The American Express - Round One
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A great field lived up to the billing on Thursday in the first round of the American Express in Palm Springs with superstar names littering the top of the leaderboard. The very top is a bit of a shock as two players with Ryder Cup ties are tied at 10 under. The reason it's a shock? Neither competed in last year's Ryder Cup, and one of them was a captain. 

Zach Johnson and Alex Noren both shot 62 on the easiest of the three-course rotation on Thursday, and they'll have to hold off Xander Schauffele, Patrick Cantlay, Scottie Scheffler and Justin Thomas over the next three days while playing the tougher Nicklaus and Stadium Courses.

Let's take a look at their first-round performances and what to watch for on Friday in Round 2.

The leaders

1. Alex Noren, Zach Johnson (-10): Noren is a good story, but Johnson is a shock. He has not won on the PGA Tour since taking the 2015 Open Championship at the Old Course at St. Andrews. Heck, he doesn't even have a top-five finish anywhere since 2018. Four months ago, he was captaining the best players in this field in Rome at the Ryder Cup.

"I relish that," he said of his unique relationship with the best golfers in the world. "I think that's a luxury. I think that's somewhat of my tenure. They kind of keep me young to some degree. Motivated. Just watching them is, to say it's impressive would be an understatement. ... Pretty awesome they want to come here, too. It's great for AmEx because I think it's one of our better tournaments to support this area. It's fun being around those guys as much as I can. It's probably going to come to an end sooner than I know, so I'll relish it."

He'll also relish the insane 29 he shot on the front nine at La Quinta on Thursday, which included six consecutive birdies to close out that side of the round. 

Other contenders

T3. Rico Hoey, Christiaan Bezuidenhout (-9)

T5. Scott Stallings, Xander Schauffele, Hayden Springer, Patrick Cantlay, Si Woo Kim, Chan Kim, Justin Lower, Nick Dunlap, Alexander Bjork (-8 )

This is quite a collection of players, including the U.S. Amateur champion in Dunlap and the duo that never seems to be very far apart on the leaderboard: Schauffele and Cantlay. This is hard to believe, but neither of those players -- currently ranked No. 5 and No. 6 in the world, respectively -- has won a PGA Tour event since August 2022. They were both among the pre-tournament favorites and are now the favorites after Round 1. This golf course doesn't necessarily lend itself to their strengths; Jon Rahm famously called it an, ahem, putting contest a few years ago, which brings more players into the mix for Schauffele and Cantlay to deal with than if it was more of a ball-striking contest. Still, both are so exceptional in every facet that they should be expected to be there until the end of the week.

Scottie Scheffler update

Scottie Scheffler did not have a great day. That's a weird thing to say about somebody who shot a 5-under 67, but Scheffler was playing the easiest La Quinta course and is T39 after 18 holes. Still, given how many bizarre breaks he got, he should feel good about being in the mix as long as he continues playing like his normal Scottie Scheffler self.

"It was a weird day," explained Scheffler. "I had numerous bad breaks to start my round. It was very frustrating. No. 2, I hit a good drive that would have been left center of the fairway, it hits a tree and goes out of bounds, it was an over hanging tree there, and it's, like, what are the odds it's going to hit it and go out of bounds. That cost me two shots.

I had a lot of putts early in the round that kept hitting lips. Then, par 5, I was greenside, hit a bunker shot that was really good, rock in the way. Little stuff like that was pretty frustrating to start my day. But I kept fighting and ended up with a nice score, 5 under. Not what I was hoping for today, but still just to kind fight through what was going on and post a number was good."

Justin Thomas' first start of 2024

Thomas also played the La Quinta course on Thursday, and like Johnson, he made six birdies to close out the front nine. He faded just a bit on the back but still shot 7 under and is very much a threat to get into contention. As was pointed out by the Data Golf folks recently, J.T. is quietly playing more like his former self:

Justin Thomas struggled in 2023, but his game may have already—quietly—turned the corner. To end the year JT rattled off 3 consectuive top-5s (Fortinet, Nedbank, Hero), moving him from 59th to 22nd in the DG rankings. Restricting to their last 12 rounds played, only 1 player (Morikawa) has a higher strokes-gained average than Thomas.

2024 American Express updated odds, picks

Odds via SportsLine consensus

  • Patrick Cantlay: 11/2
  • Xander Schauffele: 13/2
  • Scottie Scheffler: 11-1
  • Alex Noren: 12-1
  • Min Woo Lee: 16-1
  • Justin Thomas: 16-1
  • Eric Cole: 22-1
  • Sungjae Im: 22-1
  • Si Woo Kim: 22-1

None of the players at the top are necessarily great value. I like Im at 6 under (he played the Nicklaus Course, which is traditionally the middle of the three venues in terms of difficulty). I'm also intrigued by J.T. Poston at 35-1. He shot 5 under on the toughest Stadium Course. Johnson is currently 40-1.

Rick Gehman and Mark Immelman recap Round 1 of the American Express. Follow & listen to The First Cut on Apple Podcasts and Spotify.