By Steve Keating
RIO DE JANEIRO (Reuters) – Australia’s Marcus Fraser made the most of a golden opportunity taking a three shot first round lead as golf made a subdued return to the Olympics after 112 years on Thursday with the sport’s biggest names and fans staying away.
There were tears and fireworks during some superb golf at the Gil Hanse designed course carved into the Marapendi Nature Reserve.
The only thing missing were spectators with half the 12,000 tickets for the opening round going unsold and only 3,100 passing through the turnstiles.
Adilson da Silva, the only Brazilian in the field, was given the honor of striking the opening tee shot, receiving a smattering of applause from the sparse early morning crowd. He later broke down in tears recalling how growing up he made clubs out of tree branches.
While da Silva provided the emotional moment of the day, Britain’s Justin Rose delivered the fireworks, carding the first ever hole-in-one in Olympic competition when he aced the par-three 191-yard fourth hole.
The man of the moment, however, was Fraser who only found his way onto the Australian team when world number one Jason Day, 2013 Masters champion Adam Scott, Marc Leishman and Matt Jones all declined Olympic selection.
The 38-year-old journeyman took full advantage of his good fortune mixing nine birdies with a single bogey for an Olympic course record eight-under 63.
“Very rarely do you get to represent your country,” said Fraser, who plays primarily on the European Tour. “I feel very fortunate to be in this position.
“Right now I have the Olympic record. That’s pretty cool. This is one of the best rounds I’ve ever played, given the circumstances.”
The expected celebration surrounding golf’s reappearance on the Games program fell flat after the world’s four top-ranked players – Day, Americans Dustin Johnson and Jordan Spieth and Northern Irishman Rory McIlroy – opted out over the mosquito-borne Zika virus.
Sitting three back from Fraser in Rio was British Open champion Henrik Stenson of Sweden and Graham DeLaet, who opened defense of the gold medal won by Canadian George Lyon at the 1904 Summer Games, with a five-under 66.
One shot further adrift are Rose, Belgian Thomas Pieters, German Alex Cejka, Frenchman Gregory Bourdy and Spain’s Rafa Cabrera Bello.
“If you look at the leader board loads of people are in contention,” said Rose. “I always like to take the leader out of it in my mind because you never know if they are going to continue and I’m right there with the rest of them.”
The U.S. team had a rough start, with Matt Kuchar leading the way with a two-under 69 and the three other members failing to crack par. Patrick Reed was on 72, twice Masters champion Bubba Watson 73 and Rickie Fowler 75.
Da Silva, who had the small galleries firmly in his corner, overcame a jittery start to card a respectable one-over 72 to stay on the fringe of medal contention.
“We used to cut branches in the shape of a golf club,” said Da Silva, tears dripping off his face. “Just before the tee off my head was everywhere, don’t goof this, don’t make a scene.
“It’s such a big deal you know. All my friends are talking about it saying it’s such a nice thing to do.”
And for all the worries about Zika, there was more talk on Thursday of the threat from capybaras, the world’s largest rodent, and caimans, a kind of alligator, that roam the course.
“Still lower numbers than we are used to but a lot more passionate, energetic crowd,” said Rose. “This is competition at the highest level and what I live for.”
(Additional reporting Liana Baker. Editing by Neil Robinson and Andrew Hay)