After a 112-year absence from the Olympic Games, golf’s opening day in Rio has been dominated by Australian Marcus Fraser, who fired a record score to upstage the more fancied medal favourites.
The Victorian fired a course and Olympic-record setting eight under 63 to lead the men’s Olympic tournament by three strokes.
The bounce in Fraser’s step as he walked into the media centre after his round was unmistakable as he laughed: “We were just saying ‘I've got the Olympic record’. That's pretty cool, and hopefully that lasts all week.”
Fraser claimed nine birdies over the purpose-built Olympic course at Reserva de Marapendi to open up a three-stroke advantage over Open champion Henrik Stenson and Canada’s Graham DeLaet as the 60 newest and proudest Olympic athletes set the tone for a potentially epic few days’ play in Rio.
The 38-year-old said he was “a bit jumpy” on the 1st tee before settling into the rest of his record round.
“We're always a little bit nervous, but I was little bit jumpy on the first tee because it was so different,” he said.
“Every week we play for ourselves at a normal tournament, but we're playing for our country this week and then playing for ourselves. Maybe that's why I felt so different, it was a little bit more pressure on that first tee shot.”
Among the key influences of Gil Hanse’s acclaimed Olympic course design was the Melbourne Sandbelt. Seems appropriate then that an Aussie should be setting the pace, even if he is ranked No.90 in the world and can thank a trio of high-profile withdrawals, including World No.1 Jason Day, for being in Rio. And, the significance of the opportunity and “the moment” is not lost on Fraser, who broke a six-year winning drought in February with victory in the European Tour’s Maybank Malaysia Championship.
“This is probably one of the best rounds of golf I've ever played for sure,” Fraser said. “I think given the circumstances, I was quite edgy, because it's such a big occasion to be here at the Olympics. To manage that and go on to play the way I did is really pleasing and a big confidence boost.
“Tapping in on 18 … when it went in, I looked down there, and grabbed my ball out of the hole, its something I'll never forget, because it's pretty special to be able to shoot that score in the first round that golf's back in the Olympics, that's for sure.”
Fraser, from the Murray river town of Corowa, has plenty of experience playing the Melbourne Sandbelt and says he feels very comfortable on the sandbelt-like Olympic course.
“The bunker lines (here), it's what the Sandbelt is, it's renowned for its bunkering,” Fraser said. “And obviously the strategy behind the Sandbelt golf courses, which this golf course feels like it's got a lot of strategy to it.
“They have got the variety to move tees around. They have got so many pins on the greens, and even though they are not huge greens, the greens are designed so well that every hole has its own strategy for different winds.”
Fraser paid tribute to a lesson from Australian team captain Ian Baker-Finch earlier in the week for straightening out his game from tee-to-green.
“I was struggling a little bit at the start of the week but luckily ‘Finchie’ sorted out a few things for me and fixed up all the basics and got me straightened out,” he said.
“The swing was just off and didn't feel quite right. It's always good to have that second set of eyes there and someone as experienced as Ian to be able to suggest a few things and try them, it made a big difference today.”
Fellow Aussie Scott Hend is tied for 50th after a three over 74, which could have been much lower if not for a quintuple-bogey 10 on the par-5 10th hole.
The Queenslander was three under through nine holes and sitting in the top-10 before disaster struck. After hitting his tee shot into heavy rough right of the fairway, Hend was forced to hack his way back to the fairway. But it was around the green where he leaked six shots after three bunker shots and three putts.
To his credit, Hend bounced straight back with a birdie at the next hole but gave two strokes back at the 14th and 15th holes before parring home for 74.
Earlier in the day, it was 44-year-old Brazilian, Adilson da Silva, who was fittingly handed the honour of striking the first Olympic golf shot in the modern era at 7.30am.
It was also appropriate that the first three-ball of the Olympic competition contained DeLaet, whose countryman, George Lyon, was the last person to capture a precious gold medal at the Olympics 112 years ago.
DeLaet was aware of the Canadian connection as he flexed his competitive muscles with an outstanding round of 66, five-under-par and observed: “We said as we were walking off the first tee that this is pretty cool – the first time in over a hundred years - and we're the lead group. It was nice.”
As the day unfolded, and more new Olympians were established with every passing tee time, it was clear golf was savouring its return to Olympic prominence. The quality of the play reflected that.
Rose enjoyed the feeling of recording the first hole-in-one of the new Olympic era, as his 7-iron from 189 yards disappeared into the hole at the 4th.
“Definitely one of those icing on the cake moments, when you're the first to do anything, no one can ever take that away from you, whatever it is,” said Rose, who is tied 4th at four under. “That was definitely a cool moment.”