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U.S. OPEN: It’s time for major championship golf again, as the world’s toughest tournament is set to take place at one of the most serene spots on the planet, lovely La Jolla on the California coast, where the punishing Torrey Pines South will be the stage on which history will be written and the 2021 U.S. Open champion will be crowned.

Torrey Pines already holds a special spot in U.S. Open history, of course, for it was where Tiger Woods memorably overcame a broken leg and some brilliant golf from Rocco Mediate to win his 14th major back in 2008, when it seemed a forgone conclusion that Tiger would break Nicklaus’s record of 18 major championships. There’s a lot of water under the bridge since then, and unfortunately we won’t be seeing Tiger this week or anytime soon, but we should see Torrey Pines at its very toughest for the first time since that ’08 Open, when Woods and Mediate were the only players to finish the week under par.

We see a tamer version of the course every January in the Farmers Insurance Open, with the rough cut lower, the greens a bit softer, and tees moved around on some holes, and it still puts up a good fight, as only once in the past nine years has the winner of that tournament finished at better than 15-under (and that’s with some Thursday/Friday rounds being played on the North Course, which is the easier of the two and is not in use this week). Patrick Reed took home the trophy this year, and recent winners have included the likes of Marc Leishman, Justin Rose, Jason Day, and Jon Rahm– Torrey Pines is a big boy course that doesn’t produce many flukish champions.

Length off the tee is going to be a major theme this week– the South Course tips out at nearly 7,700 yards and it allows for the bomb-and-gouge style, with the longer guys blasting driver as far as possible, so that even if they’re approaching the green from the rough they’re doing so with wedges and short irons. This makes life extremely difficult for the shorter-to-average length players, and those types know very well that the deck is stacked against them on a course like this. As Canadian Adam Hadwin said back in 2019, “I love Torrey Pines but it sucks for my game. I just don’t hit it quite far enough to really compete around there.” Keep that in mind when considering your options this week.

Jon Rahm, who was dominating at the Memorial a couple of weeks ago before being struck with the extreme misfortune of a positive COVID test, which necessitated his withdrawal despite a 6-shot lead, is the pre-tournament favorite at betting markets around the world and BETDAQ is no exception, as Rahm is currently trading at 11.0, Dustin Johnson at 17.5, and everyone else at 20.0 or longer. Rahm’s appeal is obvious– he’s a great ball-striker who hits it a mile, he’s had tremendous success at Torrey Pines, having won the Farmers in 2017 and finished runner-up in 2020, and he was last seen at the absolute top of his game before getting unlucky with the positive test. But the young Spaniard has been a bit unpredictable since he became a father a couple of months ago, and the weirdness of his recent forced break coupled with the short odds is enough to keep me away. I’ll take my chances with these three instead:

WIN MARKET

Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)

Viktor Hovland (28.0)- Hovland is a popular pick this week, and with good reason– he’s only two starts removed from back-to-back 3rd-place showings at the Valspar and the Wells Fargo and now has six top-5 finishes in his last 14 PGA Tour starts, including a victory at the Mayakoba Classic. A brilliant ball-striker, he currently ranks 5th on Tour in strokes gained off the tee and 8th in strokes gained tee-to-green, so you get the feeling that the U.S. Open is going to be very good to him in the coming years. He’s already shown an affinity for Torrey Pines, finishing runner-up in the Farmers back in January, and the course being made more difficult should only help someone with his tee-to-green ability. Hovland is a blue-chip option this week and a fair value at a price like 28.0.

Will Zalatoris (48.0)- Speaking of players who are tailor made for the U.S. Open, Zalatoris finished 6th in his Open debut last year, when he was essentially a total unknown, and nothing he’s done in the meantime would make you anything but more confident in the machine-like 24-year old. He had a life-changing week at the Masters back in April, finishing runner-up, but after taking a month-long victory lap he’s been back to business these past few weeks, finishing 17th at the Byron Nelson and then 8th at the PGA Championship, where a Friday 74 was all that prevented him from contending. He’s one of the finest iron players in the world, ranking 3rd on Tour in strokes gained on approach, and he looked awfully comfortable at Torrey Pines back in January, breaking par in all four rounds at the Farmers and finishing 8th. All things considered, including the generous price, I think Zalatoris may be my favorite bet on the board this week.

Sungjae Im (100.0)- The conventional wisdom on Im is that he’s slumping– the young Korean has missed 4 cuts in his last 7 starts and hasn’t registered a top-10 since the Honda Classic back in March.  But I think he’s closer to top form than most realize, particularly after a terrific final three rounds at Congaree last week, when he rebounded from an opening-round 75 with scores of 68-71-67 on a difficult, demanding course. He’s certainly proven over the past year that competing in major championships doesn’t phase him, finishing runner-up in last year’s Masters, 22nd in last year’s U.S. Open, and 17th in the PGA Championship three weeks ago. He’s also shown that he knows his way around Torrey Pines, making the cut in all three of his appearances at the Farmers and finishing T32 back in January. Im has the confidence and game to win this week, a rare enough thing when you’re talking about triple-digit longshots. He’s worth a bet.