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Former amateur champion Yang is stellar in taking first-round lead

Gunn Yang Gunn Yang - PGA Tour Canada

WASKESIU, Saskatchewan—South Korea’s Gunn Yang, the last alternate to get into the 156-player field, took advantage of the opportunity and carded a 7-under 63 in his first PGA TOUR Canada start to take the first-round lead at Elk Ridge Saskatchewan Open presented by Brandt.

Yang, the 2014 U.S. Amateur champion, got hot with the putter and made eight birdies to surge in front of a tightly packed leaderboard. He holds a one-shot lead over Thomas Longbella, Chandler Eaton and Ben Carr at the Elk Ridge Resort course in the race for the Fortinet Cup.

Yang, 29, didn’t learn he was in the field until Tuesday evening and had to hurry to reach the venue.

“I got the phone call after I dropped my friend off at the Saskatoon airport,” Yang said. “That was around, like, 6:30, so I was just rushing up here to try to play the practice round before the pro-am on Wednesday. That was the only available time, so I’m happy to be here. I’m very fortunate and thankful for the opportunity.”

Yang started on the back nine and made the turn in 33. He began the second nine with three straight birdies and ended up with a 30.

“I really got the ball rolling, especially my back nine,” Yang said. “It was Nos. 1, 2 and 3—that three-birdie stretch—that I took advantage of it and then just kept it going.”

Carr played in the U.S. Open last week and is making his professional debut. Longbella and Eaton, who both missed the cut last week at the Royal Beach Victoria Open, turned their fortunes around. All three shot 6-under 64 in the first round.

Tied for fifth at 5-under 65 are Connor Howe of Ogden, Utah, Nicolo Galletti of Berkeley, California, Cameron Sisk of San Diego, California, Gavin Hall of Rochester, New York, and Luis Gagne of Costa Rica.

The low Canadian is Jimmy Jones of Lake Cowichan, British Columbia. Jones, who won the final PGA TOUR Canada Qualifying Tournament in British Columbia two weeks ago, shot a 4-under 66 Thursday and is tied for 10th.

Carr, of Columbus, Georgia, was runner-up at the 2022 U.S. Amateur and played in the Masters in April and the U.S. Open last week. He showed few nerves and posted a bogey-free round that included six birdies.

“Definitely a little nervous being my first pro start,” Carr said. “Just more excitement than anything. Just sort of trying to plot my way around. I wasn’t really thinking too much about it or anything; just trying to hit the right shot every time.”

Longbella, of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, played PGA TOUR Canada a year ago and had two top-10 finishes. His opening 64 matches his lowest score first set at the 2022 Osprey Valley Open presented by Votorantim Cimentos CBM Aggregates, where he fired a pair of 64s on the weekend at TPC Osprey Valley to tie for third.

After missing the cut last week, Longbella made his first birdie at No. 5 to start a streak of six birdies over nine holes.

“I missed some putts for birdie early but the first birdie I made, I made a nice putt and that kind of got me going and gave me some confidence,” Longbella said. “I didn’t putt very well last week, so starting out like that was good to see.”

Longbella felt like he was losing some momentum after the par-5 16th hole, where he hit a poor 4-iron and managed to save par. But he followed that with a birdie on the par-4 17th, thanks to draining a 50-footer that went up and over a slope before clanking the flagstick and dropping in.

Eaton, of Atlanta, Georgia, played nine PGA TOUR Canada events in 2022 and managed only one top-25 effort.

He began on the back nine and got out of the gate fast, making three straight birdies, starting at No. 11 and turned in 5-under 31. He added a birdie on No. 7 and closed with a bogey-free round to post his lowest career score on PGA TOUR Canada.

“Golf is fun when you start making stuff,” Eaton said. “It’s so good to watch [the ball] go in the cup.”

Eaton said he never deviated from his plans to stay aggressive even though a loose shot can easily wind up in the trees that dominate the layout.

“I just tried to stay fearless because this course is kind of tight, and it’s easy to try and control it,” Eaton said. “I just tried to stay on attack, and I made some putts and drove it. I just kind of played everything well.”

Howe and Hall were among the group tied for 33rd at last week’s Royal Beach Victoria Open.

Howe played a drama-free round that included five birdies and no bogeys. He credited the round to “solid approach shots” that left him within 15 feet of most hole locations.

Hall’s round was accentuated by an eagle on the 538-yard par-5 16th hole, even though he hit his tee shot into the right rough.

“I had a good lie and a good angle at the pin and just a nice, little punch 5-iron up there (that) took one bounce and trickled up near the hole and made that little five-footer to make eagle,” Hall said.  

The veteran Galletti, who has made 44 PGA TOUR Latinomerica starts, tied for 45th last week in Victoria in his PGA TOUR Canada debut. He missed only one fairway Thursday had five birdies spread evenly throughout the round.

“I was able to play a little more offensive instead of defensive, and my putting was a little bit better today,” Galletti said. “I struggled with that last week and put some good work in earlier this week and it kind of paid off today.”

Sisk, a second-year PGA TOUR Canada competitor, bounced back after missing the cut last week. He closed with a 31, which included a birdie on the final hole.

“This course is about keeping it in play,” Sisk said. “If you keep it in play, you’re going to have some chances to get to some pins.”  

Tied for 10th, at 4-under 66, are Jones, Derek Hitchner of Minneapolis, Minnesota, Lee Detmer of Washington, D.C., Easton Paxton of Riverton, Wyoming, and John Pak of Scotch Plains, New Jersey.