz Janewattananond of Thailand.

Pieters, who finished one spot out of a bronze medal in Rio de Janeiro five years ago, was sick Wednesday and saw the front nine at Kasumigaseki Country Club only during practice rounds. He shot 30 on the back nine for a 65.

“I kind of didn’t expect this today,” Pieters said. “I felt horrible this morning even when I woke up, so maybe it’s just because I wasn’t thinking about bad shots or places not to hit it. My caddie told me, ‘Hit it there,’ and I did. I kept it simple.”

Carlos Ortiz of Mexico also had a 65 in ideal scoring conditions on a course so pristine it didn’t have a divot when players first began arriving because it was closed for two months.

The volunteers had emptied the stands after Hoshino’s drive to go to work — most of them stationed to help look for errant shots — when the biggest attraction in Japan arrived.

Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama still had reason to believe everyone was watching.

“If I say there’s no pressure I’ll be lying,” Matsuyama said after opening with a 69, not the best start in a round with such low scoring that only 13 players in the 60-man tournament were over par.

“Hopefully, I’ll be able to embrace the pressure that’s upon me and just try to put together a nice tournament here.”

Matsuyama had the biggest crowd, such as it was, with some 80 people tagging along, most of them Japanese media. He was 4 under through eight holes, only to make bogey from two poor tee shots and then didn’t have another birdie.

The struggle was more coronavirus-related than any external expectations. Matsuyama has played one round of competition the last five weeks after a positive COVID-19 test. One of his biggest concerns was rust and conditioning.

“Probably towards the end a little bit, the mental side and focus kind of faded away from me,” he said. “So that’s something that I need to put together for the rest of the week.”

Straka, who had missed the cut in six of his last seven events, wasn’t the only surprise. Juvic Pagunsan of the Philippines was among those at 66.

Pagunsan earned a small measure of fame when he won the Mizuno Open in Japan by carrying his own bag with 11 clubs, three fewer than allowed. Caddies were only allowed to follow players in carts because of COVID-19 restrictions, and Pagunsan found that to be a hassle, so he lightened his bag and walked it himself.

The victory earned him a spot in the British Open, and then he withdrew so he could concentrate on the Olympics. He picked up three birdies on the back nine after rain further softened the golf course.

Patrick Reed and Xander Schauffele each were at 68, and that was quite a feat for Reed.

He was a last-minute replacement when Bryson DeChambeau had a positive COVID-19 test, and because of his testing requirements, Reed didn’t arrived at the course until Wednesday afternoon. That left enough time to ride in a cart to look at the last four holes.

“Adrenaline got me going early on today, but really the body hung in there a lot better than I expected,” Reed said. “The swing actually held in there all day. A couple of mistakes out there, not really knowing spots to hit. But besides that, it wasn’t too bad.”

His biggest issue was a delay of just over two hours from thunderstorms. They hit right about the time most new arrivals from his American time zone are wanting to take a nap.

“I was feeling it during that rain delay,” he said.

British Open champion Collin Morikawa and Rory McIlroy each had a 69, which was only good for a tie for 20th on such a low scoring day. Justin Thomas wouldn’t have minded that. His Olympic debuted featured 18 pars and more missed birdie chances than he cares to remember.

“I would love to have some kind of old useless club that I could break over my knee right now,” Thomas said.

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