Thailand’s Jazz Janewattananond led the Asian charge at the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 men’s golf competition with a stunning 7-under 64 to lie one behind surprise leader Sepp Straka of Austria on Thursday.
The 25-year-old Olympics debutant was flawless at the historic Kasumigaseki Country Club’s East course, firing seven birdies on the card against no bogeys as he began his quest for a medal on the right note against a star-studded line-up.
Filipino Juvic Pagunsan carded a 66 for a share of fifth place while Anirban Lahiri of India shot a 67 for tied eighth as the Asian trio ensured a strong presence on the leaderboard. Home hero and reigning Masters champion Hideki Matsuyama of Japan opened with a 69.
Growing up, the slender Jazz dreamt of competing in swimming for Thailand before fate dealt him a different hand where has now won six professional golf titles in Asia.
He said having the Thai flag on his shirt was especially meaningful this week. With Thai exponent, Panipak Wongpattanakit winning a gold medal in the women’s taekwondo 49kg category last weekend, Jazz said he found added motivation to sparkle at Kasumigaseki.
“Definitely it feels really good to be out there representing Thailand,” said Jazz. “That gold medal from taekwondo is still in my mind, playing that big role for sure, that remind me of why we are here playing for Thailand, playing for the country.
“I know I got really nervous at the Masters but this is almost as nervous, I think it’s almost more nervous than at the Masters pretty much. When they say Jazz Janewattananond from Thailand I’m like, oh, we got to go now. You’re not playing for yourself, you’re playing for the country, you’re playing for the medals, you’re just going for it, you’re just playing with all your heart, it’s different. You can’t win the tournament on the first day, but you can get yourself a good position for sure. So I think I did that, I put myself in a good position.”
Lahiri, a regular on the PGA TOUR, overcame a shaky start to post a solid 67 in what is his second Olympics appearance. He dropped an opening bogey before finding his stride with a run of four birdies over five holes before making the turn in 33. He sank two more birdies on the 15th and 16th holes against a second bogey.
“It was good. I think I started off a little dodgy the first few holes, couldn’t get my rhythm going early. But then I settled down nicely. I think I played pretty good,” said Lahiri, who finished 57th in Rio 2016.
“I probably feel like I could have taken some more chances, some opportunities on the back nine I didn’t make as many birdies as I could have. But I’m playing well, so I have to build on this and as you can see already there’s a lot of opportunities if it keeps playing like this, soft, there’s not much rain today, then you have to go out there and just really be aggressive and make a lot of putts.”
Lahiri is determined to earn a podium finish after finishing a disappointing outing in Rio where he played with an injury. Fresh from a season’s best third place outing at the 3M Open on the PGA TOUR recently, the 34-year-old Indian is upbeat he can contend this week. “I truly feel like a veteran now, because there’s pretty much nothing that I haven’t played that there is to play,” said Lahiri. “So to that extent I felt surprisingly calm and relaxed and focused on what I needed to do. So really not that much different, which is a great sign for me because I want to be able to play with that attitude through the week and play my best.”
Sweet-swinging Pagunsan, who won his first tournament in Japan earlier this year, said he was nervous and excited at the same time in negotiating his opening 66 which included six birdies against a lone bogey. “I managed my round very well, putting was very good today,” said the Filipino. “I made birdie on the first which helped. I’m so nervous. This is the first time in a long time I’m representing the country. It’s very different from a regular tournament.