Romilly Evans tries to pick another first-round leader from the opening exchanges at Firestone and fancies the big-priced Kevin Na to do the business at nearly three figures on Betfair
"When Na gets on a roll, birdie streaks inevitably follow and he will look to steal a march on the field with some early-season swing changes now assimilated."
Picking the first-round leader of a golf tournament isn't really rocket science. It's closer to brain surgery. So after a fair few failed attempts at the majors, I was mightily relieved to have finally uncovered the right neurology the other week, with Adam Scott paving the 18-hole way at the Open Championship, rewarding his backers at around 60.059/1 on Betfair. A nice win in anyone's book.
With this week's WGC at Firestone coming hot on the heels of Lytham - and next week's USPGA already champing at the bit - I'll try not to blithely reiterate the basic tenets of my selection system. But the processes of elimination typically centre around the following four factors:
Early tee time: invariably constitutes the first cut of the proverbial deck. The morning section of players get to attack a course at its most accessible: calmer, cooler temperatures and receptive, smooth greens give rise to more red numbers.
Course analysis: what sort of golfer will be favoured by the characteristics of any given set-up. Is the course, long, short, open, tight, protected by rough, bunkers, small greens or undulating bail-out areas? Depending on where you believe the emphasis is, you can profile the players who will more likely excel.
Weather forecast: about the only imponderable which can derail a morning-wave bias to the draw. Afternoon conditions are usually tougher (windier, firmer, greens spiked etc) but if a significant storm front is set for the morning, scoring trends between the two waves can, of course, be turned on their heads.
Avoid the hot favourites: especially in big tournaments, like the WGC events and the majors where danger lurks round many a corner, I find the market leaders are often more likely to consider discretion to be the better part of valour in the opening round. Even if the big guns are on a roll in round one, they can back off down the stretch and play for consolidation (irons off tees on par-fives, turning town tight flag positions). Reaching the peak can wait till Sunday's summit. Obviously, exceptions slip through the net (like Rory McIlroy at Congressional) but they often represent too short a price for what is essentially a cavalry charge.
The WGC events are unusual for their limited field (78 players this week) which lessens the temporal gap between the morning and afternoon starters (about four hours) and therefore diminishes the potential disparity in scoring conditions. A case on point being Adam Scott, who topped the initial skirmishes in Akron last year, despite emerging from the afternoon wave.
However, with soaring temperatures (in the 80s) and marginally rising winds predicted for Thursday at an already scorched Firestone layout, the elements are in place for the fairways to become firmer (i.e. accommodate fewer tee shots) and the greens to crust up (i.e. become more tricky to read) as the day progresses. So I expect all but the earlier groups to struggle to post the pace-setting number.
Firestone itself has long been the province of the big-hitter (for a par 70, it is ridiculously long at 7,400 yards). Fast, running conditions may shrink the shorter hitter's handicap, but the baking sun has also limited the rough which means accuracy will be at less of a premium. In view of which, we can also chance a couple of heavy artillery players whose performance can depend on playing from the short stuff.
Gonzalo Fernandez Castano (8.40am - 150.0149/1 to back or bigger): alarm calls won't come any earlier than they do for this classy Spaniard on Thursday, as he enjoys the first tee time. A big hitter and crisp striker, the one dimension of his game which falters can be his putting but he has so far enjoyed these surfaces in practice. A potential Ryder Cupper, he can make hay away from the fancier names in round one before the pressure rises on his susceptible stroke.
Kevin Na (9.20am - 95.094/1 to back or bigger): a fiddly and annoying golfer to watch, but that shouldn't detract from his innate talent, particularly with the flatstick. When Na gets on a roll, birdie streaks inevitably follow and he will look to steal a march on the field with some early-season swing changes now assimilated.
Sergio Garcia and Bo Van Pelt (10.10am both 55.054/1 to back or bigger): playing together and last off in the morning wave from the first tee. Garcia has always threatened to prosper at Firestone, but is given to throwing in one bad round. That's unlikely to come in the relative anonymity of these opening exchanges, especially partnering Van Pelt, who is a relaxed customer with a pure, quick-draw rhythm that should match up well with Garcia. For his part, Van Pelt recently chased home Woods at the AT&T and has long been a hardy perennial of the first-round scoring stats.