He didn’t arrive in Japan until Tuesday afternoon, his commercial flight from the 3M Open in Minnesota meandering through Detroit before heading across the Pacific. That gave Sepp Straka little more than a day to acclimate himself to the 14-hour time change and get in 18 holes at Kasumigaseki Golf Club.
Yet if fatigue or unfamiliarity was a problem during his opening round of the men’s Olympic golf tournament on Thursday, you’d have never known it from the number he posted. An opening-round 63, bogey-free, gave the 28-year-old from Austria a piece of the Olympic scoring record and a one-stroke lead over Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananod.
Sitting 161st in the World Ranking, Straka presence atop the leader board was an unlikely surprise to many watching Day 1 play. The presumption, of course, was that top-ranked players like Justin Thomas (T-41), Collin Morikawa (T-20), Rory McIlroy (T-20), Hideki Matsuayama (T-20) and the like would grab an early lead. Yet Great Britain’s Paul Casey was the lone world top-50 golfer inside the top 11 after Thursday’s round. Two back of Straka are Belgium’s Thomas Pieters, who was battling a cold on Wednesday, and Mexico’s Carlos Ortiz. Three back are Denmark’s Joachim B. Hansen, Venezuela’s Jhonattan Vegas and the Philippines’ Juvic Pagunsan.
That Straka lead them all, equaling the 63s shot at the 2016 Rio Olympics by Marcus Frazier and Matt Kuchar, seems even more unlikely given his performances in the 2020-21 PGA Tour season. In 90 rounds, his lowest score is a 65.
His more recent results also offer no hint that the former University of Georgia golfer had this in him. In his last seven PGA Tour starts, Straka missed the cut six times, a T-10 finish at last month’s Travelers Championship the only time he seemed to have found his form. In 29 starts this season, he’s missed the cut 11 times and sits at 110th in the FedEx Cup points list.
Still Straka was upbeat about his prospects heading into the tournament.
“I felt like my game was in a pretty good spot,” Straka said. “Those first few weeks before Travelers when I missed the cut my irons were bad, but my short game was really good. So I worked on my irons a lot and then my short game got bad. So that’s when I missed the last couple cuts. But yeah, I just changed my putting routine up a little bit and it worked really well and my irons have been pretty good the last few weeks, so I felt pretty good about my game.”
The specific putting fix: shortening his routine and taking out a few practice strokes to get more focused.
Buoying Straka this week is the fact that his twin brother, Sam, is on his bag. Both were talented junior golfers exposed to the game by their mom, who ran a pro shop in Austria. The family moved to Valdosta, Ga., when the boys were 14. Sam, who played with Sepp at Georgia, has caddied for him in other pro events as well as fellow Bulldog Chris Kirk.
“It was great. It was awesome,” Sepp 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.”