Hughes’ strong start at Canadian Open symbolic of maturation on PGA Tour

Mackenzie Hughes watches his tee shot on the first hole during the first round of the Canadian Open golf at Glen Abbey in Oakville, Ontario on Thursday July 27, 2017. (Frank Gunn/CP)

OAKVILLE, ONT. — As he prepared to tee off on No. 7 at Glen Abbey, sitting one shot off the lead at his national open, Mackenzie Hughes was introduced over the loud speaker as the player “from just down the road.”

That could explain why the 26-year-old from nearby Dundas, Ont., looks so comfortable in the early goings here at the RBC Canadian Open.

After an opening round five-under-par 67, Hughes sits two shots back of the leaders, and the PGA Tour rookie is the low Canadian among 17 in the field.

Saskatchewan’s Graham DeLaet is three back at four under, while fellow Canadians Nick Taylor and David Hearn are both at three under.

And while Hughes is cruising early, it’s not because he played this track a lot as a kid, despite the fact the Jack Nicklaus design is about a half hour drive from where he grew up.

“I could probably count on one hand the rounds I played here as a junior,” Hughes said following his round, which he opened with a birdie. “Back then, Glen Abbey was a really big deal to get on and I wasn’t in a position to be getting on here.”

And the last time he played the Canadian Open, back in 2013, while a player on the Mackenzie Tour, Hughes was in a far different position than he is in today.

He earned his first PGA Tour title back in November at the RSM Classic and played in his first Masters in April (he missed the cut). He has twice before been in the Canadian Open field, but has never played the weekend.

“Internally, I feel like a different player,” he said, compared to the last time he played in his national open. “I feel like I belong on the PGA Tour. I’ve proven that over a year now. Coming here, it’s not like a one-off week. Before I played in the Canadian Open it was like the biggest tournament of my life every time.

“Now it’s a huge deal, but I’ve played in majors. This feels more comfortable, being out there on the course, and that makes a huge difference.”

Hughes, who began his round on the back 9—he’s in a group that includes four-time Major winner Ernie Els—had a “pretty rock solid” opening day, as he put it, other than a missed putt on 17 that resulted in his lone bogey.

He had three straight birdies starting on the Par 5 18th, and two more back-to-back birdies on No. 4 and No. 5. And he came close to extending that streak.

“There were two holes where I missed an eight-foot eagle putt, and I missed a seven-footer for birdie,” Hughes said. “Could have been a really special run there.

“[But] it was great. Got me right back in the thick of things, and off to a great start.”

He left a 31-footer for birdie a little short on No. 9, but got a big roar when he knocked in the par putt to complete his round.

Among those in the crowd were his wife, Jenna (the pair are expecting) and about 25 other friends and family who stuck it out to cheer him on through a sometimes-rainy morning (which turned into a stormy afternoon, and meant play was suspended for a handful of players who didn’t get their rounds in). Hughes’ gallery grew as the day wore on and he found himself near the top of the leaderboard.

“There’s a little bit of pressure,” Hughes said. “I’d be lying if I said it was a normal week. It’s not. You see a lot of familiar faces in the gallery, people calling your name. On the PGA Tour, I don’t get noticed for my appearance, usually.

“It’s been a lot of fun,” he added.

Hughes is without his regular caddie Derrel Aton this week (due to travel visa issues) so he called up Bill Bath, a long-time friend who caddied for him on the Mackenzie Tour.

Bath, a father and business owner who’s never caddied for anyone but Hughes, says the kid is “all business” on the course. They have, of course, talked about the importance of a good showing at this home tournament. A Canadian hasn’t won his national open since Pat Fletcher in 1954.

“We’re gonna take it one shot at a time, like everyone does,” Bath says. “But we’d love to make history here.”

Hughes calls the reminder of the long drought for Canadians here “pretty much media stuff.”

“We’re aware about it, but it gets talked about enough,” he said. “To have this be in Canada, and obviously it would be very special—but you just can’t try too hard to win your national open, because it’s not going to happen if you try that hard.”

There are three rounds to go, still, and Hughes is keeping level-headed.

“You can’t win it on a Thursday, but you can lose it on a Thursday,” he said. “It’s a four-round tournament, and I’m off to a great start.”