NORTH YORK, Ontario – Rory McIlroy and Justin Rose were grouped together for the opening round of the 2023 RBC Canadian Open and walking down the first fairway the pair made a deal: no talk about the PGA Tour’s partnership with Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund until lunch.
“Rosie and I said, ‘All right, no chatting until lunch so that we can actually concentrate on what we’re doing out there,” said McIlroy, the event’s two-time defending champion who shot a 1-under 71 at Oakdale Golf and Country Club. “So it was nice to play a round of golf and focus on something else for those five hours we were out there.”
After fighting for professional golf supremacy for more than a year now, PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan shocked the sports world with the news that the Tour would be partnering with the PIF, the very group it was countersuing amid its struggle with LIV Golf. With the PIF as its sole funder, the upstart circuit has long been criticized as a way for Saudi Arabia to sportswash its controversial human rights record, which includes accusations of wide-ranging human rights abuses, including politically motivated killings, torture, forced disappearances and inhumane treatment of prisoners.
And while the dust has far from settled on the announcement of the new deal that may shake up professional golf as we know it, it was back to business as usual for the PGA Tour on Thursday in Canada, where the people were just as welcoming as the golf course (so long as you’re in the fairway).
After the early wave of the first round of the 2023 RBC Canadian Open, four players are tied for the lead after taking advantage of calm conditions on Thursday morning at Oakdale Golf and Country Club. Playing in his national open for the seventh time, Corey Conners fired a bogey-free 5-under 67 and sits atop the leaderboard alongside Aaron Rai, Justin Lower and Chesson Hadley.
Conners is looking to become the first Canadian to win the Canadian Open since Pat Fletcher in 1954, a drought that Mike Weir nearly ended in 2004 before his playoff loss to Vijay Singh. David Hearn had a two-shot lead in the final round in 2015 as late as the 15th hole, but ultimately lost out to Jason Day. A year later, amateur Jared du Toit was a shot back on Sunday before finishing T-9, three behind winner Jhonattan Vegas.
RBC Canadian Open: Photos
“I think golf is a funny game. It’s very different on a day-to-day basis,” said Rai, who has missed four of his last five cuts on Tour. “But it’s funny, the more you try and force it and impose it on coming days, the less it seems to happen. So we’ll definitely take the positives and just try and approach the rounds with the right kind of mindset. Stay patient. Just see what happens, really.
“I’ve been really working hard on driving it better. I’ve driven it like crap all year,” added Lower. “Just really trying to get the ball in the fairway. Especially around this place with the rough being so thick.”
“Course is good. It’s penal,” echoed McIlroy. “If you miss fairways the rough is very, very thick … I certainly hit a few loose shots and got myself out of position, and the golf course does start to get quite tricky from there. So need to do a better job of just putting my ball in play off the tee. Then from there the golf course is still quite scorable.”
While he isn’t at the top of the leaderboard, one of the stars of the day was rookie Ludvig Aberg, who is making his pro debut this week after finishing atop the PGA Tour University rankings and earning a Tour card for the rest of the season. The Texas Tech product began his professional career 4 under on the front nine before signing for a 3-under 69.
“I was nervous. I mean, I think it would have been weird if I wasn’t nervous,” said Aberg of his emotions on the first tee. “But I tried to embrace it. I tried to view it as something fun.”
“I’m super fortunate to be in this position, to actually get my Tour card,” said the 23-year-old from Eslov, Sweden. “I’m just going to be prepared to play a lot of golf. Play as much as I can, get as many points as I can and kind of see where that takes me.”