Japanese golfer Rikuya Hoshino was bestowed the honor – striping his first tee shot and finding the middle of the fairway at 7:30 am, officially opening the men’s Olympic golf tournament at idyllic Kasumigaseki Country Club.
It was a bright morning and warm atmosphere as 60 golfers, representing 35 countries, prepared to battle the historic course with its splendid Japanese pine trees dotting exquisitely manicured fairways.
Finland’s Sami Valimaki, teeing off in the second threesome, was the first player to go under par, quickly becoming the tournament’s first leader after consecutive birdies on the opening two par-four holes.
Attention quickly gravitated toward Japanese golf hero and 2021 Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama, who teed off in the seventh group at 8:41 am. In a nice touch and tribute to Matsuyama, all volunteers were invited to the first tee to witness his opening tee shot, one that found the left side of the fairway, despite the pressure of an entire golf-crazed nation weighing on his shoulders.
Mother Nature would impede the tournament’s progress, halting play at 2 p.m. due to lightning strikes and danger with 32 of 60 players still out on the course. A warning was issued for everybody at the venue to immediately seek shelter.
Following a lengthy two-hour and 20 minute weather delay, play resumed as a sprinkling of rain persisted. Austrian Sepp Straka, 28, having completed his round before the delay, is the first round leader at eight-under, firing a superb, error-free round of 63, an Olympic record. Straka arrives at the tournament as the 161st ranked player in the world.
The Austrian encountered some of the wildlife firsthand on the picturesque course as a long-billed crow squawked just as he was about to hit his fourth hole tee shot. He quickly composed himself and managed par on the 237-yard, par three, much to the bird’s dismay.
Matsuyama found his composure and settled in on the back nine, posting a two-under, 69.
“If I say there’s no pressure, I would be lying,” Matsuyama said. “Hopefully, I’ll be able to embrace the pressure - that’s upon me to try to put together a nice tournament here.
“This experience could be the first and last that I ever get to play in the Olympics in my home country. Hopefully tomorrow I’ll be able to put together a better round.”
Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond finished one stroke behind the Austrian leader, carding a 64.
Among other favorites and players of interest, Ireland’s Rory McIlroy, who shunned Olympic golf five years ago, finished two-under 69 as did American, and recent British Open champion, Collin Morikawa.
Asked what an Olympic medal would mean to him, McIlroy said: “I don’t know what it would mean - I never dreamed of winning the Olympics, I dreamed of claret jugs and green jackets growing up. If it wasn’t an option for you growing up and dreaming about it... maybe I could articulate it a little better if I was in possession of one.”
Former world number one, Justin Thomas was the mark of consistency on the unfamiliar course, making par on all 18 holes for an opening round 71, a feat rarely seen in tournament golf.
Minimal wind and inviting, damp greens, due to overnight and continuing light rain, was conducive for scoring, as golfers aggressively attacked pins on Thursday.
Players dealt with temperatures hovering around 30 degrees Celsius, worsened by 75 percent humidity.
The venerable Kasumigaseki golf course, about a one-hour drive without traffic northwest of central Tokyo. was completed and opened in 1929, but remodeled by Fazio Design in 2006 after Tokyo won the bid for the 2020 Games.
The long and classic East Course layout plays an imposing 7,447 yards. The true ball-strikers course features immaculately manicured, bent grass fairways, dense and spongy Zoysia rough, and large, angulated greens.
“Great golf course. Great condition,” said Shane Lowry, the 2019 British Open champion, after his round of one-under, 70. “It’s got a wide variety of holes, long, short. It’s pretty straightforward, the scoring is there in front of you. I think the scoring is going to be low.”
The Olympic Experience
“It was cool. It was really special. It was different,” American Xander Schauffele said, about his start to the tournament. “I didn’t know that was how they are going to announce us, standing in a line there with the camera on you.”
While the course was devoid of spectators, as is the case for all events in Tokyo, the world feed TV broadcast captured intimate conversations between players and caddies for millions of viewers watching at home.
“It’s tough. It’s not the Olympic experience anyone dreams of having - I was even saying to Shane Lowry, how good would it be to go and watch some of the other events this evening,” McIlroy said.
“That’s the unfortunate part about it but there’s three medals up for grabs and we’re all here trying to play for them.”
Many of the golf professionals are staying in hotels near the course, but not all.
“It’s been unbelievable - I almost stayed in a hotel (close to the course), and I would’ve regretted that so much,” said Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz, who is two strokes behind Straka.
“I’m staying with a group of boxers. One of the guys won his fight yesterday, as I was watching. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”
Drama may come, hopefully, at Sunday’s fourth and final round, at the dogleg right, par four, 500-yard 18th hole, with its intimidating pond in front and right of a spacious, triangular shaped green surrounded by three bunkers. A narrow fairway dotted with towering pine trees requires a precise tee shot. Proof of its difficulty was evidenced as Great Britain’s Tommy Fleetwood found the water after an errant tee shot right into the unfriendly rough.
Golf returned to the Olympic program at Rio 2016, after a 112-year absence, as Great Britain’s Justin Rose won gold. Rose, silver medalist Henrik Stenson of Sweden and bronze medalist Matt Kuchar of the USA are not in Tokyo to defend their medals, all three unable to qualify and represent their respective countries at consecutive Games.
Weather forecasts predict intermittent showers over the coming days, though the threat of lightning may subside.
An Olympic golf champion will be crowned at Kasumigaseki Country Club on Sunday afternoon. An entire golf-loving nation can only hope that Matsuyama will add gold to his green jacket.
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