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Canada's Conners tied for clubhouse lead at RBC Canadian Open as controversy swirls

Canadian Corey Conners tees off on the tenth hole during the Canadian Open Pro-Am in Toronto on Wednesday, June 7, 2023. Conners is tied for the clubhouse lead at the RBC Canadian Open. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette

TORONTO — Metaphorical clouds of controversy and literal clouds of smoke continue to swirl around the RBC Canadian Open.

Canada's Corey Conners was in a four-way tie atop the leaderboard after a 5-under 67 in Thursday's first round. England's Aaron Rai and Americans Justin Lower and Chesson Hadley were grouped with Conners at the top of the leaderboard in the morning wave and no one caught them up.

Conners, from Listowel, Ont., was not able to speak with reporters after his round because he had to deal with an urgent personal matter. His caddy Danny Sahl said they were happy with Conners's bogey-free round.

"Really disciplined off the tee, we didn't try to do too much," said Sahl, who is from Sherwood Park, Alta. "But he had tons of fairways, missed maybe a couple in the first cut.

"Corey's just tee-to-green hitting greens, in regulation, made some good putts, just strong all around."

Lower said that to stay atop the leaderboard on Friday he'll have to stay aggressive at Oakdale Golf and Country Club.

"Just keep the gas pedal down and really just play determined." said Lower. "Don't play just going out there and going through the motions. 

"Play determined and go out there and be determined just to post a good score."

A Canadian has not won the Canadian Open since Pat Fletcher accomplished the feat at Vancouver's Point Grey Golf and Country Club in 1954. There are 21 Canadians in the field at this year's event, with Conners the top-ranked homegrown talent on the PGA Tour.

Mike Weir of Brights Grove, Ont., was the last Canadian to lead the first round of the national championship, sitting atop the leaderboard in 2008. Weir shot an even-par 72 to start his 30th Canadian Open appearance on Thursday.

He said Conners knows that leading on Sunday is what really matters.

"I think he's experienced enough to know that it's so early, that it doesn't really mean much yet," said Weir. "He just wants to, I'm sure, just keep doing what he's doing."

Three Canadians shot 3-under 69s to sit two shots back of Conners and the other leaders.

Mackenzie Hughes of Dundas, Ont., Taylor Pendrith of Richmond Hill, Ont., and Roger Sloan of Merritt, B.C., are tied for 13th. Hughes said it was great to see four Canadians in contention.

"You can't win it on Thursday, but you can lose it," he said. "So definitely nice to be in a good spot after Thursday but it's going to take four quite nice rounds and some steady golf."

Hughes also acknowledged it was great to get out and play after a tumultuous week on the PGA Tour.

The PGA Tour announced that a deal had been struck with Saudi Arabia's Public Investment Fund, LIV Golf's owner, to create a worldwide men's golf tour along with the European-based DP World Tour on Tuesday. The news came after a year of acrimony between the two sides, both in the headlines and in courtrooms.

Northern Ireland's Rory McIlroy, who hopes to win his third consecutive Canadian Open, has been the most outspoken defender of the PGA Tour over the past year, serving as the voice of mainstream men's professional golf as it fought LIV Golf in the headlines and in courtrooms.

He shot a 1-under 71 on Thursday to sit in a tie for 36th, a day after a lengthy news conference where he said he felt like "a sacrificial lamb" after the PGA Tour quickly changed gears and aligned itself with PIF.

"At the end of the day, this is business and my job is playing golf," said McIlroy. "The more that I can focus on that and focus on the birdies and the bogeys instead of the stuff that's happened in the board room I'll be much happier."

An air quality advisory due to ongoing forest fires across Ontario and Quebec was still in effect in the area. Although dark grey clouds hovered over Oakdale, several golfers said they were not impacted by the poor air quality.

There was some rain through the afternoon but play was never delayed.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published June 8, 2023.

John Chidley-Hill, The Canadian Press

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