ANCASTER, ONT. - The low scoring during the first round of the RBC Canadian Open could have been predicted long before the first tee shot was struck Thursday at 7:10 a.m. local time.
Like maybe at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m – roughly when a heavy storm rolled through central Ontario, unloading a torrent of rain on Hamilton Golf and Country Club.
David Hearn was asleep in his bed in nearby Brantford when thunder struck.
“I woke up right away,” Canada’s top-ranked male golfer said. “… It was pretty loud. I felt like it was hitting some of the trees in the backyard.”
Hearn and other early competitors Thursday arrived at Hamilton as dawn broke to find a course softened by rain – and missing one of its key defences.
Classic, tree-lined Hamilton, or Ancaster as its members call it, is short by PGA Tour standards (less than 7,000 yards) and relies on its fairways and greens to be firm.
It wasn’t. And the scores reflected it. Player after player took dead aim at the flagsticks, without fear of their shots running away.
“It is really soft,” said Jhonattan Vegas, the powerful Venezuelan who was among the early pace-setters with a five-under-par 65. “There’s no question about it. You can really throw anything at the pins and it’s going to stop there. So, I mean, we gotta try to take advantage of that.”
Many did. The PGA Tour made scoring even easier by allowing players to pick up their balls from the fairways, clean them and place them back down on perfect lies.
Even as the wind picked up in the afternoon and the 98-year-old course dried out a bit, players kept their foot on the pedal.
Scott Piercy of the United States inflicted the most damage, setting a new course record with an eight-under 62.
Piercy, whose only PGA Tour victory came at the 2011 Reno-Tahoe Open, made five birdies and two eagles against just one bogey to shoot one shy of his personal best on the tour.
His putter was a magic wand. He needed just 24 putts on Hamilton’s small, back-to-front-sloping greens, draining 13 of 14 from within 10 feet.
That someone would shoot 62 might not have been a surprise given the conditions. But Piercy seemed surprised it was him.
“In all honesty, I didn’t feel like I had a very good feel for the golf course teeing up on the first hole,” he said. “I flew in late on Tuesday, played the pro-am [Wednesday] so I’m kind of jet-lagged playing.”
As Piercy spoke with the media after his round at about 6:30 p.m., the skies opened again. Amid a heavy downpour that foreshadows more low scoring Friday, the tour suspended play with 18 players still on the course. (They returned after a 20-minute break to finish their rounds.)
Greg Owen of England and William McGirt of the U.S. had the day’s second-best score, carding 63 – the former course record set by Jim Furyk and Justin Rose in 2006, when the Canadian Open was last contested at Hamilton.
Owen’s 63 was all the more remarkable considering he started with a double bogey and a bogey, and that he arrived in Canada with a wrist he injured at the British Open last week.
“I wasn’t even sure whether I would be playing this week with my hand. I was really 50-50 as to whether I should be playing or not,” said Owen, who ultimately decided to enter in a last-ditch bid to qualify for the PGA Championship in two weeks.
His hand held up, and he found some momentum, coming home on his back nine in 29.
Robert Garrigus of the U.S. held fourth place alone at six under, while Vegas was among a group of seven players at five under.
That group included 2011 Masters champion Charl Schwartzel and Vijay Singh, whose playoff victory over homegrown favourite Mike Weir at the 2004 Canadian Open is among his 34 PGA Tour titles.
In total, 65 men in the field of 156 shot par or better. Among the notables who didn’t were Weir (72), defending champion Sean O’Hair (75) and British Open champion Ernie Els (72), who came to Hamilton directly from Lytham St. Annes, England, with the claret jug in tow.
CANADIAN BY BIRTH: There are 23 Canadians competing this week in the Canadian Open – 24 if you count Jason Kokrak. The strapping PGA Tour rookie was born in North Bay 27 years ago while his mother, Theresa, a Canadian married to an American, was visiting her family in the Ontario city. Baby Jason stayed in Canada less than two weeks before returning to his parents’ home in Ohio. He grew up thinking he had dual citizenship but found out at 14 that he only had a Canadian passport. He’s since become a U.S. citizen. “I’ll be counted as Canadian if I do well this week,” joked Kokrak, who shot a one-under 69 Thursday in front of his mother and a handful of his Canadian relatives, including his mother’s two sisters. “American if I don’t.” Kokrak has spent his life and golf career in the United States. He’s a two-time Ohio Amateur champion and has made a quick adjustment to the pro game, winning twice on the Web.com Tour last year en route to earning his PGA Tour card. Although he rarely gets to Canada these days, there’s still a little of the Great White North in his blood. He says he loves to return to Ontario in the winter when he can to ice-fish and ride snowmobiles with his uncle.
CANADIAN BY ASSOCIATION: Hunter Mahan’s Canadianization continues. The California-born world No. 13 has started using a sports drink and other products made by Toronto-based BioSteel Sports Supplement. The drink was formulated by Matt Nichol, a former strength coach with the Toronto Maple Leafs, and is also the training liquid of choice for such NHL stars as Carey Price and Tyler Seguin and some of Canada’s Olympians in London. The BioSteel connection deepens Mahan’s link to Canada. He has a swing instructor (Sean Foley), therapist and trainer (Craig Davies), mental coach (Jim Murphy) and two sponsors (Sun Life Financial and Royal Bank of Canada) from Canada.
BY THE NUMBERS: 344 - Distance of J.B. Holmes’s drive on the fourth hole at Hamilton, a par-five playing 542 yards. It was the longest shot of the first round. The long-bombing American, who is fifth in driving distance on the PGA Tour this year with an average of 308.6, also recorded the third longest shot of the day, a 335-yard blast on the 14th hole. Stephen Ames, a Calgarian never known for prodigious driving, also launched a tee shot 335 yards, on the ninth.
FOLLOW THE LEADER: The first-round leader/co-leader has gone on to win just two of 31 stroke-play events on the PGA Tour this year, most recently Zach Johnson at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial. ...The last first-round leader of the RBC Canadian Open to hold on for the win was Jim Furyk in 2006, also the last time Canada’s national open was contested at Hamilton G&CC. ...The last Englishman to win Canada’s Open Championship was Peter Oosterhuis at Glen Abbey GC in 1981. Since 1960, the RBC Canadian Open has been won by an American all but 10 times.
GOING LOW: Of the four previous RBC Canadian Opens contested at Hamilton Golf and Country Club, there have only been four other 63s, each coming in 2006; Jim Furyk (R1), Justin Rose (R1), Brett Quigley (R2) and Kevin Sutherland (R3).