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Tom Jacobs is back with his first round leader picks on the PGA Tour. This week it is time for the Cognizant Classic, formerly known as the Honda Classic... Who will start fast in Florida?
ANALYSIS

2024 Cognizant Classic First Round Leader Picks and Predictions: Back This Group Fast Start

It might have a new name, but this event has been a mainstay on the PGA Tour for years and has been hosted by the PGA National course at Palm Beach Gardens since 2007. This means we have plenty of data to work with, as we look for our First Round Leaders.

Rory McIlroy is the favorite in this week's Cognizant Classic, and his presence boosts everyone's odds this week, but will the World No.2 lead the way in round 1, or can someone else set the pace this week?

PGA National is a tough course and one that can catch players out at any given point, and there is nothing worse than your player setting the pace and then falling foul of the Bear Trap. Let's look at all the stats and historical data to give us the best chance of picking this week's pace-setter.

Are there any common trends among the first round leaders here over the years? This could be tee times and/or course and current form. We explore the data below to find out.

Click here for the latest Cognizant Classic First Round Leader odds

Cognizant Classic First Round Leader Strategy

Here are all the first round leaders here since 2012, and their leading score and tee time, so you can establish if there is a favorable side of the draw, and the score you need to shoot to lead on day one.

  • 2023 - Joseph Bramlett (7:12 am), Billy Horschel (7:45 am), Carson Young (1:46 pm) - 65
  • 2022 - Kurt Kitayama (8:29 am) - 64
  • 2021 - Matt Jones (7:36 am) - 61
  • 2020 - Tom Lewis (8:35 am), Harris English (11:35 am) - 66
  • 2019 - Jhonattan Vegas (7:45 am) - 64
  • 2018 - Alex Noren (7:55 am), Webb Simpson (12:05 pm) - 66
  • 2017 - Cody Gribble (7:15 am), Wesley Bryan (8:15 am) - 64
  • 2016 - Sergio Garcia (12:35 pm), Michael Thompson (1:15 pm) - 65
  • 2015 - Jim Herman (8:35 am) - 65
  • 2014 -Rory McIlroy (12:25 pm) - 63

Morning starters appear to have had the better go of it over the past 10 renewals of this event. Only two times in the past ten years has the first round leader(s) come exclusively from the afternoon wave.

The wind picks up in the afternoon and the very early starters will have the best of the conditions with almost no wind or gusts to contend with.

Who in this Field Started Fast on Tour Last Season?

Here are the 5 fastest starters in the field based on their Round 1 Scoring Average in the 2022/23 PGA Tour season.

  • C.T Pan (6th overall in 2022/23) – Scoring Average 68.89 – Low Opening Round – 66 (Bermuda Championship)
  • Andrew Novak (8th overall in 2022/23 - Scoring Average 69.04 - Low Opening Round - 64 (Wyndham Championship)
  • Stephan Jaeger (10th overall in 2022/23 – Scoring Average 69.16) – Low Opening Round – 65 (Mexico Open)
  • Byeong-Hun An (11th overall in 2022/23 - Scoring Average 69.17) - Low Opening Round - 63 (Wyndham Championship)
  • Eric Cole (13th overall in 2022/23 - Scoring Average 69.19) - Low Opening Round - 64 (Travelers Championship)

What Score is Required to Lead After Round 1?

The average Round 1 score here over the past 10 years has been 64.3, brought down by Matt Jones' 61 in 2021. A 65 is going to put you in contention for the first round lead here this week, a 63 or 64 in the clubhouse should have you feeling pretty confident.

The Favorites in the First Round Leader Market This Week

Here are the favorites in the First Round Leader market at the Cognizant Classic.

  • Rory McIlroy (+2000)
  • Cameron Young (+3500)
  • Byeong-Hun An (+4000)
  • Eric Cole (+4000)
  • Russell Henley (+4500)

2024 Cognizant Classic First Round Leader Picks

Here are my first round leader picks for the 2024 Cognizant Classic.

Shane Lowry +5500 (Bet365)

Shane Lowry has opened with rounds of 67, 66, and 67 so far this year, and the latter two have seen him sit 4th after round 1 at Torrey Pines and 8th after round 1 in Phoenix. Add this current form to his record at PGA National, and his early tee time (7:29 am) and you have the perfect recipe.

Lowry has sat within two shots of the first-round lead 34 times in his career across all tours and has reached the summit four times, split equally across the PGA Tour and DP World Tour. It is time for another one.

The Irishman has finished 2nd and 5th at this golf course, but when he finished 53rd on debut he opened with a 67 to sit 5th after round 1, when he was 21st he opened with a 69 to sit 11th going into Friday, and then a year later he shot sub-70 again, shooting 67 to sit 9th after round 1 and a 66 in round 2 to sit 6th at the halfway point.

Simply put, Shane Lowry has shot 8 rounds of 67 or better at this course in seven starts, and I think he can add to that collection on Thursday and put himself in contention for the first round lead again.

Daniel Berger +5500 (General)

I am not sure if Daniel Berger is officially 'back' following his injury, but I suspect we will find out on Thursday. Berger has enjoyed the Honda Classic over the years, finishing inside the top 4 three times, highlighted by a playoff loss to Padraig Harrington in 2015, which was his debut.

Berger closed with a 64 when forcing a playoff on his first visit, and that was after opening with a 68 to sit 8th going into Friday. Since then, he's also posted opening rounds of 67 (3rd), 69 (11th), and most recently a 65, which left him in 2nd place after round 1 in 2022.

If Berger is back fit, then this is one of the best courses of the year for him, and I am hoping he shows that with a low opening round this week.

He has marked his comeback with two top 40 finishes in three starts in 2024, but he posted four rounds of 68 or better at the American Express when 39th, and opened with a 66 at the Phoenix Open, en route to his 28th place finish. Berger was 6th after round 1 last time out and I think he can build on that and make a run at the opening day lead on Thursday at PGA National.

Twice Daniel Berger has been within two of the first round lead here, two more times at another Florida event, at the Players Championship, and he was also one back of the first round lead at the Sony Open in 2021, which is my favorite corollary course.

Berger hit his irons nicely in Phoenix, ranking 13th for SG Approach, and I think he has shown enough to consider him here, at least for one round.

Berger is my only pick from the afternoon wave, as he tees off at 12:29 pm with two other common First Round Leader candidates, Russell Henley and Eric Cole who should both be considered.

Christiaan Bezuidenhout +7000 (Bet365)

Christiaan Bezuidenhout has been flushing it on approach in 2024, leading the field in that category in 2024. I am convinced this will lead to a Thursday lead at some point this season, and this course looks like a good option.

Bezuidenhout has been inside the top 15 after round 1 in four of his five starts, this season, including when 3rd after round 1 at the Amex and 8th after round 1 in Phoenix.

In terms of current form then, the South African ticks plenty of boxes, but where does Bezuidenhout rank in terms of course form? Well in two starts at the Cognizant Classic, he has finished 25th and 42nd, and he's shot four sub-70 rounds in eight here. One of those was a Sunday 66 on debut, and anything like that this week will vault him into contention.

He starts late morning, so will have to contend with some of those higher winds in the afternoon, but I am still confident Bezuidenhout can post a low one at this week's event.

Bezuidenhout has never left after round 1 on the PGA Tour, but has done so three times across DP World Tour and Sunshine Tour events, and he's been within two of the lead after round 1 18 times across all tours. Since joining the PGA Tour, Bezuidenhout has been in contention for the first round lead four times, most recently when coming up one shy at the American Express this year (more on that later.)

There have been multiple players here that have posted low round 1 scores across that late morning/midday time slot in round one, and Bezuidenhout can do the same this week, starting at 11:45 am.

Jhonattan Vegas +16000 (Bet365)

Two longshots complete my list, which means I am allowing myself an extra pick, but with two veterans at 160-1 and 200-1, I think that is quite alright...

First up is Venezuelan, Jhonattan Vegas, who has impressed multiple times on this course over the years. On three visits, Vegas has shot a round of 64 here, and when you add that to two more rounds of 66, Vegas is clearly well-equipped to fire a low round here.

Vegas has opened with a 64 here once to lead after round 1 in 2019, and he's then fired two Sunday 64s, in 2017 and 2023. Simply put, Vegas has been a wizard at this course over the years, and while it has been some time since he's been at his best, I am confident he can put together a low round with such an early tee time.

Let's see what Vegas can do teeing off at 6:56 am on Thursday... For reference, he teed off at 7:45 am when leading here after round 1 in 2019.

Zach Johnson +20000 (Bet365)

Zach Johnson has shown flashes of life since he put his Ryder Cup Captaincy commitments behind him, and he has always liked playing here at PGA National - at least on Thursday anyway.

On his course debut, Johnson finished 33rd and sat 11th after round one, thanks to an opening round 67. A year later he shot another sub-70 round to sit 13th after round 1 before going on to miss the cut. In more recent times, Johnson has opened with a 66 to sit 2nd after round 1 in 2019, a 67 to sit 3rd a year later, and he's also been 9th and 14th after round 1 since then as well.

All in all, Johnson has been inside the top 15 after round 1 six times here at the PGA National, and after opening with a round of 62 to lead American Express after round 1 two starts ago, there is clearly some life in the old dog yet.

Johnson has opened with rounds of 68, 62, and 70 this year, so he's been starting reasonably well each week.

Winning is probably beyond Johnson at this point, but shooting a low one on Thursday, when going out at 7:51 seems plausible to me, so I will take a shot at a big number.

Article Author

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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-hosts the DP World Tour Picks & Bets show on the Mayo Media Network, so has his finger on the pulse on all the major Tours. A long-suffering Nottingham Forest fan, Tom also enjoys watching Soccer at the weekend, and was delighted to see his Forest team win promotion this season!

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