The American Express First Round Leader Predictions and Picks: Back Jhonattan Vegas Out of the Gate

Here are Tom Jacobs' First Round Leader predictions and picks for this week's PGA Tour event., The American Express. With three courses in rotation this week, there is a market for each and Tom has analyzed scores at all three to determine the best bets.
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The American Express First Round Leader Predictions and Picks: Back Jhonattan Vegas Out of the Gate

After two weeks in Hawaii, the PGA Tour makes its first stop of a three-week stretch in California, here at The American Express tournament in La Quinta. Back to its three-course rotation and pro-am format, after a break last year due to COVID, the same three courses they have used since 2016 will be in play.

Those three courses are, La Quinta Country Club, Nicklaus Tournament Course, and the Pete Dye-designed Stadium Course which is used for 36 holes (pre and post the 54-hole cut.)

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First Round Leader Strategy

How do we go about spotting value in the First Round Leader markets?

This week, this will change entirely, because there are three courses to look at, all of which are around 7,100 yards, and are Par 72's with Bermuda greens. La Quinta Country Club is historically the course with the lowest scoring average but as we have seen in the past, lowest first round scores can come from any of the three.

There will be a market for the First Round Leader at each course, so you do not need to find the overall First Round Leader, but if they do give you a market for overall, I wouldn’t strictly assume they must come from La Quinta, because as you will see from the evidence below, this can vary.

Below are the overall first round leaders here since 2016, when the Nicklaus Tournament Course and the Stadium Course joined La Quinta Country Club for the current three course rotation.

  • 2021 – Brandon Hagy (64) – 10:10 am (Nicklaus Tournament Course)
  • 2020 – Grayson Murray (64) – 9:50 am (Stadium Course)/ Zac Blair (64) – 9:40 am (La Quinta)
  • 2019 – Phil Mickelson (60) – 9:10 am (La Quinta)
  • 2018 – Jon Rahm (62) – 8:40 am (La Quinta)
  • 2017 – Dominic Bozzelli (64) - 9:50 am (Stadium Course)
  • 2016 – Jason Dufner (64) & Jeff Overton (64) – 10:30 am & 8:30 am (Nicklaus Tournament Course) / Anirban Lahiri & Jerry Kelly (64) – 8:30 am & 10:00 am (La Quinta)

Below are the best scores shot on the other courses

  • 2021 – Si-Woo Kim (66) – 9:40 am (Stadium Course) - *La Quinta wasn’t used last year
  • 2020 – Hank Lebioda (65) – 8:50 am (Nicklaus Tournament Course)
  • 2019 – Adam Long (63) – 10:30 am (Nicklaus Tournament Course) / Adam Hadwin (65) – 9:30 am (Stadium Course)
  • 2018 – Austin Cook (63) – 9:40 am (Nicklaus Tournament Course) / Grayson Murray (65) – 8:40 am (Stadium Course)
  • 2017 – Harold Varner & Hudson Swafford (65) – 8:30 am & 9:30 am (La Quinta) / Jhonattan Vegas & Patton Kizzire (65) 10:10 am & 9:00 am (Nicklaus Tournament Course)
  • 2016 – Adam Hadwin (66) – 9:00 am (Stadium Course)

Who in this field started fast on Tour last season?

Here are the 10 fastest starters in the field based on Round 1 Scoring Average in the 2020/21 PGA Tour season.

  • Jon Rahm (2nd overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 68.95) – Low Opening Round – 63 (The Northern Trust)
  • Cameron Tringale (3rd overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.23) – Low Opening Round – 64 (Farmers Insurance Open)
  • Brian Harman (T5 overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.37) – Low Opening Round – 65 (Shriners and Open Championship)
  • Scottie Scheffler (T5 overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.37) – Low Opening Round – 65 (Farmers Insurance Open and FedEx St Jude)
  • Patrick Cantlay (T7 overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.50) – Low Opening Round – 62 (AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am)
  • Patrick Reed (9th overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.55) – Low Opening Round – 64 (Farmers Insurance Open)
  • Seamus Power (10th overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.59) – Low Opening Round – 65 (Twice)
  • Russell Henley (T13 overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.65) – Low Opening Round – 62 (Wyndham Championship)
  • Chris Kirk (19th overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.72) – Low Opening Round – 64 (Wyndham Championship)
  • Doug Ghim (20th overall in 2020/21 – Scoring Average 69.77) – Low Opening Round – 64 (Bermuda Championship)

What score is required to lead after round 1?

This is of course a bit of a guess and subject to change, but 63 is a good target this week. If we average out the leading round 1 scores on the PGA Tour from the 2020/21 season, over 45 individual events we get an average leading round 1 score of 63.97.

If we average out the leading scores from round 1 here since 2016, we get 63.0. Twice it has been sub 63 (60 Mickelson and 62 Rahm) and each of the other occasions it was 64, so 64 may also get it done, depending on which of the three courses you are playing.

The weather looks calm and we have had low scoring in each of the first two events already this season, with 61 leading the way last week at the Sony so I would err on the side of 63 this week, with 64 possibly being enough outside of La Quinta Country Club.

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The Favorites

The favorites are going to take a slightly different look this week, as this market will be split into three different courses, so I will write a note on the favorite at each of the three courses, which do correlate with the respective golfer’s position in the outright market.

Jon Rahm to post the lowest score in round 1 at La Quinta (+800)

Jon Rahm is the best player in the world.

Jon Rahm shot a 62 on this golf course in round 1 when winning in 2018.

Jon Rahm shot 66 in round 1 at this golf course in 2019, despite battling flu and bad weather.

Do I need to say any more?

Talor Gooch to post the lowest score in round 1 at the Stadium Course (+1200)

Talor Gooch shot a 64 at this golf course in the final round back in 2019 and added a 65 to that in round 3 in 2020, so he’s clearly comfortable here.

He’s averaging 66 in round 1 so far this season, good for 4th on Tour in Round 1 Scoring Average, and he was inside the top-25 last year, so he’s no stranger to getting his week off to a good start.

He’s rightly the favorite, although I have an outsider on this course that I really like, and I don’t feel the need to go down to 12/1. I couldn’t put you off, but I will be looking elsewhere.

Corey Conners and Sungjae Im to post the lowest round 1 score on the Nicklaus Tournament Course (+1400)

There’s a gap between these two in the outright market, with Sungjae Im favoured and I think there should be the same in this market as well.

Conners has three co-leads to his name on the PGA Tour but they came on tougher layouts, shooting 66 once and 67 twice, and none of those scores are likely to cut it on this course. To his credit he did open with a 62 at the RSM Classic and he posted two 64’s last week, all of which would be good enough you’d think on this course come Thursday, but he hasn’t shown it here yet.

His best round overall at this event so far is a 68, and we will need to see a marked improvement this time around. I think Conners needs it tougher to excel and Im is more suited to a birdie-fest.

Im won the Shriners back in October and he started his week with a 63, and that event correlates nicely with this one. Im shot a 66 in round 2 on this golf course in 2020, and also shot a 65 in round 2 back in 2019 on the same course, so I would have him as the favorite between the two.

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American Express First Round Leader Picks

Jhonattan Vegas to post lowest score in round 1 at the Nicklaus Tournament Score (+2200)

The case for Jhonattan Vegas is fairly straightforward this week, so I will keep it short.

Vegas opened with rounds of 65 in both 2017 and 2018 at the Nicklaus Tournament Course and a shot lower may well be enough to cash in this market.

Add to that, that he’s currently 11th on Tour this season in Round 1 Scoring Average, opening with rounds of 66-67-71-67-64 so far, and he looks a rock-solid option.

These fast starts are in keeping with Vegas’ career, as he’s been within two of the lead 36 times across multiple tours so far, and six times he’s either led or co-led, most recently at the 3M Open back in July. One of his first-round leads came at the correlating Shriners Open in 2011 and another came on a Nicklaus design at the Honda Classic in 2019, so all in all I like him in this spot.

If I had to give a negative, Vegas had played the Tournament of Champions in both 2017 and 2018, whereas this is his first start in 2022 so far, and that could hinder him but I don’t see there being many issues for him on a course he loves.

Rickie Fowler to post lowest score in round 1 at La Quinta (+3300)

I am not as convinced as others that 2022 is going to be a bounce back year for Rickie Fowler, even if I sincerely hope it is, but to pay out in this market I just need him to be good for one round on an easy course.

He doesn’t play this event often, but he shot a 65 on this golf course back in 2020, and in his most recent start at the Mayakoba he opened with a 66 after shooting the same score to start the CJ Cup two starts prior, so starting fast is still in his repertoire.

Fowler co-led with Vegas at the 3M Open back in July so you’ve not got to go back too far for his latest first-round lead, and I hope he can get his year off to a good start here, as he’s desperate to get himself back into major fields.

While many will clamor to take him in the outright market, as they fear they may miss his comeback victory, I will take lesser odds that he has one good round on a course he’s enjoyed before.

Fowler led the Phoenix Open after round 1 in 2016, opening with a 65 and he did it again in 2019 when opening with a 64 and with that course being the best crossover for this, it reaffirms my decision to play him in this market.

Sepp Straka to post the lowest score in round 1 at the Stadium Course (+4000)

Sepp Straka was an old favorite in this market and the conditions are good for him to excel in it again this week. The Stadium Course has historically been regarded as the toughest course here, but following a renovation and the players generally getting used to it, there’s no longer much in it. Patrick Cantlay shot a final-round 61 here last year when trying to chase down Si Woo Kim, so there’s clearly scoring opportunities, but in Straka I think we have someone that can score low even if it does toughen up. Straka has claimed four leads/co-leads on the PGA Tour if you include his opening 63 at the Olympics, and he also opened with a 63 in California in the past, at the Safeway Open in 2018, so he’s got previous in this part of the world. He shot a 65 in round 2 and 66 in the final round on this golf course in 2020, which followed up the 67 he shot in round 2 in 2019, so it’s clear that Straka excels on this layout. Last week at the Sony he opened with rounds of 66-67 and he closed with a 65, to show flashes of form and that’s all we need from him in this market. His opening 66 in Mexico before Christmas doesn’t hurt his case either, nor does his top-10 at the Pete Dye-designed Travelers Championship. I like his chances of a fast start, on a course that features less of the favorites in round 1.

Anirban Lahiri to post lowest score in round 1 at La Quinta (+8000)

I’ll start with the obvious concern. Rahm, Cantlay, Finau, Im and Scheffler all start their week’s here, and at least one of them is likely to get off to the fastest start. The good news is, Lahiri has a history of consistently low rounds here.

Lahiri’s event form is largely average with two top-28’s, a 73rd and two missed cuts, but one thing has remained consistent and that is his performances at La Quinta.

In 2016 he shared the first-round lead in this event with three others, after opening with a 64 at La Quinta and that was the first sign he might like the layout.

In 2017 he shot a 64 at La Quinta again, this time in round three, to show that the effort 12 months prior may not have been a flash in the pan.

We can double down on that through the rest of his career here as well, as he shot a 65 there in round 2 in a week where he missed the cut in 2019 and in 2020 he also shot a third-round 66 when finishing 73rd, so even in poor form that week, he can still get his ball around efficiently on this course.

He didn’t play here in 2018 and the course wasn’t used in last year’s renewal so all in all we have four rounds of data on him at La Quinta, and is averagr score is 64.75. Sure you could make the case that he’s declined each year, and that’s in line with his form as a player, but he’s shown a couple of signs recently that lead me to believe he can keep the good vibes alive here.

Back in November he played in Mexico and finished way down the leaderboard (T40) but he opened with rounds of 67-66, and he also opened with a round of 65 at the correlating Shriners Open back in October, before missing the cut, so I think there’s outstanding value on him starting well, even if he keeps it going for just one round here. Others considered: Chris Kirk (+3000) at Nicklaus Tournament Course & Russell Knox (+3300) at La Quinta.

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Tom Jacobs is the host of the Lost Fore Words golf podcast and has been writing betting articles on golf for the past decade. Tom also co-host the DP World Tour Picks & Bets show on the Mayo Media Network, so has his finger on the pulse on the tours on both sides of the pond. A long-suffering Nottingham Forest fan, Tom also enjoys watching Soccer at the weekend, but his main passion remains golf, and every year he holds onto the hope of Lee Westwood winning his first major championship.

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