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Corey Conners of Listowel Ont. at the Tokyo Olympics men's golf tournament.

The Canadian Press

There aren’t supposed to be any fans in attendance at the Tokyo Olympics, but there was still something of a gallery following Canadian Corey Conners’ group on Thursday.

Conners was paired with Australia’s Mark Leishman and Japan’s Hideki Matsuyama for the first round of the men’s tournament, and will be with them again for Friday’s second round. Matsuyama, the reigning Masters champion, is a national celebrity and had about a hundred people – most wearing the blue or red shirts distributed to volunteers – gathered to watch him tee off.

That meant Conners and Leishman were also treated to the only thing resembling a crowd at Kasumigaseki Country Club.

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“I was very much expecting that,” Conners said of the crowd, which also included many photographers and reporters. “There was a few people out there. They kind of thinned out a little bit throughout the day as other players started to get their rounds going, but yeah, it was cool.”

Matsuyama said it was important for him to play well at the Olympics in Tokyo because it’s a unique opportunity for an elite athlete.

“This experience could be the first and last that I ever get to play the Olympics in my home country,” said Matsuyama.

The gallery gave Matsuyama, Leishman, and Conners equally gracious applause when they were announced at the first tee. Conners said that although COVID-19 restrictions such as the ban on spectators have changed the feel of the Olympics, he couldn’t deny the magnitude of the Summer Games.

“You still feel the prestige of the event and how special it is,” said Conners. “It was cool getting announced on the first tee. I’m really proud and honoured to represent Canada.

“My heart was beating a little faster than normal on the first tee.”

Conners, from Listowel, Ont., sank a 12-foot putt for birdie on the 18th hole to finish the first round at 2-under 69. It was his third birdie of the day after a two-putt on the par-5 fifth hole was his lone bogey.

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“Nice to finish with a birdie. Definitely a bright spot out there,” said Conners. “Felt like I drove the ball really well, just didn’t give myself the opportunities for birdie that I would have liked with the irons.”

Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont., was on the 16th fairway when play was stopped due to a thunderstorm. Severe weather warnings had been issued in the area after typhoon Nepartak made landfall on Japan’s southern islands.

After a 2 1/2-hour break Hughes completed his round for a 2-under 69, tied for 20th with Conners, Matsuyama, and eight others. Austria’s Sepp Straka was atop the leaderboard at 8-under 63 after the first round.

Hughes said the lengthy pause was challenging because of the extreme heat and humidity.

“I thought about sitting outside for most of it but once the delay got longer and longer I was inside and I had cooled off quite a bit,” said Hughes, who chatted with caddy Jace Walker and coach Derek Ingram during the downtime. “I mean you’re so sweaty and then you go inside and you’re so cool, comparatively.”

Canada’s men’s golf team had a group dinner together on Wednesday night before the first round of the tournament. Because all of them will have to leave the Olympic bubble shortly after their event is done, they decided to wear their distinctive Canadian Olympic team denim jackets that had been designated as the official gear for the closing ceremonies.

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“We’ll probably only wear them that one time, they’re quite out there,” said Hughes. “They’re something I’ll hold on to for some time, pass on to my grandchildren.”

Brooke Henderson of Smiths Falls, Ont., and Hamilton’s Alena Sharp will represent Canada in the women’s tournament when it tees off next Wednesday.

Both the men’s and women’s events are 60-player, no-cut tournaments. Olympic qualifying rules stipulate that countries can send a maximum of four players to each tournament, with most sending only two.

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