Brooks-Bryson rivalry fuels Open

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It has been a remarkable year in the golf world, even though 2021 is only 5½ months old. The most memorable moments stretch from Tiger Woods to Hideki Matsuyama to Phil Mickelson to Jon Rahm.

Woods’ high-speed car crash Feb. 23 in Los Angeles resulted in career-threatening leg injuries and rocked the sport. The shock waves lingered until April, when Matsuyama became the first Japanese player to win the Masters.

From a betting perspective, can anything top Mickelson’s stunning victory at the PGA Championship in May? Written off by most as a major contender at 50, Mickelson stunned a field of younger guns to cash at odds as high as 300-1.

Mickelson could top that by winning the U.S. Open this week at Torrey Pines. Playing in his backyard in San Diego, Mickelson is seeking the only major title that has eluded him. He’s a six-time major champion with six runner-up finishes in this event.

But Westgate SuperBook golf oddsmaker Jeff Sherman is not swept up in the sentimental storyline, saying: “Phil’s not winning two majors in a row. I’m certainly not betting on Mickelson. It’s so hard for these guys to win back-to-back majors, even if a player’s in really good form.”

Nevertheless, public wagering support for Mickelson, who’s getting 65-1 odds at Circa Sports and 50-1 at most other books, remains strong. The U.S. Open favorite at 11-1 is Rahm, who’s another unique story.

On June 5, Rahm led the Memorial in Ohio by six strokes following a third-round 64. After walking off the 18th green, he was forced to withdraw from the tournament because of a positive COVID-19 test. Rahm is out of quarantine and has arrived at Torrey Pines, where he won the Farmers Insurance Open in 2017 for his first PGA Tour victory.

“Regardless of what happened (in Ohio), Rahm is the starting point this week,” Sherman said. “The biggest thing is nobody else is really standing out.”

Recent major winners Dustin Johnson and Bryson DeChambeau follow Rahm on the odds board, with each listed at 17-1. Johnson, slumping since his Masters win in November, claimed the U.S. Open title in 2016. DeChambeau was a runaway winner by six strokes last year at Winged Foot.

“I’m not as concerned about course history at Torrey as I think some are, but I can certainly see why Rahm is the favorite,” said Jeff Sealey, a VSiN contributor and Indianapolis-based golf handicapper. “His course history here is strong, and I expect him to be very motivated given his last event, where he was forced to withdraw with a sizable lead. I may look to make a live bet on Rahm if someone jumps out to an early lead and I can get him at 15-1 or higher, but I won’t be investing in him pre-tournament.”

The U.S. Open was last staged at Torrey Pines in 2008, when Woods prevailed in a dramatic playoff. Here are five players who could follow in his footprints (BetMGM and Circa odds):

Brooks Koepka (17-1): The Koepka-DeChambeau rivalry could be the top story this week, and you can bet each player will be fired up for a showdown on this stage. Koepka, the back-to-back U.S. Open champ in 2017-18, started Sunday at the PGA with the swagger of John Wayne yet limped in as the bridesmaid to Mickelson. He has something to prove, and he thrives on difficult USGA setups.

“There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and me betting on Koepka in a major,” Sealey said. “If you look at strokes gained over the past 20 majors, Koepka absolutely crushes the field. He is in the conversation nearly every Sunday in a major. Koepka grades out No. 4 overall in my math model, so it’s lock and load on Koepka for me.”

DeChambeau is a -115 favorite in a matchup against Koepka, and considering DeChambeau has been in a three-month slump, I’ll side with Koepka.

Xander Schauffele (18-1): Torrey Pines is a home game for Mickelson and Schauffele, who grew up 15 miles from the course and starred at San Diego State. He tied for second at the Farmers Insurance Open in January. Schauffele has top-10 finishes in eight of his 16 career major starts. His worst finish in four U.S. Opens is sixth.

“Schauffele fits the mold of what we have seen in recent major winners — young, never won a major before, a top-25 player in the world and has finished top-10 in the event,” VSiN golf handicapper Brady Kannon said. “Schauffele has been a force in major championships as far as top-10 finishes.”

It’s hard to forget Schauffele’s back-nine rally at the Masters before he made one big mistake and let Matsuyama off the hook. We tend to focus on the negative sometimes and lament Schauffele’s near-misses. He’s only 27. It’s worth remembering Mickelson recorded three seconds and five third-place finishes in 42 majors before his breakthrough Masters win in 2004 at 33.

Collin Morikawa (25-1): Avoiding the thick rough will be crucial at Torrey Pines, and accuracy is the 2020 PGA winner’s calling card. Morikawa ranks first on the PGA Tour in greens-in-regulation percentage (71.8) and strokes gained tee to green (1.96). His iron play is as good as it gets.

“The No. 1 player in my model this week is Morikawa,” Sealey said. “To those who follow golf closely, this will come as no surprise, but over the last 100 rounds the leader in strokes-gained ball striking is Morikawa. Ball striking represents a combination of off-the-tee and approach, and Morikawa ranks 19th and first in those respective categories during that time. His weakness has been his putting.

“In terms of form, Morikawa has it. He has six top-10s, including a win, in his last 10 tournaments. Morikawa won a major in California 10 months ago, and if he can just match the field in putting, this may well be his second major.”

Jason Kokrak (60-1): A bomber off the tee and a vastly improved putter, Kokrak delivered a breakthrough win at the Charles Schwab Challenge in Texas on May 30.

“If you’re looking for a long shot to win, take a look at Kokrak,” Sealey said. “Kokrak’s ball striking is top-25 on tour, but his biggest weakness was always his putting. He has turned that putting into a strength and ranks inside the top 50 in putting on tour over his last 100 rounds. This is exactly the type of guy you want on your card with odds in the 70-1 range.”

Charley Hoffman (95-1): Another San Diego native, Hoffman has played the Farmers Insurance Open 22 times. He has seven U.S. Open starts, missing the cut only once.

“This season may be the best he’s put together in his career, with five top-10 finishes, including a second and a third,” Kannon said. “He’s made 12 cuts in a row, and the streak began with a seventh at Pebble Beach, another coastal California golf course that features Poa Annua putting surfaces.

“He just witnessed Mickelson, another elder statesman and San Diego native, win a major. Maybe at 44, it’s Hoffman’s turn at Torrey Pines.”

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