Golf matchups: Why I'm fading Smith at U.S. Open

June 14, 2022 08:59 PM
USATSI_18431704

With baseball, the Belmont, barbecues and golf's national championship taking place over Father's Day weekend, summer is definitely in the air. 

The 122nd edition of the U.S. Open should also be of the traditional sort: a grueling test with ankle deep rough on a classic-of-all-classics golf course, The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, just outside of Boston. Despite the presence of the newly formed LIV Golf tour, this venue, this city and this major championship all feel especially American.

I've heard the course described as “claustrophobic,” meaning it will be crowded with trouble spots and very little room to escape, and I would agree. The course features rock outcroppings and big mounds. The greens are very small by tour standards, second only to Pebble Beach, and feature greater undulation than those at Pebble. They are also heavily guarded by sand bunkers. The rough bordering the fairways and greens will be nasty. The Country Club actually has a linksy feel with all of its rugged landscape and rustic, old-school charm.

We most recently saw this course in 2013 when Matt Fitzpatrick won the U.S. Amateur. Before that, it hosted the 1999 Ryder Cup. And the last time a U.S. Open was played here, Curtis Strange topped Nick Faldo in a playoff in 1988. Those versions of The Country Club, however, are not what we will see this week. 

Gil Hanse was back on the job as golf course renovator. He tweaked Winged Foot, site of the 2020 U.S. Open, and Southern Hills, where Justin Thomas won the PGA Championship last month. He also performed restoration and redesign projects at Aronimink, site of the 2018 BMW Championship, and Ridgewood Country Club, which hosted the 2018 Northern Trust. 

With 27 holes at The Country Club, Hanse pulled over more than one hole from the alternate nine and incorporated them into a combination layout for this year’s championship. It will play as a Par 70, measuring more than 7,200 yards, with two monster Par 5s, one of which is more than 600 yards.

I looked at all of the aforementioned Hanse redesigns as correlated courses this week. As far as skill sets, I looked at Total Driving, Greens in Regulation, Scrambling and Strokes Gained: Around-the-Greens. Players will miss plenty of these small greens this week, and getting up and down will often be a treacherous task. I also looked at Bogey Avoidance. Plenty of bogeys will be made, but minimizing bogeys or worse will go a long way toward success. 

Other PGA Tour courses I looked at with at least some of the same challenges: Silverado, PGA National, Colonial and Muirfield Village. Other U.S. Open venues I looked at: Pebble Beach and Merion.

I've been studying this track for more than a month. Here is who I considered and who I ultimately played for full tournament head-to-head matchups this week:

Considered (26-25-1 YTD)

— Xander Schauffele (-125) over Cameron Smith

— Jordan Spieth (-125) over Cameron Smith

— Shane Lowry (-110) over Will Zalatoris

— Tony Finau (-125) over Joaquin Niemann

— Billy Horschel (+ 100) over Cameron Young

Played (22-22-1 YTD)

— Patrick Cantlay (-130) over Cameron Smith. As you can see, I was looking at a few matchups going against Smith but landed on Cantlay as our best chance to beat him. I think Cantlay has an excellent chance to win the championship and I actually think Smith has a good chance of missing the cut. It’s all about how their skill sets fit this venue. Smith flourishes with wide fairways, as we saw at Southern Hills and Augusta National and in his victory at Kapalua in January. He is an absolute wizard on and around the greens, but his Achilles heel is off the tee. He’s outside of the Top 100 on tour in Driving Distance and ranks 151st in Driving Accuracy. Cantlay is 15th on tour in Total Driving, with nearly a perfect 50-50 split between distance and accuracy (60th in DD and 66th in DA). I believe Smith will get in trouble off of the tee quite often, and no matter how good he is on and around the greens, it won't help if he is hacking it around just to get there.

— Luke List (-140) over Kevin Kisner. Similar mindset here, but unlike Smith, Kisner is very accurate off of the tee. He just has no distance, ranking 171st on tour. Long approach shots to small greens will wear on him, while List can bang it at 11th in Driving Distance and 15th in Greens in Regulation. List is not especially high in my handicap to be a real factor this week, but I went against Kisner at Southern Hills — another long, demanding Par 70 — and it worked. I believe this course will be too much of a beast for him too.

— Max Homa (+ 110) over Corey Conners. Both of these players look to fit the bill this week and Conners has performed exceptionally well in major championships, but I believe the price is wrong. The stats I considered this week have these two players being super close, but with Homa the far better putter. Conners is 75th on tour in Strokes Gained: Putting, and I'm surprised he's that high. Homa is 20th. I figure this matchup to be a pick’em, so getting a plus price on Homa is a green light for me.

For all the plays from myself, Wes Reynolds, Matt Youmans and our two guests, John Haslbauer of The Lines US and Nick Bogdanovich of Circa Sports, check out “LongShots” at VSiN.com/podcasts.

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