by Al Campbell
TORONTO, June 9 (Xinhua) — China’s Yuan Yechun roared to the top of the leaderboard at the RBC Canadian Open on Friday as the Dalian native held a one-stroke lead through two rounds of the national championship at Oakdale Golf and Country Club.
Teeing off in the early morning one shot behind the leaders, Yuan played through cool and damp conditions to card a five-under 67. Through 36 holes at the PGA Tour event he was nine-under 135.
Canadian Corey Conners (69) was equal second with Chinese Taipei’s Pan Cheng-tsung (66), Englishmen Aaron Rai (69) and Tyrrell Hatton who carded a tournament low eight-under 64.
World No. 3 Rory McIlroy, the two-time defending champion, was three shots off the pace after a five-under 67, tied for equal 12th in a group of five players that included Englishman Justin Rose (69).
Henan native Dou Zecheng improved to a two-over 74 but missed the one-under cut by six strokes.
Yuan came out firing to start his round in carding consecutive birdies over the first two holes. He would make bogey at the par-four next, followed by a birdie four at the seventh hole to make the turn at two-under 34. On the back nine, he would add four more birdies, including two straight to finish, hitting the grandstand on the last hole, no less, and a bogey five at the 13th.
“Definitely played some great golf out there. It was a little rainy in the morning. But I kind of adapted pretty good. I had the exact same mindset as yesterday. Just go out, play freely. Yeah, let the result take care of itself.”
The 26-year-old, who won the Louisiana Open last year on the Korn Ferry Tour, said he would keep the same game plan going for the weekend. Overcast skies are in the forecast for Saturday’s third round with showers on Sunday.
“I’ve definitely been in a similar situation before on the (development) Korn Ferry Tour. But being out here I think it’s the same mindset I had the last two days. Just go out and have fun and it works out good so far. I think I’m going to keep that rolling.”
Pan, a bronze-medal winner at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, put himself in the mix at the par-five 18th hole (his ninth hole) where he made an eagle three after having started his round from the Oakdale back nine.
“The eagle on 18 was special. I hit it to five feet and drained that putt. That kind of kept the momentum going on the front nine, which was my back nine. The course is playing a little bit harder, but I was able to save a lot of good pars out there. Overall, it was a great day.”
Conners, who was among one of eight Canadians to advance to the weekend play, said he was “embracing” the fan support. Along with Adam Hadwin (68), Nick Taylor (67) and evergreen former Masters champion Mike Weir (70), among others, he will be attempting to end a winless streak that has not produced a homegrown champion since 1954.
“Yeah, really happy with the start. It’s been a lot of fun out here this week. Fun playing in front of the Canadian fans. Just enjoying the walk out there,” said Conners, the world No. 29. “I have felt really good about my game. Ball striking’s been very, very solid. Yeah, hopefully can keep hitting it well and get some more putts to fall in over the weekend.”
McIlroy, who will be among the favorites at next week’s US Open in Los Angeles, moved into contention on the strength of a bogey-free round that featured four birdies, including two over the final two holes.
“Yeah, three back going into the weekend. I’m pretty pleased with that. Finished strongly out there this afternoon. Yeah, I feel pretty good with where I’m at. Would have been nice to be one or two closer to the lead, but I thought today went well,” said the four-time Major winner.