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Former Georgia Bulldog, Sepp Straka, representing Austria, leads men's golf; Americans unimpressive after Round 1

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  • Sepp Straka
    Sepp Straka
    Austrian professional golfer (1993-)

KAWAGOE, Japan — It was a day Sepp Straka won't soon forget.

The next step is making it a weekend that will live in the history books.

The former University of Georgia golfer, representing Austria during the men’s golf tournament at the Tokyo Olympics, carded an 8-under-par 63 to pace the 60-person field at Kasumigaseki Country Club on Thursday.

Straka played bogey-free golf and made 16 of 18 greens to propel him to the top of the leaderboard, which featured 53 golfers at or under par 71.

Straka, the son of an Austrian father and American mother who moved to Valdosta, Georgia in high school, has his twin brother Sam —also a former Bulldogs golfer — on the bag as his caddy at the Olympics.

Sepp Straka of Austria tees off on the first hole during round one of the men's individual stroke play of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Kasumigaseki Country Club.
Sepp Straka of Austria tees off on the first hole during round one of the men's individual stroke play of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

"It was awesome. It was a dream come true for us to be out there together," Straka said. "We had a blast out there. It was a day that will be in my memory forever."

Sam Straka has caddied for his brother on the PGA Tour, as well as for former Bulldogs golfer Chris Kirk.

Three consecutive birdies on the back nine propelled Sepp Straka to the lead, an unfamiliar position for him. The 28-year-old qualified in late June, reaching 44th in the Olympic Golf Ranking.

"I haven’t played great on the PGA Tour last few weeks," he said. "Putting was really the reason."

He switched up his routine to emphasize feel and make it less technical, while also eliminating practice strokes on the green. Other parts of his game were the strengths Thursday, he felt.

"If you just put it on the fairway on this course, you can really take advantage," he said. "I got hot with my irons, especially with my short irons and my wedges."

The video boards near the tee boxes of each hole displayed the longest drives of the day to that point, and Xander Schauffele said after his 3-under round that Straka’s name was up there on nearly every hole.

"He’s a big boy, hits it a long way," Schauffele said. "He put a number out there for us to chase."

Wearing a red polo that could have meshed perfectly at an Athens tailgate had a "G" been embroidered on it, Straka has previously represented Austria on the European Team Junior Championship when he was 16 and later the Men’s Amateur European Championship.

The Strakas' mother had lived in Austria for 24 years and ran golf pro shops. Her desire to be closer to her own parents spurred the family's move to the States, and Sepp Straka tries to return to Austria once a year. His father, an architect, regularly travels and spends time in the home country for work.

"I feel very connected to Austria," he said. "It’s home. I used to say that I was 50 percent Austrian and 50 percent American. A friend of mine corrected me and said I’m a hundred percent Austrian and a hundred percent American."

The idea of playing in the Olympics first percolated five years ago while watching golf’s return to the program during the 2016 Rio Games. Matt Kuchar, who won bronze for the U.S. in Rio, was one of the golfers who raved about the experience.

"It’s really special, (even) without the spectators," Straka said. "If we didn’t have any restrictions, this would be one heck of an event. I noticed flying in, you’re flying over one golf course then the next, it’s pretty incredible.”

On the PGA Tour, Straka said, a missed cut doesn’t matter much. The "once every four years" aspect of the tournament adds an air of importance.

"Just knowing that it’s a one-of-a-kind event," he said. "Out here, this week, it’s just special."

Straka's performance came after one practice round Wednesday. He'd been in Minnesota at the 3M Open and took a Delta flight Tuesday through Detroit, Michigan.

Despite the recent world travels, he slept fine — in bed by 8:30 a.m. with 11 hours of rest — on his first night.

"Except for this morning," said Straka, who teed off at 7:30 a.m. in the first group. "A little bit of an earlier wake-up call."

That meant the rest of the field followed him on the course. Heading into the second round, they're also following him on the leaderboard.

Lackluster showing from Americans

Under International Golf Federation qualifying rules for the Olympics, the top 15 players in the world automatically qualify for the Games, with a maximum of four per country.

Therefore, the U.S. sent four players, with Patrick Reed a late replacement for Bryson DeChambeau, who tested positive for coronavirus.

Despite sending the largest contingent in the field, it was a lackluster showing from the Americans; Reed and Schauffele fared the best of the U.S. delegation with 68s.

Reed was in the scoring tent at the 3M Open when he found out he'd be heading to Japan. He said he slept 35 minutes Monday into Tuesday, coordinating the necessary paperwork with an early flight. The near-all-nighter might have helped, Reed said, since he slept on the plane and adjusted to the time zone quicker.

He didn't have time for a practice round but managed to take a golf-cart tour of the final four holes before sunset at course Wednesday night.

Adrenaline still pumping, Reed started hot before a 1-hour, 20-minute thunderstorm delay sapped his energy.

"You got the air conditioning, you’re sitting around," Reed said, noting he managed to birdie the par-5 14th afterward.

Justin Thomas used one word to describe his first Olympic round.

"Par," he replied.

There might not be a better answer, as he made par on all 18 holes.

"I would love to have some old, useless club I could break over my knee right now, I gotta be honest," Thomas said.

For Thomas and Collin Morikawa (2-under 69), fresh off his second major victory at The Open Championship, representing the United States and hearing their names called at the first box marked special moments.

But once they teed it up, those emotions subsided, and the focus became lows scores.

"I’ve got a couple things to figure out, how to play a little better in the middle of the fairway," Morikawa said.

The 24-year-old is half-Japanese and said the atmosphere, or lack thereof minus spectators, left him wondering what could have been — especially after the environment at Royal St. George's during his Open win.

"We miss the fans ... they're amazing (in Japan)," said Morikawa, who has played twice professionally in his father's ancestral home. "They love the game. They bring so much of that energy. Unfortunately, even today with a couple claps (from volunteers ), it brought you back to that restart of COVID. Sometimes it’s hard to get that spark."

Follow Chris Bumbaca on Twitter @BOOMbaca.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Olympics golf: Sepp Straka leads; USA stars struggle in first round