Prop bets worth watching at the U.S. Open

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With a major championship on tap this week at Winged Foot, there are plenty of wagers to consider: favorites who should contend, sleepers who could surprise, and head-to-head matchups sure to go awry.

But heading into a U.S. Open unlike any other, why not get a little creative?

The betting board runs deep this week for the second major of the year, as 144 of the world's best get set to take on a brutal and demanding layout in New York. Will there be a hole-in-one at any point in the tournament? Who leads after the first round? Will an American hoist the trophy for the fifth straight year? These are just a sampling of the prop bets available at PointsBet Sportsbook ahead of Thursday's first tee time, not to mention some of the more standard offerings bettors have come to expect.

From Tiger to Phil to some educated guesswork on the winning score, here are some of the prop bets that have caught my attention ahead of what's sure to be an action-packed week (all odds via PointsBet):

Justin Thomas (-136) over Tiger Woods (Round 1 birdies)

By focusing on this specific prop, you're able to back the better player at a steep discount. Thomas is considered one of the pre-tournament favorites, and you'd have to pay -176 or -278 to take him against Woods in an opening-round or 72-hole matchup, respectively. The outcome here will likely be the same at a much more amenable price, given that Thomas was T-2 last season on Tour in birdie average and can pile up circles on the scorecard at a moment's notice. Woods, meanwhile, has been slow out of the gates in several recent majors and made only nine total birdies in 72 holes of play amid tough conditions last time out at Olympia Fields.

Phil Mickelson (+125) to miss the cut

It ain't happening. There have been plenty of storylines this week tying back to Mickelson's near-miss at this venue 14 years ago, when he let the tournament slip through his fingers on the 72nd hole. But at age 50 he's not the same player he was when he last tackled Winged Foot, and there's little chance that he can scramble as miraculously as he did back then to neutralize errant tee shots. Mickelson hit just 12 of 56 fairways last week in easier conditions in Napa, finishing 137th in Strokes Gained: Off-the-Tee, and seems largely resigned to the fact that the U.S. Open will forever elude him. With a tougher cut line (top 60 and ties instead of the standard top 65) and no fans to trample down the rough and offer favorable lies for wayward drives, don't be surprised if Mickelson is checking out of his hotel Friday night.

Branden Grace (+400) top South African finisher

There's some poetic justice in Grace earning one of the final spots in the field. After all, he had to withdraw from the Barracuda Championship in July after 36 holes, where he was tied for second, when he unexpectedly tested positive for COVID-19. With hopes of qualifying with a high finish in Reno dashed, he finally gained entry this week when Scottie Scheffler, you guessed it, tested positive for COVID-19. Grace nearly won this event five years ago at Chambers Bay, finished T-5 the following year at Oakmont and cracked the top 25 two years ago at Shinnecock. While he has faded somewhat from his previous peak, he won earlier this year on the European Tour, posted a respectable T-29 finish last week in Napa and remains the only man to shoot 62 in a major (2017 Open). With six other countrymen in the field, it feels like favorite Louis Oosthuizen (+225) is the biggest threat, but you can get Grace at nearly twice the price.

Winning score 280 or higher (+100)

If you've gotten this far, you're likely plenty familiar with the horror stories about Winged Foot's West Course. In six prior editions of the U.S. Open, all but one have featured a winning score over par - and last time it was played here, Geoff Ogilvy escaped with the trophy after shooting 5 over for the week. There won't be much let up this week, with thick rough surrounding slick and undulating greens that are sure to give players plenty of headaches. With minimal rain in the forecast and the possibility of a cooler, more northerly wind over the weekend, the course is expected to play as firm and fast as the USGA wants. Just three weeks ago we saw only a handful of the Tour's best manage to break par at Olympia Fields. This week, it's expected to only get more difficult to win the battle with par, so getting even money that the winning score will be Even or higher seems like a worthwhile investment.

Webb Simpson (+500) top former champion

With two-time winner Brooks Koepka watching from home, we're down to 10 former U.S. Open champs teeing it up at Winged Foot. Yes, that includes the likes of Dustin Johnson (+200) and Rory McIlroy (+300), but there's value in backing Simpson who might be playing the best golf of his career. The veteran has won twice this year, both before and after the break, and has been on a nearly uninterrupted tear since last July. Simpson has finished T-16 or better each of the last two years in this event and boasts an impressive stat line from the recently-completed season: fourth in total strokes gained, sixth in SG: Approach and 13th in SG: Putting. Accurate iron play and deft touch on the greens will be in high demand this week, so don't be surprised if Simpson beats out his fellow former champs and possibly contends for a second major title.

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