PLAYERS Championship First Round Leader Picks & Predictions: Back Jon Rahm to Start Fast

After correctly predicting last week's First Round Leader, Rory McIlroy at +2600 and also putting up Billy Horschel (+5500) who was 2nd after day 1, Tom Jacobs is back to pick out the fastest Thursday starter once again.
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PLAYERS Championship First Round Leader Picks & Predictions: Back Jon Rahm to Start Fast

After correctly predicting last week's First Round Leader, Rory McIlroy at +2600 and also putting up Billy Horschel (+5500) who was 2nd after day 1, Tom Jacobs is back to pick out the fastest Thursday starter once again.

The PLAYERS Championship is one of the biggest events of the year, and provides us with a stacked field, so there's an opportunity to get your favorite guys onside this week, and this may be the market to do it in.

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PLAYERS Championship First Round Leader Strategy

I think it is fair to say there is a bias toward the early starters in this market, as there is only one time over the past 11 opening-rounds where at least one of the leaders or co-leaders hasn't been from the AM wave. There have been five occasions in this span where someone from the PM wave has tied the lead, but you are certainly going to want an early starter onside this week.

For my overall thoughts on the event, you can check out my Course and Odds previews from Sunday and Monday.

Here are the last ten first-round leaders at the Arnold Palmer Invitational:

All tee times are local (EST)

2021 - Sergio Garcia (7:40 am) - 65

2020 - Hideki Matsuyama (8:24 am) - 63 - The event was canceled after one round, but this round was completed.

2019 - Keegan Bradley (13:17 pm) & Tommy Fleetwood (8:22 am) - 65

2018 - Alex Noren (8:49 am), Chesson Hadley (12:46 pm), Dustin Johnson (8:05 am), Matt Kuchar (13:19 pm), Patrick Cantlay (13:41 pm), Webb Simpson (7:43 am) - 66

2017 - Mackenzie Hughes (14:03 pm) & William McGirt (8:38 am) - 67

2016 - Jason Day (8:43 am) - 63

2015 - Charley Hoffman (12:56 pm), David Hearn (12:46 pm), Hideki Matsuyama (8:07 am) and Kevin Na (14:20 pm) - 67

2014 - Martin Kaymer (12:57 pm) - 63

2013 - Roberto Castro (7:36 am) - 63

2012 - Ian Poulter (8:29 am) & Martin Laird (13:18 pm) - 65

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Who are the fast starters on Tour this season?

I have been using last year's Round 1 Scoring Average in this segment, but I think it is time to use the current season. Some of the players at the top have still only played 4 or 5 events this season, so their average is going to creep up, but I am happy to include them.

  • Patrick Cantlay (1st overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 66.00) - Low Opening Round - 62 (American Express)
  • Billy Horschel (2nd overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 66.57) - Low Opening Round - 63 (Farmers Insurance Open)
  • Cameron Smith (3rd overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 66.67) - Low Opening Round - 64 (RSM Classic)
  • Russell Henley (4th overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 67.10) - Low Opening Round - 62 (Sony Open)
  • Matt Kuchar (5th overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 67.63) - Low Opening Round - 64 (Sony Open)
  • Daniel Berger (6th overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 67.75) - Low Opening Round - 65 (Honda Classic)
  • Joaquin Niemann (7th overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 67.89) - Low Opening Round - 63 (Genesis Invitational)
  • Adam Scott (8th overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 68.14) - Low Opening Round - 67 (RSM Classic)
  • Patton Kizzire (9th overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 68.17) - Low Opening Round - 63 (Sony Open)
  • Collin Morikawa (10th overall in 2021/22 - Scoring Average 68.25) - Low Opening Round - 67 (CJ Cup & Genesis Invitational)

What Score Is Required To Lead After Round 1?

Over the past ten renewals, the average leading score here after round 1 is 64.7. This is a result of 63 being the leading score after day one, an impressive four times in the past ten renewals. Rounding it up would make 65 the target, and I do not mind that as the target score. If someone does clear 65, they will almost certainly be the leader this week, so we will make 65 the target. Since the move to March in 2019, the three leading scores have been 65, 63, 65, giving a 64.33 average, with 65 twice being the score of the day.

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The Favorites

Collin Morikawa +2200 (Bet $100 to win $2200)

Morikawa sits 10th in Round 1 scoring average so far this season, but has not shot lower than 67 on Thursday yet, but a Sunday 66 here last year indicates he could go low at a track that should absolutely suit.

There was some 125/1 about him to lead after round 1 and win earlier this week, and if you can get something close to that number I would take that, as I am really sweet on his winning chances, but I don't want to go to him as favorite in this market, especially as he's an afternoon starter.

Justin Thomas +2600 (Bet $100 to win $2600)

Thomas is a notoriously fast starter, leading or co-leading 11 times so far in his career, and being within two of the lead a total of 33 times.

Last time out, he opened with a round of 67 at Riviera, but Niemann crushed the field with a 64, and he opened with the same number in Phoenix to sit two back, when our headline selection there.

In his first two starts here, he shot a 65 both times, one on Saturday and one on Sunday, and last year he shot a Saturday 64 to vault himself into contention, so he can go low here, even if he's not done it on a Thursday.

Only one time in six starts here has be not posted a 66 or better in at least one round, so he's bound to go low at least once, it just depends which day.

Thomas is paired with Morikawa and Rory for the first two days, and starts at 12:56 pm on Thursday, so while we have seen some from the PM wave lead here in the past, I think I'd give a lean to those starting early when looking at the top of the market.

Jon Rahm +2600 (Bet $100 to win $2600)

Jon Rahm is my first First Round Leader selection this week, so more on him below.

Viktor Hovland +2900 (Bet $100 to win $2900)

Hovland started with a 69 last week, which saw him sit four back of Rory on Thursday, and given he opened with a round 71 at the Genesis and two rounds of 72 in Phoenix, he's not exactly setting the world alight on day one, even if he's in elite form come the end of each week.

Like Rahm the early tee time makes him more tempting, but he's not yet shown that he's the type to continually start fast, and I would rather take Rahm at a couple of points shorter.

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First Round Leader Picks

Jon Rahm +2600 (Bet $100 to win $2600)

No one has dethroned Rahm as the favorite in the outright market yet, but this week has been the closest, and you can get him as the second or third favorite in the Round 1 market, depending on where you bet, so make sure to shop this on the Oddschecker grid!

As people start to wonder when his short game will return to a winning standard, they are starting to lean in other directions, namely Collin Morikawa and Justin Thomas, who still have their spike weeks on the greens.

His putting will come back though and when it does, he's going to shoot a low number, and it could be well here here.

He missed the cut on debut here in 2017, but opened with a round of 68 to sit 3rd after day one, and 12 months later he opened with the same number to sit 13th. In the past two renewals (2019 and 2021) he's opened with 69 and 71, so he's not started as fast but he has shot low rounds. In 2019, he fired a Saturday 64 to lead going into Sunday and last year he shot 67 on moving day to position himself nicely again.

We know he can start fast and we know he can shoot low here, so maybe it all comes together as he finds a putting stoke in the biggest event so far this season. 26/1 isn't a horrible price, and it was this same price range that we cashed with Rory last week. He tees off at 7:51 am with Hovland and Cantlay on Thursday, which makes appeal at double his outright odds.

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Patrick Cantlay +3700 (Bet $100 to win $3700)

For all the reasons I like Jon Rahm (particularly the tee time) and more, I like Patrick Cantlay. In limited starts this season (5), Cantlay averages 66.00 in round 1, largely thanks to his 62 to open the American Express, but his first rounds this season read 66-62-65-67-70, which is extraordinarily consistent.

In his four completed starts at this event, he has missed two cuts and had two top-23 finishes and when making the cut, he's started fast. On debut in 2017, he opened with a round of 69, and a year later he co-led after round 1 shooting a 66, so officially he's broken 70 twice here on day one.

Unofficially though, he opened with a round of 67 in 2020, to sit T5, and when you add that to his effort in 2018, and his current run of opening rounds this season, he makes a lot of appeal, at nearly twice the price of the favorites.

This might frustrate people, taking two of the top-10 in the betting to start this week and you may be disappointed further when you see my next selection, but after that, the long shots come in!

Hideki Matsuyama +4000 (Bet $100 to win $4000)

Talking of the week that never was, Hideki Matsuyama shot that opening-day 63 here in 2020, which matched the course record and that was the second time he led or co-led here on Thursday, as he opened with a 67 to tie the lead in 2015, when scoring was tougher.

In total, he's shot 67 or better five times on this golf course in seven starts, and this season alone he's opened with rounds of 66 or better four times, with a 64 at the ZOZO his best effort.

There is a concern that back-to-back tough events at Riviera and Bay Hill may have knocked it out of him, but a 7:40 am tee time is perfect for him, as his best opening rounds here have come just after 8 am on both occasions, so starting at this time is clearly beneficial for him at this course.

Matsuyama is teeing off #10 tee at 7:40 am with Joaquin Niemann and Cameron Smith.

Russell Henley +8000 (Bet $100 to win $8000)

For balance, I wanted an afternoon starter, and I think Russell Henley is being overlooked, based on course history, that may actually be better than it first appears.

When Henley missed the cut on debut in 2013, he opened with a 69 to sit 17th going into Friday, and in 2014 he came back here and on his second look, opened with a 65 to sit 2nd behind Martin Kaymer and also closed with a 66 that week.

Since making his second and third cuts here, he's only made one more in five appearances, but he shot a second-round 68 in 2017 and I am happy to overlook his most recent efforts, given the struggles he's had with his game on and off during this time-frame.

Henley is one of the best ball strikers in golf at the moment and has been for quite a while, and given his recent run of form, which has seen him make 13-straight cuts, I am certain he can turn his form around here.

Henley has held 8 leads or co-leads after day one, and has also been within two of the opening-day lead a total of 30 times, so we know he likes a Thursday, and you don't have to go back far for his most recent round 1 leads. He opened with a round of 62 at the Wyndham at the tail-end of last season to open up a two-stroke lead, and in this season alone, Henley has opened with a 65 to co-lead the Houston Open, a 64 at the RSM Classic, and a 62 at the Sony, which would almost always be enough to lead that event, but Kevin Na pipped him with a 61.

Henley sits 9th in Birdie or Better % on the season, which is impressive given no one above him has played as many rounds, and he's T7 in Total Birdies which should help him compile a decent opening-day score.

Russell Henley will tee off #1 tee at 12:12 pm with Mackenzie Hughes and Thomas Pieters.

Brian Harman +10000 (Bet $100 to win $10000)

Brian Harman was my longshot in the outright market and I am going to put him up in this as well, given his strong effort in this event, especially since the move to March in 2019.

In 2019 he opened with a round of 66 to sit one back of Bradley and Fleetwood, and in 2021 he shot a 67 to sit two back of Sergio Garcia, ending the week in 8th and 3rd respectively, highlighting his suitability to this test, and the Thursday setup here.

Harman seems to have his mojo back of late, and with a 3rd at the American Express and a T14 finish in Phoenix, this is actually the best lead-in form he's had going into this event over the past few renewals.

Despite some poor form to start the season, Harman has opened with rounds of 68-67-67-66-67-67-68 already this season, and while it will take a couple lower this time around, he looks a good price to find those extra couple of birdies.

Harman has been within two of the first-round lead 28 times in his career, including three times in 2021, and he's also co-led twice in his career to date. It feels like an opening-day lead is overdue for him, especially one he holds alone, and I will gamble it comes on a Pete Dye layout he loves.

He continues the theme of early starters in this article, as Harman will tee off in the first group off #10 tee, at 6:45 am with Beau Hossler and Russell Knox.

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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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