Youmans: Riding high into U.S. Open, McIlroy is golf's top gun

June 14, 2022 08:01 PM

Almost eight years have passed since Rory McIlroy last won a major championship, believe it or not. Despite a prolonged slump in golf’s biggest events, he’s showing up this week at the U.S. Open as the betting favorite and fan favorite, and deservedly so on both accounts.

The sport has splintered into a good-versus-evil battle in recent weeks, with a handful of big-name players jumping to the dark side to grab more than a fistful of dollars from the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Golf series. It’s a business decision for Dustin Johnson and Phil Mickelson, who each hauled in more than $100 million.

It’s a personal matter for McIlroy, who’s not following the obscene amounts of Saudi money. He’s staying loyal to the PGA Tour and his moral values while criticizing the defectors. As a result, he has suddenly become the face of golf’s good side. McIlroy, Justin Thomas and Tiger Woods are leading the fight against the evil invasion.

McIlroy put an exclamation point on his stance by winning the Canadian Open on Sunday, when he held off Thomas and Tony Finau in a wild final round. McIlroy’s timely triumph provided the emotional boost the PGA Tour needed, so it would be a sensational story if he could go back-to-back by winning his fifth career major.

“Rory has to be the favorite now,” Westgate SuperBook golf oddsmaker Jeff Sherman said. “Someone we respect played him at 12-1 (odds). Rory is definitely the starting point this week.”

The script for this U.S. Open is worthy of a movie. It’s golf’s version of “Top Gun: Maverick” and has the potential to be a summer blockbuster.

McIlroy, posted as the 10-1 favorite at the SuperBook and Circa Sports, will feel immense fan support at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, a few miles from downtown Boston. Patriotism will be a theme. In an ironic twist, American golf fans likely will be rooting for the 33-year-old from Northern Ireland and rooting against Mickelson, who turns 52 on Thursday when he tees off in the the only major he has not won. Mickelson’s odds have soared to 300-1.

Is the six-time major champ a traitor to leave for the Saudi-funded LIV tour? Mickelson is an easy target for critics, but $200 million would be tough for anyone to turn down.

The Saudi series, spearheaded by Greg Norman, has no sharks to tout aside from Mickelson and Johnson. Few will miss Sergio Garcia, Kevin Na and Patrick Reed. I’ll contend it’s actually addition by subtraction for the PGA Tour to lose clowns such as Garcia and Reed. It would only become a problem if several truly popular players in their prime slowly leave for the money.

With its current roster, the Saudi series is a wagering afterthought and no threat to the PGA Tour on a weekly basis.

“From a betting viewpoint, it feels like the NFL versus the USFL,” Sherman said. “But there's more (players) to come. It's going to be disruptive. It's enough to put eyes on it and it's going to attract attention.”

Dramatic storylines aside, McIlroy is the top gun on the futures board based on his win in Canada and his second-place finish at the Masters in April. But his odds were 15-1 and higher a few weeks ago, so there’s no so-called value in the current number.

“Nobody on Earth wanted Rory last week in the 9-1 to 10-1 range,” Circa golf oddsmaker Jeff Davis said. “Because he won, everybody is going to sprint to the window to take him in a much deeper field. Can Rory win? Absolutely. But if you didn’t take 15-1 when it was there, I don’t see how you could take 10-1 or 11-1 now.”

I’ll pass on Rory for now, but betting him late in the week at adjusted odds could be an option. My only pre-tournament bets are on these five long shots:

Sam Burns (32-1): In the past 14 months, Burns has four wins and three runner-up finishes, in addition to tying for fourth in Canada last week. He’s a steady player in impressive form, so these odds do represent some value.

Cameron Young (50-1): The PGA Tour rookie is knocking on the door — tying for third at the PGA Championship in May — and eventually he’ll be a winner. Young is long off the tee, which might not be a big advantage this week, and strong in all areas of the game.

Corey Conners (60-1): The 30-year-old Canadian fits the profile of what it will take to win at The Country Club, where the rough is thicker than Carrot Top’s hair. Driving accuracy and precision approach play? Conners has it all. He closed with a 62 to finish in the top five last week.

Justin Rose (80-1): After a lengthy cold stretch, Rose seems to be getting hot. He shot a 10-under 60 on Sunday to tie Burns for fourth in Canada. His only major win was at the U.S. Open in 2013. At 41, he’s still capable of contending in majors.

Max Homa (80-1): This is a bet I made in May after the PGA when Homa finished in the top 15, and the odds are down to around 50-1 now.

“Homa has quietly played well over his last five starts or so, and he’s playing as good as the guys at the top,” said Davis, who has seen sharp action show up on Homa.

Sherman said he bet eight players in the outright market — Masters champ Scottie Scheffler (33-1), Cameron Smith (40-1), Matt Fitzpatrick (40-1), Joaquin Niemann (50-1), Tony Finau (50-1), Shane Lowry (66-1), Rose (100-1) and Young (150-1) — and grabbed some good numbers before the market moved. He’s also playing Xander Schauffele in matchups, noting Schauffele has finished no worse than seventh in the past five U.S. Opens.

“Xander’s got the best U.S. Open form of any player I've looked at this week,” Sherman said. “There are a lot of guys who are attracting a lot of money.”

This field is as good as it gets in golf — minus Woods, who plans to return for the British Open next month — and the Saudi series is a joke by comparison.

It would be fitting to see McIlroy, seeking his first major win since 2014, finish on top and get the last laugh.

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