The Open Championship is often the most helpful major in trying to decipher the first-round-leader market, as draw biases due to the weather are just about as common here as anywhere. However, the flipside of that is that FRL results in past years can carry little weight in helping us work out the market in following years; such is the variety in conditions of each event.
It’s very much about how the conditions are in the here and now, and though there is set to be a strong breeze in-play throughout much of Thursday, it does look as though the very earliest starters (08:30 or earlier) may have an advantage; albeit only a small one, with wind and gust speeds around 5-7 km/h lower than what the afternoon starters are forecast to play in.
Although I have decided to fill half of my selections with players from this time-frame, the bias is not severe enough for me to go all-in. Therefore I have also included a couple of selections with tee-times later I the day.
Start time: 10:09
I’m going to kick off my selections with Ireland’s Shane Lowry. The 2019 Open Champion has had some fast starts in this event in the past and having shot the joint-best round of the week at Hoylake in 2014, he knows what it takes to go low around here.
Lowry’s form has been consistent all year. He’s finished inside the top 20 in each of the season’s three majors so far and enters this week with five top 20s in his last six starts. The latest of which was a 12th-place finish in Scotland last week.
He ranks top 25 in this field in strokes-gained total over the last fifty rounds, where he’s particularly excelled tee-to-green, ranking 24th.
Lowry has started quickly in this event before, most notably when shooting -4 in his winning year (2019) to sit 2nd at the end of the first round. In addition to that, he shot -4 here in 2014 to sit 3rd after the first round and then closed out the tournament with a 7-under 65 to finish 9th; tying the best round of the week.
The Irishman has picked up a good group alongside friend, Robert MacIntyre and the resurgent Rickie Fowler. I’m hoping he can feed off the positive energy in this group to get himself off to an excellent start in Liverpool.
Start time: 12:53
Amongst an ever-growing list of strong major performances, Corey Conners is starting to develop a sneaky-good record in The Open Championship. I was keen to have him onside in some way this week and with some good first-round major efforts to his name in recent years, this felt like the correct place to play him.
Conners won his second Texas Open title back in April and has looked in good form since. Over his last seven starts, he’s recorded five top 20s and twice finished inside the top 10; at the Wells Fargo Championship and the Travelers Championship.
He comes into this after a 19th-place finish in Scotland, signing off the week with a 4-under-par round, which was the second-best round of Sunday. He ranked 3rd in that final round tee-to-green, particularly excelling in his ball-striking, ranking 9th in both approach and off-the-tee.
High-quality ball-striking is what the Canadian is all about, ranking 11th OTT and 17th in approach in this field over the last 12 months – stats which don’t depreciate regardless of the time-scale – something which should bode well for him this week.
Conners has opened with under-par rounds in each of the last two Open Championships, which have helped him on his way to forging a good record in the event; finishing 15th and 28th in the last two years after missing the cut on debut in 2019.
He is no stranger to leading majors early doors, as he led the 2021 PGA Championship at Kiawah Island after round one; almost replicating that in that event this year, as he sat 2nd at the close of play on Thursday at Oakhill.
Conners’ winning form in Texas shows a player who can handle the wind and I’m expecting him to start well this week, in what I suspect will be another positive Open Championship experience.
Start time: 06:57
On to a couple of players with what looks a potentially advantageous early start, beginning with Australia’s Lucas Herbert.
Herbert disappointed somewhat when I put him up last week in Scotland, finishing 60th. Though I was encouraged to see him once again drive the ball well, ranking 7th and I feel that strong-driving ability can see him to a good week at Hoylake.
He’s a player with plenty of links ability, as he’s showed with two consecutive 4th-place finishes at the Renaissance Club in 2020 and 2021, where he’s shot countless low rounds in windy conditions. Whilst he’s also finished 9th in the Dunhill Links.
He transferred this links form to The Open last year at St Andrews, finishing 15th; starting the event with a solid 2-under to sit 27th after round one.
Herbert’s best major start came in last year’s PGA Championship, as he sat 7th after round one but with his early tee-time here, along with his proven links ability and the fact that he handles the wind well – shown further by his win in Bermuda on the PGA Tour – I feel everything looks set for him to make his best start to a major this week.
Start time: 07:41
I’m going to finish with another proven links performer, France’s Victor Perez. The 2019 Dunhill Links champion is now a three-time DP World Tour winner, with each of his other two wins coming on linksy courses (the 2022 Dutch Open at Bernardus and 2023 Abu Dhabi Championship at Yas Links). He can make use of his early tee-time to get off to the best possible start in what will hopefully be another improved Open appearance this week.
Perez has looked good for the most part this year after that win in Abu Dhabi to kick off 2023. His undoubted best performance since then came at the PGA Championship at Oakhill, where a 12th-place was his best major result to date.
The Frenchman was a respectable 35th in last week’s Scottish Open. I was particularly taken with how well he hit the ball there, ranking 13th in approach and though his ranking of 46th off-the-tee doesn’t look up to much, he gained strokes with the driver in three of the four rounds; a poor round three negatively impacting his overall numbers.
Perez has only played in The Open twice, improving on his missed cut in 2021 by finishing 34th last year and if the putter had behaved he could’ve finished much higher, such was the quality of his ball-striking.
The putter has actually been his biggest weapon since then, ranking 25th in this field on the greens over the last twelve months and if he can return to that level, whilst maintaining the quality with the long game that he showed last week, Perez can be amongst the frontrunners on day one at Royal Liverpool.