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TOKYO — Sepp Straka arrived in Tokyo like many in the 60-man Olympic field -- under the radar. That changed quickly, though, after the Austrian shot an opening-round 63 for a one-shot lead. 

How Straka, 28, could be overlooked is easy. He ranks 161st in the world and has missed six of his last seven cuts on the PGA Tour. The lone outlier was a T-10 at the Travelers Championship.

Straka’s bogey-free round at Kasumigaseki Country Club included eight birdies and was his lowest score since a 63 in the final round of the 2020 3M Open.

Surprisingly, no players in the Official World Golf Ranking's top 10 made it to the first page of the leaderboard. Collin Morikawa, ranked No. 3 and winner of the British Open two weeks ago, shot a 2-under 69 and is tied for 20th. Fourth-ranked Justin Thomas recorded an even-par 71 and fifth-ranked Xander Schauffele shot a 3-under 68 and is tied for 12th.

“I felt comfortable with my game going into this week,” Straka said after his Olympic debut. “I hadn't played great over on the PGA Tour the last few weeks, but my putting was really the reason and I just switched up my routine on my putting and it's worked out.”

Straka decided to simplify his stroke, shorten it up a bit and removed practice swings from his routine. The result is a more athletic looking and less technical stroke.

Born to an American mother and Austrian Father, Straka has lived in the U.S. since age 14 and has a distinct southern accent as a result of living in Alabama and attending the University of Georgia. 

Adding to the pleasure of his opening round was the fact that his brother Sam was on the bag.  

“It was great. It was awesome,” Straka said. “It was a dream come true for us to be out there together, and we had a blast out there. So it was one of those -- it was a day that will be in my memory forever.”

Straka, who went off in the first group, had only seen the course once due to travel and COVID restrictions, but that was more than his playing competitor Thomas Peters, who was ill on Wednesday and didn't practice. Peters, of Belgium, suffered from COVID-like symptoms, but tested negative and chalked the ill feeling to dehydration and jet lag.

“Didn't play my way out of the tournament the first day, so that's good,” said Peters after an opening 65. “I was not in good ways yesterday, so I kind of didn't expect this today. I felt horrible this morning even when I woke up, but 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 it. I kept it simple.”

Peters is making his second Olympic appearance. He finished fourth at the Rio Olympics after a final-round 65. With no crowds to urge his group on, Peters was glad to have the eventual leader in his pairing.

“That definitely helps,” said Peters of Straka’s good play on Thursday. “It’s nice to see balls going at the flag and getting close (to the pin).”

Straka agreed that the pairing was close to ideal.

“We had a really good group, had some good mojo going in the group and first off was great," he said. "We didn't have to wait on anybody, and we played quickly. We didn't feel rushed because we had some pretty good space between us and the group behind us, so that was really key.”

In 2016, Straka wasn’t close to qualifying for the Austrian Olympic squad. He watched those Olympics unfold and talking to participants afterward, he circled the 2020 Games.

“Everybody that I knew that went over there and played just raved about it,” Straka said. “So, I knew at that point that was going to be on my radar. I definitely wanted to play well so I could play my way in.”

With three rounds to go, Straka is definitely in it.


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