American Berry Henson, Todd Sinnott from Australia and Japan’s Shugo Imahira returned 66s – in what is the first Asian Tour event to be played in Japan since September of 2019, due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Twelve players fired 67s including Japan’s Yuto Katsuragawa, currently first on Japan’s money list, and Keita Nakajima – the Japanese golfer who is the World No.1 amateur.

Both Iwata, a three-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour Organisation (JGTO), and Onishi, a professional since last year looking for his first victory, traded seven birdies against two bogeys.

This week’s tournament, which is jointly sanctioned with the JGTO, gives the winner an exemption into The Open at St. Andrews in July which is a major attraction for Iwata.

“This is the first time I have wanted to play in the UK so much as it’s the 150th staging of The Open,” said Iwata.

“This is a great opportunity. I played well today, felt the course is a bit shorter compared with when we played it a few years ago. Tee shots are key and today I put them all in the fairway.”

RIGHT: Iwata a three-time winner in Japan shares the lead after day one. PHOTO: Asian Tour.

The 42-year-old has been enjoying a return to form of late having won The Crowns tournament a year ago, which was his first JGTO victory in six years, and he finished third in that same event at the start of the month.

Onishi is just 23 and played on the Abema Tour last year, which is Japan’s feeder Tour, and has already made an impression on the JGTO this season after securing fourth in the ISPS HANDA Championship in Japan last month.

“Putting has been great for the past two weeks and it was today. Just need to straighten out my tee shots,” said Onishi, who is playing Oarai for the first time.

Henson made seven birdies and three bogeys and felt playing aggressive paid dividends.

“Japan has its own style of golf. Every time I come here, I have to adapt, I have to change, and I have to learn how to play this style,” said Henson.

“I’ve played here now for 10 years. This year I came thinking I need to play more aggressively as that’s what I see the top players do. Even if it’s a difficult shot, they play so aggressively. I did that today and it worked out.”

The Open is also something that is on the 42-year-old’s radar.

He added: “My goal is to win this week. I came here with an aim to grab The Open spot. My life goal is to play the British open at St. Andrews. I was aiming for that since the start of the year. Another life goal is to play the US Open at Pebble Beach. I want to just enjoy myself here in Japan. I love sushi and I enjoy Japanese food. My goal is to win and to enjoy myself this week in Japan.”

Still fresh on the Japanese Tour, Onishi is chasing a first win. PHOTO: Asian Tour.

Henson is looking to secure his second win on the Asian Tour as is Sinnott.

“It was a good round. I really enjoyed playing with Ben (Campbell). Had some good chat out there. I really enjoyed the round and I like the golf course. My putting was pretty solid. I hit it decent the first 14 holes. Didn’t hit it great on the last few. I struggled a bit there but was still able to hole some nice par putts,” said Sinnott, who claimed the TPS Victoria in February for his first success on the PGA Tour of Australasia.

“It’s my first time playing this course. It’s hard. We were lucky because there wasn’t much wind this morning. When the wind or rain gets up, it can play very tough out there.”

Thailand’s Sadom Kaewkanjana, buoyed this week by receiving an invite to next week’s PGA Championship, came in with a 69.

He said: “I am feeling good this week. Received good news at the start of the week [about the PGA Championship] and that got me really excited. I’m playing in my first Major next week at the PGA Championship. It’s my first time playing in the United States. I have never played there before. I was preparing to play my first Major at The Open in July. Getting into the PGA Championship was really a surprise to me. My caddy found out about it on Monday and told me. I heard the courses for PGA Championship are very difficult, but we are still very excited.”

Two players made aces on par-3s: Thailand’s Suradit Yongcharoenchai holed his nine iron on the fourth while Japan’s Naoyuki Kataoka found the cup with his eight iron on 14. They both won JPY300,000 (approx. US$2,330).