Romilly Evans profiles four likely lads to set the early tempo at Sawgrass, where he expects Jimmy Walker to start strongly
The first-round lead is something that every player would like, but none is recklessly determined to secure. And for that reason alone, it's always worth opposing the tournament favourites who invariably view round one as an exercise in positioning on the tournament mountain of 156 players. Test the layout, define your gameplan, secure your foothold in the competition and fasten the ropes for a Sunday ascent. Hence the old adage: you can't win it on a Thursday, but you can certainly blow it.
So when picking your runners in the context of this mad dash within a considered marathon, it can pay to side with the streaky golfer, not necessarily the most reliable. After all, Sawgrass is a course where you can get on a roll if you're finding the fairways and greens in regulation. Every hole is "birdieable", but most also house a watery grave which can blight any scorecard. Controlled aggression is therefore the recommended attitude.
This in mind, which trailblazer will be the first to enjoy a legal high on Sawgrass? Let's have a look at the prime prerequisites for early contention.
An early start time: The morning phalanx of players always gets the chance to rack up the red figures when the course is at its most receptive - and its pins at their most accessible. Velvet surfaces are also un-spiked by the mid-afternoon traffuic which increasingly roughs them up for the later starters.
Consult First-round Scoring Statistics: Round One Scoring Average is a hardy perennial of reference for first-round leaders. However, those good statistical folk at the PGA have gone even better this season by digging even deeper into the initial numbers to unveil the new category of Early Tee Time Scoring Average. It clearly demonstrates those players who are best equipped to take advantage of perfect putting surfaces.
Consult the weather forecast: And these greens in round one could exhibit an even stronger bias towards the morning wave of golfers this year. That's because unusually heavy downpours have been falling at Sawgrass over the weekend, delaying the fifth major's practice schedule and bringing over five inches of rain to the local area. Although this layout is possessed of the latest drainage techniques, the propensity for course deterioration over the opening 18 holes has just been ratcheted up a notch. Especially as another storm is forecast before battle commences.
Players To Support: Jimmy Walker (7.36am) Fourth in Early Scoring Average this term and one of the better putters around, Walker is the personification of streaky. Never afraid to go low and attempt to dominate from the gun, an early wake-up call gives him that opportunity again.
Francesco Molinari (7.26am) Little more than a hunch, considering he's been uncharacteristically erratic this year, but the younger Molinari has all the attributes to excel here if hitting top form - and he's a huge price. His tee-to-green game is peerless on the European Tour and while he lacks for distance, that's not essential in unlocking this Florida venue. Now recovered from recent shoulder and arm niggles, he has the ideal start time.
Billy Horschel (8.29am) In the form of his life and third in the Early Scoring Average rankings, Horschel only lacks for course form. However, he took a week off to prepare for this Players' unique test and is possessed of the cocksure mentality with which to bully this field from the initial exchanges.
Rickie Fowler (8.08am) Blessed of a simple, repeating swing and never afraid to go low, this flashy crowd-pleaser also has the length and accuracy to bring Sawgrass to its knees. Fowler often jumps out of the block hot, while his course form was bolstered by just missing out here behind Matt Kuchar last year.