The 149th Open: First-Round Leader Selections

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We return to our regularly scheduled programming for the 149th Open. While Ian Poulter and Ryan Palmer fell just short for us in the Scottish Open, we were on the right path and just a couple putts away from a potential playoff winner.

Our attention now turns to Royal St. George’s Golf Club as it takes center stage in the Open rota for the 15th time and first since 2011. A decade ago, it was Darren Clarke who came out of nowhere to capture the claret jug and don the title of Champion Golfer of the Year.

While it was Clarke victorious by week’s end, outlasting the likes of Dustin Johnson, Phil Mickelson, and Rickie Fowler, it’s Thursday we are concerned with. It was here in 2011 where an unlikely duo led after the first-round.

Playing alongside the man he was named after, Tom Watson, it was amateur, Tom Lewis who grabbed the early lead. At 20-years-old, Lewis went through the Open Qualifying Series, posting a two-round total of 128 at Rye, to secure his spot in the championship.

Alas, in his wildest dreams, Lewis couldn’t have chosen a better venue to make his Open debut nor a better playing competitor to accompany him over the first two days. Having won the Amateur Championship at Royal St. George’s just two years earlier, good vibes were inevitably going to present themselves.

Sharing the first-round lead with Lewis was the Dane, Thomas Bjorn. Perhaps not sharing the same sentiments toward Royal St. George’s as Lewis, Bjorn was just eight years removed from major heartbreak at this very course.

In 2003, Bjorn stood on the 15th tee of the final round with a three-stroke lead over Ben Curtis. He would go bogey, double-bogey, bogey over his next three holes to relinquish the lead. Needing a birdie on the 72nd hole to match Curtis’ clubhouse lead of 1-under, Bjorn made par, falling one-stroke shy of a playoff.

With Lewis and Bjorn both enjoying - not entirely sure “enjoying” is the correct word in Bjorn’s case - previous success at Royal St. George’s, that may be a path we take in the first-round. It would be irresponsible to not span out for a second and look at the history of The Open over the last decade and not just the one championship contested here.

Since the 2011 championship, there have been 12 players who have held at least a share of the first-round lead. There has been a nice mixture of longshots and favorites who have gotten off to fast starts. From 2012 to 2017, Thursdays were rather chalky with players such as Adam Scott, Dustin Johnson, Rory McIlroy, Phil Mickelson, Brooks Koepka, and Jordan Spieth possessing the early lead.

However, in 2018 and 2019, Kevin Kisner and J.B. Holmes were the surprising candidates that led after the first-round. If you’ve been reading along, you know that’s more our speed, as we’d rather have a surprise than a sure thing on Thursday.

Jon Rahm certainly doesn’t have mutual feelings towards our way of thinking as he is the favorite to lead after the first-round at +1800 on PointsBet Sportsbook. Not far behind is the man he defeated in the U.S. Open, Louis Oosthuizen at +4000, who co-led alongside Russell Henley after the first day at Torrey Pines.

With The Open, weather is always a hot topic, and even more so when looking at first-round leader selections. A player’s tee-time could be the eventual difference maker in his Round 1 score, so it’s all the more important to keep track of.

Based on the hundreds of weather websites I have been browsing and the numerous local, English news channels I surfed; the wind looks relatively steady for the entirety of the day at 15 miles per hour with gusts up to 30 mph. It may calm down a touch as play gets into the afternoon hours, so we'll lean slightly that way with our selections.

Odds to Lead After the First-Round (Odds Via PointsBet):

+1800: Jon Rahm

+3300: Brooks Koepka, Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Xander Schauffele

+4000: Bryson DeChambeau, Collin Morikawa, Dustin Johnson, Louis Oosthuizen, Matthew Fitzpatrick, Patrick Cantlay, Patrick Reed, Paul Casey, Tyrrell Hatton, Viktor Hovland

+5000: Daniel Berger, Justin Rose, Lee Westwood, Scottie Scheffler, Shane Lowry, Tommy Fleetwood, Tony Finau, Webb Simpson

+6000: Branden Grace, Cameron Smith, Harris English, Ian Poulter, Joaquin Niemann, Marc Leishman, Robert MacIntyre, Sergio Garcia

+6600: Abraham Ancer, Adam Scott, Christiaan Bezuidenhout, Jason Day, Rickie Fowler, Will Zalatoris

To Lead After the First-Round (Odds Via PointsBet):

Christiaan Bezuidenhout: +6600

Don’t look now, but the South African has made 20, yes 20 cuts in a row. While the quality results haven’t stacked up, with his last top-20 finish coming at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, the consistency of his play bodes well for his first-round prospects.

His play should translate nicely at a course such as Royal St. George’s. At first glance, Bezuidenhout’s off-the-tee play sticks out as a possible concern. However, that more so has to do with his lack of distance and not necessarily his lack of accuracy. With Royal St. George’s being a second shot golf course, the South African’s lone weakness is mitigated.

Being able to plot his way around this course, finding these undulating fairways, the rest of his game should hold up to the Open test. The irons have been red hot since the summer began and when it comes to his short-game, well, it's typically where he does his best work. Off early in the morning, Bezuidenhout has a great opportunity to set the early pace for the rest of the field to chase.

Rickie Fowler: +6600

It’s 2021 and I’m willing to wager the heartfelt stories continue this week at Royal St. George’s. Well, at least for the first day of the championship, as Fowler’s motivation level should be at an all-time high. Having narrowly missed out on qualifying for the U.S. Open, Fowler has since teed it up twice here in the states.

A missed cut at the Travelers Championship was followed up with a solid showing at the Rocket Mortgage Classic. Much like Bezuidenhout, Fowler’s chances to contend in the first-round depend on his off-the-tee play. If Fowler is able to consistently find the short grass with the big stick, the other clubs in his bag should be able to take over.

The irons have finally turned the corner and while there were concerns with his short-game for some time, rest assured it has returned to its world-class nature. He’s one of the few Americans who has been up to the links golf challenge throughout his career, carving approach shots, implementing creativity from around-the-green, and lag putting with the best of them. A strong finish here in 2011 is icing on the cake, but I truly believe Fowler is close to a big breakthrough. Whether that is a major breakthrough, I'm not certain, but a strong start on Thursday would surely help the cause.

Matt Wallace: +8000

Wallace’s weekend play at the Renaissance Club has brought me back to the light. I am not so certain that it may actually be the dark side, but alas a weekend total of 8-under 134 has me believing that he can ride some momentum into the Royal St. George’s. A strong driver of the golf ball, Wallace will need to clean up the middle parts of his game if he is to go low in the first-round.

The irons have been extremely hit-or-miss as of late, but as a whole, that’s Wallace in the nutshell. While he enjoyed a strong spring in the United States, he has since lost strokes on approach in three of his last four starts. However, the one outing where he was positive with his irons, he posted +5.1 Strokes Gained: Approach in only two rounds at Muirfield Village.

While the putter let him at the Memorial, it was red hot last week in Scotland. There’s a chance he simply rides that club to be competitive in the first-round. However, if the rest of the game chugs along, then he’ll be a serious to threat.

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Ryan Palmer: +8000

If Wallace helped his chances with his weekend play at the Scottish Open, then Palmer certainly did so as well. Outside of one poor hole in his second round, the Texan took to the Renaissance Club in a manner that many did not expect. Having struggled over the past couple of months, especially in the majors where he’s missed two consecutive cuts, Palmer looked at home in Scotland.

Finishing one-stroke outside of a three-man playoff, Palmer’s final round 7-under 64 was good enough for the second-best round of the day, trailing only Ian Poulter. He struck the ball beautifully for the majority of the week and over the final two days, Palmer appeared to have fully acclimated on and around-the-greens.

The Open is far from his favorite major, you just have to look at his past results to prove that, but theoretically it should be a good spot for him. A strong wind player and consistent striker of the golf ball, Palmer should carry the momentum from Scotland just a bit further south and start strong at Royal St. George’s.

Stewart Cink: +8000

Is Cink the best iron player in the world? I think the 2009 Champion Golfer of the Year could at least make the case of being inside the top-10. Since March, Cink has posted north of 4.5 SG: Approach in five of eight starts. These performances have come at a nice mixture of courses, big ballparks such as the Ocean Course and Quail Hollow, but also precision courses such as Harbour Town and TPC River Highlands.

As for his play in The Open, Cink has posted three top-25 finishes in his last four outings across the pond. While the short game is a touch concerning, I’m willing to take a stab that his ball-striking will be good enough to hopefully mitigate that area of his game.

Cink fits the bill of a veteran with plenty of links golf experience and I don’t believe that can be understated. I like him to perform well this week and potentially find his name on the first page of the leaderboard at some point. For our sake, let’s hope that’s on Thursday, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s over the weekend as well.

Matt Kuchar: +12500

The weekly flier, Kuchar is one of the last players who will be on the golf course come Thursday evening. A full day sweat is in store for us if Kuchar is able to bring his Open Championship pedigree to Royal St. George’s. As of now it looks like he may get the best of the draw as the winds die down, but the forecast has been changing hourly so we’ll take it with a grain of salt.

People will look to Kuchar’s past results and not pick up what I’m putting down, but big tracks like Torrey Pines and the Ocean Course were never going to be venues where Kuchar would thrive. If you look more so at the precision venues such as Harbour Town, you see the slight uptick in ball-striking that I hope translates to Royal St. George’s in the first-round.

If it does then he is more than capable of holding his own on and around-the-greens. He loves this championship and his results back it up, having not missed a cut since, well, here in 2011. Kuchar has been competitive in about half of those outings and an afterthought in the other half. Regardless, he’s made it to the weekend in eight straight Opens and that is just a nod to his early play.

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