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Ollie Schniederjans to beat Troy Merritt and David Muttitt
The advice ahead of Thursday’s first round is to stay away from the marquee three-balls and snaffle some value elsewhere, the pick of which is undoubtedly Ollie Schniederjans to beat Troy Merritt and David Muttitt.
The latter is a 35-year-old PGA professional, one of 20 who earned the right to play in this championship, and historically they are outclassed.
Last year, Omar Uresti – a former PGA Tour player – was the only one to make the cut and half of the 20 shot 80 or more in the first round. It will again be something of a surprise should any of them stick around for the weekend.
That leaves us with a head-to-head between two apparently in-form players, Schniederjans having finished fifth last week and Merritt the winner of the Barbasol Championship which took place during the Open, but there’s a significant caveat.
After winning in Kentucky, Merritt went emergency surgery for a foot-long blood clot in his arm, which had swelled to twice its normal size and turned purple before he finally consulted a doctor.
Surgeons removed the clot, which covered his arm and chest, and Merritt is in St Louis in the hope that he can play – but he will not be at his best.
“I’m trying to be ready for Thursday, but it’s going to be tough,” Merritt told the Idaho Statesman last Saturday.
“I’ll go to the course; I might be able to hit a few putts. I’m not in pain, but I can’t move my arm very much.”
Clearly, this is a major championship and he will do his best to tee off, and in that scenario Schniederjans is surely a 1/2 chance to beat him, particularly having opened with a round of 64 last week when very bullish about the state of his game.
Having earlier shot 66 in the first round of the Greenbrier and 68 to begin his bid at The National, it’s only a poor Canadian Open which has to be excused and that in itself was a bizarre performance, as he carded more birdies than anyone in the field over the first two rounds only to miss the cut.
All in all, this high-class youngster looks to be right back on track, he’s got some solid major golf on his CV already and if both players were fit and firing, he’d still look solid at evens or bigger. With Merritt unlikely to be anywhere near full health, information which, by the way, is well known, Schniederjans is a smashing bet.
Beau Hossler to beat Matt Wallace and Matt Dobyns
Beau Hossler has been just as good as he was meant to be in this, his rookie season on the PGA Tour, and is a couple more solid performances away from securing a place in the TOUR Championship and, with that, a Masters invite.
The former amateur star has been a regular feature on leaderboards and sits second in first-round scoring this season, behind only Steve Stricker who plays a much lighter schedule and, besides, isn’t in the field this week.
There are no weaknesses in Hossler’s game and he’s going to win on the PGA Tour next season if not this, but in the more immediate future he looks banker material to beat Matt Wallace and Matt Dobyns.
The latter is another PGA professional who shot 76-78 last year and hasn’t managed a level-par round in eight attempts. On what’s his fifth appearance, another mid-70s score is probably the best he can hope for.
Wallace, meanwhile, has missed four cuts in succession on the European Tour and failed to make the weekend in any of his three major starts, opening with a round of 77 in the US Open and 74 at Carnoustie last month.
Hossler is the superior player, he’s on home soil, and he could leave this lot for dead if getting off to what’s becoming a customary fast start.
Beau Hossler is a strong fancy to win his three-ball
Davis Love III to beat Martin Kaymer and Rich Beem
Finally, for a bigger-priced option it’s worth siding with Davis Love III in this former champions three-ball.
Love is obviously some way past his best and his record in this major has been poor for a long time now, but he does arrive on the back of a much more encouraging performance having opened 68-68-66 in the Barbasol before a drop-off in the final round.
That was just his second start back following an injury lay-off and if Love can build on it, he could well do enough to beat Martin Kaymer and Rich Beem.
Kaymer has missed four cuts in succession since he made some shocking late mistakes to miss out on the BMW International Open title on home soil, and it’s easy to argue that his fragile confidence has taken a damaging hit.
His major record this year is poor with missed cuts in both the Open Championship and the US Open and he doesn’t appear to be anywhere close to his best.
Beem meanwhile made some headlines with an opening 69 two years ago but is a part-time golfer these days and it would be a surprise were he good enough to win this.
The first-round leader market is a real minefield given the size of this field and the fact that we are ultimately dealing with a golf course which most of these players haven’t seen.
With practice rounds potentially interrupted by rain and even thunderstorms, working out who will be best placed to fire a mid-sixties number is very difficult and it’s important to acknowledge that from the off.
However, the rain that’s been around St Louis could be really significant. The greens at Bellerive have come under fire already and I’m not sure there’s much ground staff can do about surfaces which are already soft, despite a sub-air system.
With rain forecast to continue on Wednesday before Thursday’s early starters are greeted by clear skies, it’s those who are teeing off in the morning who should be at an advantage – especially with the chance of more rain in the afternoon.
If the course does play really soft, officials might move up some tees but regardless it’s big-hitters who are favoured by such a scenario so zoning in on powerful players, who are out early and have a habit of making fast starts could be the best policy.
Tony Finau stands out as a result and has to get the vote at 50/1.
The big-hitter is eighth in first-round scoring this season and has been the most consistent major performer, bagging three top-10 finishes across a variety of courses and twice sitting second after round one.
Two first-round leads in three starts in January and February show that he can hold onto this habit and he sat eighth after the first round in last year’s PGA Championship.
Tony Finau produced the goods yet again on Thursday at the Open
At bigger prices, I’m drawn towards Ross Fisher and Billy Horschel, two brilliant drivers of the ball albeit not with the power of Finau.
Fisher performed much better last week after a poor run of form and should like this golf course, which has been softened just like Baltusrol in 2016, where he was second after the first round.
Horschel meanwhile sits 15th in first-round scoring and his last three opening scores read 64, 65, 69, the first two good enough to sit third and second to further enhance his record of starting brightly.
He’s got some major form in the bag, playing particularly well at a rain-soaked Merion in 2013 where his ball-striking proved an invaluable asset, and has been inside the top 10 after day one of the Open, the Masters, the PLAYERS and twice at the TOUR Championship.
Those three make up my selections but it may also interest some to note that recent first-round leaders in the PGA have tended not to be from golf’s young, dominant pack.
Names like Lee Westwood, Carl Pettersson, Steve Stricker, Jerry Kelly, Ryan Palmer, DA Points, Matt Kuchar, Ernie Els and Jim Furyk crop up in the frame since the start of the decade and perhaps, in an event which comes right on the back of the Open and Firestone, experience is worth a shot or two.
Clearly, all three of my selections have it to some extent but watch out for the in-form Stewart Cink, big-hitting JB Holmes and even the aforementioned Davis Love as others who might put it to use this time from what appears to be an ideal start.
Posted at 1245 BST on 07/08/18.