U.S. OPEN: While it may not have all the history and tradition of its counterpart in the UK or the cachet of the Masters, the U.S. Open has forged an identity as the most demanding of golf’s four major championships, and this year’s venue, Shinnecock Hills on New York’s Long Island, should provide a robust challenge for the game’s elite.
A 7,440-yard par-70 that features narrow fairways, brutally thick rough, and firm, difficult-to-hold greens, Shinnecock has hosted this tournament twice in the past 25 years, with Corey Pavin shooting an even-par 280 to win in 1995 and Retief Goosen posting a 4-under 276 to take home the trophy in 2004. The conditions in 2004 bordered on ridiculous over the weekend, as players were simply unable to hold many of the cement-like greens and the scoring average was an almost incomprehensible 78.72 on Sunday. (true story: I happen to know a member at Shinnecock, and back in 2004 he swore up and down that the course’s maintenance staff secretly rolled a few of the greens in the middle of the night unbeknownst to the USGA, who had already completed their “double cut and roll” process. This guy– the member– took great delight in the players’ struggles over the weekend)
Over the past couple of weeks the USGA has acknowledged that the conditions were a bit unfair in 2004 and has pledged to do better with the course setup this time around, but after the widely-panned U.S. Open at Erin Hills last year, when 16-under won and the difficulty level was closer to the John Deere Classic than a major championship, I don’t think there’s going to be anything easy about Shinnecock. Sure, the greens might not be quite as firm, but 440 yards has been added to the course since 2004, and the rough, according to Phil Mickelson and others, is frightfully thick this week, so the course is far from defenseless. I doubt we’ll see a scoring average of 78 on Sunday again, but I’d be very, very surprised if more than a handful of players finish the week under par. Tiger Woods said this week that he believes the winning score will be over-par if the wind blows.
Speaking of Tiger, this will be his third crack at Shinnecock and thus far his best finish was a T17 in 2004, when he was at or near the peak of his powers. The dominant Tiger of old is gone now, perhaps never to return, but the new version has been playing some pretty solid golf lately, with top-25 finishes in five of his past seven starts, so it will be interesting to see how the week unfolds for the world’s most famous golfer. Woods can currently be backed at 27.0 at BETDAQ, a price that’s sure to draw a few takers, though in my opinion it’s not quite long enough. Remember: he hasn’t won since 2013, and the U.S. Open, particularly when its held at a course like Shinnecock, is the most grueling test that golf has to offer.
Among the favorites, it’s difficult to look past the man at the very top of the market, Dustin Johnson. Though Johnson is currently trading at a shortish 9.8, there’s a lot to like about a guy who is coming off a 6-shot victory at the St. Jude Classic and has a great U.S. Open record, with three top-5s and a win in his last four appearances. Johnson reclaimed his spot atop the world rankings with last week’s triumph, and now he has a chance to make a definitive statement at a course that should suit his game. Call me a frontrunner if you like, but I’m riding with DJ this week.
Of course, as always seems to be the case at majors, there are plenty of great players with nice, fat prices next to their names, so if you want to avoid the top of the market in search of value, there’s no shortage of options. Here’s what I’m thinking this week:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Dustin Johnson (9.8)- I know, I know- picking the favorite is no fun, and can sort of feel like giving up sometimes. But occasionally it’s warranted, and it sure feels like a bet on Dustin Johnson is the right move this week. For all the talk of his “middling” season prior to his dominant 6-shot win in Memphis last week, the reality is that Johnson has finished 17th or better in all ten of his worldwide starts in 2018 and is a combined 66-under par is his last 24 competitive rounds. He’s simply the world’s best player, and Shinnecock, a course where ball striking is more important than putting and the ability to hit it both long and straight off the tee provides a clear advantage (rare are the times when that ability doesn’t provide a clear advantage, I guess), seems like a course that’s ideally suited for his game. Johnson has a tremendous record in the U.S. Open, logging top-5 finishes in three of his past four appearances and taking home the trophy in 2016, and he’s surely brimming with confidence after lapping the field at the St. Jude. The price is short, but not short enough to keep me away… sometimes you just have to keep it simple and back the best player.
Branden Grace (39.0)- Seeing Grace on the first page of the leaderboard at a major has become a regular occurrence over the past few years, as he’s finished 6th or better in five of them since 2015. The U.S. Open has been especially kind, with Grace finishing 4th in 2015 and 5th in 2016, and considering the South African’s steady demeanor and penchant for playing well on difficult courses, his success in this tournament shouldn’t come as a surprise. Grace has also proven to be an exceptional links player over the years, and while Shinnecock isn’t a true links, it definitely has some of the characteristics of a links course, and Grace’s low, boring ball flight will really come in handy if the wind picks up. Additionally, Grace is in good form at the moment, logging a 3rd-place finish at the Byron Nelson just three starts ago and following that with a T5 at the BMW PGA. There’s just a lot to like about Grace this week– he checks a lot of boxes. I’m happy to hop aboard at nearly 40/1.
Rafa Cabrera-Bello (142.0)- Cabrera-Bello has become a world-class player over the past few years, but the one hole in his resume has been his performance in majors. He’s starting to get the hang of it, though– his 4th-place showing at the Open Championship last year was a career best, and the venue, Royal Birkdale, has been compared to Shinnecock due to the fact that it’s a links course that doesn’t allow you to bounce the ball onto the green much, forcing you to fly it on instead. Cabrera-Bello is known more for his ball-striking than his putting, and Shinnecock is a ball-striker’s layout, so it seems like a good fit, but frankly Rafa has proven himself all over the world on just about every style of course, so his game is adaptable. Critically, he’s been playing well lately, with a T17 at the Players Championship and a T8 at the BMW PGA in his last two starts. Winning this tournament would indisputably be a big breakthrough for Cabrera-Bello, but he seems like someone who is well-positioned for a breakthrough and I certainly think he’s worth a bet at the current price.
TOURNAMENT MATCH BETS
Rory McIlroy (2.06) vs. Justin Rose (1.86)
Rose has been red-hot lately, winning at Colonial a couple of weeks ago and finishing 6th at The Memorial in his last start. Most rate him as one of the favorites this week, but I have slight concerns considering he absolutely dogged it at Shinnecock in 2004, shooting 77-78 (15-over) and badly missing the cut. McIlroy isn’t getting quite as much attention as Rose, but he’s been playing pretty well himself, with a runner-up at the BMW PGA and an 8th-place showing at The Memorial in his last two starts, and Shinnecock is a ball-striker’s layout that should suit him nicely. At better than even money, I think he’s the right side here. Recommendation: McIlroy at 2.06
Jordan Spieth (1.96) vs. Brooks Koepka (1.89)
Much has been made of Spieth’s recent struggles, and it’s certainly been awhile since he’s been priced at better than 20/1 to win any tournament. But I have a feeling he may surprise some folks this week: a balky putter has (surprisingly) been his main issue, but he rolled it well at The Memorial, gaining nearly 2 strokes on the field, and this week he’s been very outspoken about how good he feels about his game. Shinnecock has some links qualities, and many have compared to to Chambers Bay and Royal Birkdale– two places Spieth won. I look for him to have a big week, and while Koepka is a tremendous talent who proved last year that he has the mettle to succeed on the biggest of stages, he wasn’t great in Memphis last week and will need to steer clear of the brutal Shinnecock rough if he hopes to successfully defend his title. Remember- this ain’t Erin Hills. Recommendation: Spieth at 1.96