Stacked field as LIV golfers return

Golf remains in the spotlight this week with the penultimate major tournament of 2022 set to tee off one week after a lively Canadian Open and the debut of a ballyhooed rival golf league.

The PGA Tour suspended 17 golfers that competed at the inaugural LIV Golf Invitational Series event, yet some of them will be seen competing this week at the U.S. Open. That’s because this particular major is governed by the USGA (United States Golf Association), which stated any player that had previously qualified for the tournament would still be allowed to regardless of the PGA’s recent decision.

If you’re wondering why LIV Golf remains such a divisive topic in the golfing and sports worlds, it’s an issue of money vs. morals.

LIV Golf is financially backed by part of Saudi Arabia’s government, which has a lengthy history of blatant human rights violations. Organizers are offering athletes inordinate sums of money to essentially overlook those human rights violations and just play.

For example, this past weekend’s RBC Canadian Open had a total purse of $8.7 million. Rory McIlroy, the winner, took home just under $1.6 million. Not bad for less than a full week of work.

However, the combined winnings of the top five golfers (McIlroy, Tony Finau, Justin Thomas, Sam Burns and Justin Rose) from that tournament was less than the $4-million top prize the sport’s No. 125-ranked player, South Africa’s Charl Schwartzel, earned for winning LIV Golf London a week ago in England.

It’s all those extra zeroes on the cheques that may continue drawing talent away from the PGA and DP World (formerly European) Tours. Bryson DeChambeau, the 2020 U.S. Open champ, is among the latest notable golfers set to join the LIV tour later this year.

This year’s U.S. Open takes place at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass.

It’s a 7,254-yard, par-70 during which golfers will be faced with blind shots throughout their rounds both off the tee and on approach. Taking a few extra few seconds to plan out a shot can be the difference between a birdie opportunity and a difficult par save.

Some of the rough is treacherous so hitting fairways is vital. You can be punished for missing certain fairways unlike at some previous U.S. Open courses such as Winged Foot two years ago when DeChambeau won and driving distance mattered far more than driving accuracy.

There are some tricky obstacles and bunkers around the small greens, many of which have formidable gradients.

This course features a dozen par 4s, four par 3s and a pair of daunting par 5s. The 14th hole in particular, a 625-yard par 5, is something to behold.

The field was capped at 156 golfers with the top 60 including ties making the cut.

Notable Thursday/Friday Pairings…
Rory McIlroy/Hideki Matsuyama/Xander Schauffele
Justin Thomas/Viktor Hovland/Tony Finau
Scottie Scheffler/Cameron Smith/Brooks Koepka
Jordan Spieth/Max Homa/Adam Scott
Jon Rahm/Collin Morikawa/James Piot
Dustin Johnson/Matt Fitzpatrick/Webb Simpson
Phil Mickelson/Shane Lowry/Louis Oosthuizen

Driving accuracy, strokes gained on approach and bogey avoidance should all be key metrics this week. With all that in mind, let’s take look at the odds and see where the value is.

THE FAVOURITES

McIlroy (+1000) is coming off his impressive win at the Canadian Open and is looking to ride that momentum into this weekend and win his fifth career major. It would be his first U.S. Open title since 2011. McIlroy has finished T7, T8 and T9 at the past three U.S. Opens. Ironically, one thing going against McIlroy this week is the fact winning tournaments in consecutive weeks is exceedingly rare.

Justin Thomas (+1200) finished two strokes behind McIlroy at the Canadian Open after bogeying the 17th and 18th. He won the PGA Championship in May and finished T8 at The Masters in April. Thomas tends to start relatively slowly but once he gets a feel for the course he dials it in. He ranks 40th in Round 1 scoring average but averages the best scores on Tour in Round 2 and Round 3 and is sixth in final round scoring average. He’s also ranked No. 1 in bogey avoidance, sixth in strokes gained on approach and his 2022 is full of top-10 finishes. Keeping to the fairways and avoiding three-putts are key but it feels like this could be JT’s week.

McIlroy and Thomas are ranked third and fifth, respectively, on the Official World Golf Ranking but it can be argued no golfers are playing better at the moment than those two. This is another course that suits their respective playing styles and they are the two most popular plays this week.

Last year’s winner, Jon Rahm (+1200), and current world No. 1 Scottie Scheffler (+1400) are the only others in the field with shorter than 20/1 odds. Rahm ended a streak of six straight years an American had won the U.S. Open, however he has only finished under par twice since February. Scheffler missed the cut at the PGA Championship after winning the green jacket at The Masters.

Xander Schauffele will be a popular play this week considering his terrific run of results at the U.S. Open. Schauffele has competed in five U.S. Open tournaments and his worst finish was a T7 last year at Torrey Pines; his best result was a T3 in 2019. With three straight top-20s since his win at the Zurich Classic in April, many are expecting Schauffele to be in the mix on Sunday.

A sneaky play from this top tier would be Sam Burns. He has been on a roll since a T9 at the Arnold Palmer Invitational in March, winning the Valspar Championship and Charles Schwab Challenge and finishing runner-up at the Zurich Classic. Keep in mind Burns hasn’t yet done well at major tournaments and his only two scores above par since February were at The Masters (missed cut) and the PGA Championship (T20).

CONTENDERS WITH VALUE & LONGSHOTS

Three players listed at +2800 are three of my favourite contenders with decent value this week. Colin Morikawa is also at this price but the two-time major winner hasn’t had strong results since a fifth-place finish at the Masters and his short game could be an issue on this course.

Will Zalatoris (+2800) is my top contender with value. He leads all golfers in strokes gained on approach, can pipe it off the tee and avoids bogeys relatively well. He has four top-six finishes since the start of April and two of those were at majors.

Matt Fitzpatrick (+2800) won the U.S. Amateur at this course in 2013. Perhaps that’s a slight advantage but a bigger reason to have confidence in the Brit is his play this year. He had a solid showing at the Canadian Open for his third top-10 finish since the start of May.

The same can be said for Ireland’s Shane Lowry (+2800). He hasn’t done well at the past five U.S. Opens yet he’s in the midst of such an impressive stretch of golf there’s no way I’m leaving him off my card.

Tony Finau (+3000) has 10 top-10 finishes at majors in his career but hasn’t ever gotten over the hump. He was runner-up to McIlroy last week at the Canadian Open, which was his third top-four finish since May’s Mexico Open.

If you’re looking for some dark horse contenders with longer odds, Billy Horschel (+5000) and Daniel Berger (+5000) carry some promise. Horschel is coming off a win at the Memorial earlier this month, while Berger ranks top-15 in strokes gained on approach and driving accuracy.

A bit lower down the list when you start getting into longshot/dart-throw territory, a few names stick out.

While nothing jumps off the page statistically, Davis Riley (+7500) has been playing great the past six weeks and at these odds he could be worth a flier.

Harold Varner III (+7000) has an advantage over many off the tee and is enjoying a nice stretch of respectable finishes, including a T3 at the RBC Heritage, a T4 at the Zurich Classic and a T13 at the Canadian Open at which he shot 68 or lower in all but one round.

Russell Henley (+11000) is second behind Zalatoris in strokes gained approaching the green and could break out on a course like this despite not finishing in the top 30 since mid-March.

PROP BETS

If you followed some of my prop bet suggestions last week ahead of the Canadian Open, hopefully you had yourself a nice Sunday.

Tony Finau (+225) and Corey Conners (+200) top-10 props, Justin Rose (+210) and Brendan Todd (+240) top-20 props and an Adam Svensson (+210) top-30 ticket all cashed – and for what it’s worth (not much if you placed a wager unfortunately!) our top-three each/way suggestions (Conners, Fitzpatrick, Lowry) all finished in the top 10.

Let’s try to keep the momentum going at the 2022 U.S. Open.

Would it surprise me if JT won? Not at all but since I tend to avoid the favourites on the each/way market I’m rolling with these higher-upside contenders instead.

Outright winner and each/way contenders: Sam Burns (+2500), Will Zalatoris (+2800), Shane Lowry (+2800), Matt Fitzpatrick (+2800), Tony Finau (+3000), Billy Horschel (+5000), Daniel Berger (+5000), Davis Riley (+7500)

Top-10 contenders with value: Zalatoris (+275), Fitzpatrick (+275), Lowry (+275), Finau (+300)

Top-20 contenders with value: Horschel (+200), Berger (+200), Varner (+250), Riley (+260), Henley (+350)

(Betting odds listed above via Bet365 as of Wednesday afternoon)