US Open preview and best bets

US Open preview and best bets

Viktor Hovland looks ready to win his first major championship according to Ben Coley, who previews the US Open.

Golf betting tips: US Open

4pts win Viktor Hovland at 18/1 (General; 22-24.0 via exchanges)

2pts e.w. Tommy Fleetwood at 33/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1.5pts e.w. Justin Thomas at 45/1 (Sky Bet, William Hill 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1.5pts e.w. Max Homa at 45/1 (General 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Jason Day at 90/1 (Sky Bet 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8)

1pt e.w. Ryan Fox at 150/1 (Betfred 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

1pt e.w. Nick Dunlap at 225/1 (Paddy Power 1/5 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10)

Sky Bet odds | Paddy Power | Betfair Sportsbook

The promise of the US Open now that it returns to Pinehurst’s No.2 course is in how starkly it should differ from last month’s PGA Championship at Valhalla.

Ten years ago, when the resort hosted its third men’s US Open, Webb Simpson stressed that Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw’s restoration would prove to be exceptionally demanding, despite receptive conditions early on. He was right. Just three players broke par in the end and in part, that was down to a reemphasis on the think-on-your-feet side of the game, the side that is seldom seen. “There’s so many things to think about on every shot,” said the defending champion.

The other part of the challenge is found in how complicated shots are even after that decision has been made. This might not be your typical US Open venue, but it is typically long, and a par 70 with just two par-fives. There might not be thick rough, but what runs along these rolling fairways is threatening nonetheless. And then there are Pinehurst’s fabled greens: domed and undulating, with shaved, steep run-offs and false-fronts making them hard enough to find, let alone conquer.

It’s no wonder that Rory McIlroy suggested that a ‘very imaginative and inventive short game’ would be needed, that Adam Scott concurred by adding that ‘imagination is going to be a big thing’. Neither man would’ve quite envisaged the type of imagination that proved a masterstroke. Kaymer, whose chipping is a severe weakness, produced one of the best lag-putting displays you’ll ever see having reached for that club whenever he could and, combined with his tee-to-green precision, that made for an eight-shot romp.

Such a display of dominance of course robbed us of drama. Kaymer was three ahead after round one, six ahead after round two, and could afford a two-over par round on ‘Moving Day’, which he still ended five ahead. Only briefly did that gap narrow to four during the final round and never did his score drop below eight-under, where it had been when he arrived to the first tee. It was a front-running masterclass from a former world number one, the kind we have to applaud even as it steals one of our precious major Sundays.

The lasting imagine of that US Open is of Kaymer and his putter, but what’s also striking, looking back, is how few of the contenders – if we can call them that – had arrived in good form. Kaymer was an exception, having won The PLAYERS just five weeks earlier, but Erik Compton, Rickie Fowler, Keegan Bradley and Brooks Koepka had not been at their best; Jason Day had barely played and Dustin Johnson had done precious little of note since missing the cut in the Masters.

Does this make for a logical equation? Firm course unalike anything we’ve seen on the PGA Tour this season, where ball bounces rather than stops where it lands, where greens repel, where everyone has to think, equals a leaderboard unalike those we’ve grown used to (perhaps even tired of)? This is at least a somewhat satisfying explanation, rather than there being something in the North Carolina water given that qualifier Michael Campbell defeated Tiger Woods in 2005. That was at an almost unrecognisable version of this course, after all.

There’s no doubt that the use of season-long short-game stats can be risky when the formula changes. Kaymer entered the US Open ranked 158th in scrambling yet was able to lead the field, because this event and the rest of the season had very little in common. At a course where it was unanimously agreed that a good short-game would be a must, seven of the eventual top eight went on to rank outside the top 100 in the season-long around-the-green stats.

That leads nicely into VIKTOR HOVLAND, who almost feels too neat a fit as a fabulous European golfer whose main weakness lies in his chipping and pitching.

Whether or not he chooses to employ those Kaymer tactics and putt at every opportunity, something he did at St Andrews in 2022, this always looked a potentially good fit for Hovland, who hasn’t enjoyed quite the same success in the US Open as he has in the other three major championships.

There have been mitigating circumstances, chiefly a freak eye injury at Torrey Pines, but the shift to a more nuanced exam paper could really help. This is a player who is exceptional off the tee not only because he hits it far, but because he’s precise. That’s not always rewarded in this championship, at least not to the extent that some believe, and in general Hovland’s meticulous nature matches up well with Pinehurst.

It is perhaps his Open record which offers most encouragement, having been 12th on debut, a final-group fourth at the Old Course and then 13th last year. That’s a really good start to his career in a major which can take some learning and there’s no doubt that there are links-like elements to Pinehurst, together with that range of shot choices you’ll more often get over in the UK and Ireland.

Kaymer is a past Dunhill Links champion who contended for an Open, Fowler has won a Scottish Open and threatened at Hoylake a month after finishing second here, while there were Open champions in fourth and 17th, plus contenders aplenty in-between. Adam Scott and Brandt Snedeker, who shared ninth, both looked like they might win at Lytham. Matt Kuchar almost did at Birkdale. Johnson of course had several chances and Day came good on links turf last July. Even JB Holmes led at Portrush, where Koepka was in the mix.

Hovland also brings with him some form at other Donald Ross courses, like East Lake, where he won the FedEx Cup and was the joint-lowest 72-hole scorer in the autumn. He was fourth at Sedgefield on his one and only visit, right at the start of his professional career, while his closest call in majors prior to last month came at Oak Hill last year. Oak Hill’s 2013 leaderboard actually tied in quite nicely with the US Open that followed the following June: seven players finished inside the top 20 in both and while Kaymer wasn’t one of them, he had been in the mix at halfway.

Then there’s Sawgrass, which I referenced when getting two players on-side antepost. Kaymer, Fowler, Day, Scott, Henrik Stenson, Kuchar – all are PLAYERS champions who were inside the top dozen here, while Kevin Na (12th), Jim Furyk (12th), Ian Poulter (17th) and Jordan Spieth (17th) have all gone close at the Stadium Course. Jimmy Walker and Keegan Bradley finished ninth and fourth respectively and have contended there and while hard to be sure, Hovland’s two Sawgrass top-10s have to be labelled encouraging.

Above all else, though, Hovland has been a habitual major contender since the summer before last. He followed that Open effort by getting close to the lead at Augusta and holding it at the aforementioned Oak Hill. Then came the latest PGA Championship, where he and Bryson DeChambeau served it up to Xander Schauffele, Hovland eventually settling for third. Given his lack of form coming in, the way he played under the gun was seriously impressive.

That of course coincided with a return to the coach who had helped him become arguably the sport’s best player late in 2023, during which time he excelled for Europe in the Ryder Cup. Last week, I was keen to find out whether Hovland could back it up and he did so for the most part, especially on Friday. A quiet weekend probably helps us with his price yet there remained some positives, and he looks a big runner.

At 16/1-plus he gets my vote among the market leaders, among whom Collin Morikawa and Brooks Koepka were close behind. Morikawa has contended for both majors so far this season and is an Open champion with similar form-lines to Hovland, while Koepka’s closing 65 in Houston extended a solid body of work post-Masters, including three of the four rounds at last month’s PGA, and he was of course fourth at Pinehurst a decade ago.

One of the things I’ve found hard to weigh is the length of the course and the USGA’s habit of creating tournaments that are dominated by long-hitters with that 2014 leaderboard. None of the first three can be classed as bombers and while there were four of those tied for fourth, so was straight-hitting Stenson, with short drivers like Snedeker, Furyk, Kuchar, Na and Marcel Siem all close behind.

Their cause was definitely helped by the USGA choosing not to stretch the course to its fullest extent and the fact that the receptive nature of Pinehurst, in relative terms, still represented something firmer and faster than we’re used to. That looks set to be the case again and with hints of rain fast disappearing from a glorious forecast, the course should be ready to bare its teeth.

That all had me set to select Cameron Smith, whose US Open fortunes improved for a different type of golf course last June, having only previously shown up at Chambers Bay. Top-10 finishes either side at the PGA and this year’s Masters coupled with his Open win made him look an appealing candidate, but Sunday’s final-round 80 is off-putting.

Preference is for the more convincing form credentials of TOMMY FLEETWOOD.

Three top-fives in seven US Opens tell you a lot about Fleetwood, who completed the set across the four majors when third at Augusta in April. He is fabulously patient and I do believe that his level-headedness, his appreciation for what he has, has played a part in building such a fine record in major championships.

Missing from his CV is a win and the fact he’s yet to manage one of any kind in the United States will be held against him until he puts it right, but I am hopeful it could all happen this week. Those three top-fives came at Erin Hills, Shinnecock and LACC and his next best effort came at Chambers Bay. These wider, often firmer courses are so much more beneficial to him than the softer, longer-playing ones at which he’s struggled.

The all-round nature of his game, which has no weaknesses when firing, is ideal for Pinehurst, where every club in the bag will get a turn. He chips wonderfully, has putted well for most of the year, is generally solid off the tee, and has been better with his approaches again recently, including for the most part when 20th last week. He’s long enough, too, but like some of the US Opens in which he’s thrived, this should be about far more than that.

While I liked his chances at Muirfield Village, particularly at the price, he was conceding an experience edge to most of his rivals which is not the case here, and he looks about as solid as they come. Three Open top-10s plus 12th place at a baked Carnoustie mean that unlike most players in this second wave of the betting, from a course-fit perspective I think he has all bases covered.

One factor those who bet on golf most weeks will be aware of is that we do have bermudagrass in play and that’s the nudge I probably needed to return to JUSTIN THOMAS.

The are many reasons for optimism concerning his general suitability to this test but there is one big negative, which is that he’s not been putting well. It’s a malaise which has really taken hold during the spring and early summer and it might’ve cost him something really special when he played the PGA Championship in his home state of Kentucky.

Thomas was in fact the best player in the field from tee-to-green there but wound up in eighth place, never really threatening to get to the leaders. He felt he’d struck putts well but suffered a bit of misfortune, although golfers are generally not inclined to admit that it might have been their fault.

I know for a fact, (I played) plenty good enough to win this week,” was his assessment and from a long-game perspective, that is hard to dispute. Thomas drove it as well as he has in an age to rank seventh, was 16th in strokes-gained approach, and fifth around the green.

For my money there aren’t many better when chipping and pitching, particularly from short grass, and his range of shots through the bag could be a big weapon. It’s why I expect him to improve on a missed cut in 2014, when he was making his way on the Korn Ferry Tour. With a win at Sawgrass to his name, plus an excellent record at the Donald Ross-designed East Lake, I really do think Pinehurst is a wonderful course for him.

But it’s those bermuda greens which give us something to play with when it comes to potential putting improvement. It was on these familiar surfaces that he won the PGA Championship in 2017 and more recently, the last time he putted on bermudagrass saw him gain strokes on the field despite having been woeful a week earlier on very different greens.

Form-wise he’s been fifth, 21st, eighth and 33rd across his last four starts, all in high-class company, all since a caddie switch on the eve of the Masters which left him ill prepared at Augusta. Eighth at the PGA put an end to a rotten run in majors and after he was eighth at Augusta in 2022 following a frustrating spell, he won a second major at Southern Hills next time out, having reminded himself of his capabilities.

With confidence restored and his iron play last week as good as it’s been in a long time, a decent week on the greens would make this two-time major champion a big factor at a nice price.

Stick with Homa at course he’ll adore

There were a number of players who made some kind of appeal at similar odds including Tony Finau, who contended at a firm, fast Carnoustie, as he had a month earlier at Shinnecock, and has been catching the eye lately. The worry with Finau is that unlike Thomas the move to bermuda is more likely a negative than a positive, so he’s left out despite some of the best shot-making in the sport and an underrated short-game.

Sahith Theegala contended in the PGA Championship and should benefit enormously from that experience but I can’t abandon MAX HOMA, my headline selection there at 28/1, and he’s got to be worth sticking with at closer to the 50/1 mark just a few weeks on from Valhalla.

Homa’s US Open record is abysmal and that has been nagging away at me, but there are two mitigating factors: one is that this is unalike any he’s played before; the other is that the penny has dropped for him since he last played in one, which came with the added pressure of being in his home town of LA.

Tenth place in the Open Championship last July was his first worthwhile effort in majors and having followed it by being the standout US player in the Ryder Cup, he came out and defied all the trends to contend right into the back-nine at Augusta, where one misjudgement at the 12th hole cost him dearly.

In last month’s PGA Championship preview I wrote all about how Homa appeared to learn a lot that week and suggested it might be a key step along the road to winning one of these, and that remains my view despite a mediocre performance there. Unfortunately, he made clear he wasn’t much a fan of that one-dimensional test and it showed.

This will be much more to his liking, of that I’m sure, and after his best approach work of the season last week, I want to side with him again. Extra space off the tee should help given that his driver has just gone slightly off the boil, while his best putting in 2024 came at Bay Hill and I don’t mind the change in surface after a couple of poor weeks in that department.

Homa is strong around the green, something he demonstrated in a rounded display at the Masters, and I can see him walking in plenty of those six-to-eight foot putts that will keep rounds going in what’s sure to be a difficult US Open. He looks the type who may keep on popping up at majors now that he’s figured out how to prepare and realised that he’s good enough to win.

In general a bit of knowhow should go a long way under these conditions and I’d be a bit surprised if the winner was as lacking in top-level experience as Wyndham Clark was a year ago. That’s probably my main issue with antepost pick Min Woo Lee, whose short-game could be a big weapon, but I certainly won’t be surprised if he does get involved in some form.

His compatriot JASON DAY looks better value in the here and now though and I’m a little surprised we can take prices close to 100/1, around double what he was for the Masters back in April and much bigger than when writing that 2024 preview at Christmas.

Since finishing 30th at Augusta, Day has produced a few decent efforts without setting the world alight. They include fourth place here in North Carolina at Quail Hollow, where he’s a past champion, and after a fine third-round he was in the mix for a place again last week until a poor finish.

Like Thomas, Day is a former Sawgrass champion and he’s won at a Ross-designed course, too, in the shape of Plainfield. Also eighth at Oak Hill (2013), he has a couple of top-20s in his last two visits to Detroit, so very much ticks that Donald Ross box having been fourth here a decade ago.

A large part of why I like him for this is that his short-game is fabulous, and lately it’s been back to the levels which helped him reach the top of the sport. At the Wells Fargo he led the field in strokes-gained around-the-green, which he wasn’t far off doing at the Masters, and his putter has really come to life over the past three months, too.

That tells us his long-game hasn’t necessarily fired but it did in round three at Muirfield Village, where he produced his best ball-striking stats of the season, and these wider fairways may help to a degree. Certainly, he looked to hit the ball well here in 2014 and he’d played very little golf that year, finishing 37th at the Memorial in his only start since 20th at Augusta.

A decade on, Day has been through plenty of ups and downs but second place in the Open last July was a reminder of what he can do. It hints that he might be capable of contending again in the other majors and with five top-10s in his first six US Open appearances, this has always been a good one for his grinding game.

It’s to my shame that I’ve come this far without mentioning Scottie Scheffler, the game’s standout player. That’s largely because I’m just not interested in backing a 3/1 shot for a firm, fast US Open, whoever it is. And while he continues to exceed even the loftiest of expectations, I do believe that Pinehurst provides not only the possibility of a display of total dominance, but the kind of threat he doesn’t always face.

We know by now that he’s the best golfer but the course can beat even those, and one where the ball bounces, that brings luck even more into the equation than it usually is, wouldn’t be my choice were I putting him forward as a selection. The fewer the variables, the more likely it is that the player with more control over his ball than anyone in a very long time is going to perform close to his best. He could do that here and still come undone, as could anyone.

If that sounds optimistic, even unrealistic, then perhaps it should; if Scheffler wins the US Open by 10, then so be it. There can be no doubt that if there is a Kaymer-like performance to come, it will most likely be from the golfing machine who hasn’t finished outside the top 10 since his first start of the year.

There are plenty who appeal at bigger odds but I’ve come down on the side of RYAN FOX and NICK DUNLAP.

Fox won’t win this because he’s from New Zealand, like Campbell and 2008 US Amateur winner, Danny Lee, but he might feel like that boosts his chances even if it shouldn’t. Regardless, he comes here with the right skills for Pinehurst and having recaptured his form, too.

The affable Fox said it took until the Masters for his game to come around this year but it certainly has now, with three top-10 finishes in his last six starts including in Canada last time. Along the way, he putted the lights out on bermuda greens in Myrtle Beach, and his driving has taken a notable step forward.

Back on the DP World Tour he’s known for his performances under links or links-like conditions, which include a luckless second in Ireland, a luckless second in the Netherlands, and an impressive win in the Dunhill Links. Also fourth and sixth in the Scottish Open, this will be so much more his thing than most US Opens.

With 27th at Sawgrass, 23rd at the Ross-designed Oak Hill and an Open Championship top-20 to his name, Fox and his blend of quick power and magic hands look a potentially dream fit for a course where two of his countrymen achieved what might have seemed impossible.

For him, victory remains improbable, but contending and perhaps even going all the way is not totally out of the question. He’s the outsider I like most at three-figure prices.

Another former Dunhill Links champion Victor Perez is respected as would Alex Noren be but for a pretty miserable record in majors, and I’ll take a chance on DUNLAP instead.

The first amateur to win on the PGA Tour since Phil Mickelson, Dunlap has done OK since swiftly turning professional and has really started to find his feet lately, with form figures of 30-24-MC-12 across his last four starts.

His approach play (ninth) and putting (third) did the trick last week – the former has been good for a little while – and I do quite like his earlier 11th place in Houston, given that Memorial Park is notable for its difficulty, wide fairways, and absence of short grass.

Finally, he does have plenty of good and recent memories of Pinehurst, where he won the North & South Amateur less than a year ago. The match play portion of that event was all played at the No.2 course, as was one round of the 36-hole stroke play qualifier, and it gives him a potential edge on so many of those who otherwise have more experience.

Dunlap also won the US Junior Amateur about three miles down the road and along with his improved form, it adds up to a fascinating outsider. Some may wish to focus on the sub-markets or play him for the first-round lead, but I’ll chance him getting in the mix at what could prove to be a volatile US Open, which I can’t wait to watch unfold.

Posted at 1900 BST on 10/06/24

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