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The 121st playing of the U.S. Open is set to kick-off Thursday morning. The South Course at Torrey Pines, located just north of the city San Diego, will play host to this year’s championship as players look to secure their place amongst golf’s immortal. It’s unusual to play the same golf course twice in the same season, but that’s exactly what will unfold this week as Torrey Pines held the Farmers Insurance Open in late January.
This strange predicament could lead to either more answers or worse, more questions. How much stock do we want to put into a player’s history at Torrey Pines? Should we instead look at his U.S. Open history? How much do we weigh current form, especially for a player like Brooks Koepka? The cop out is to look at Farmers Insurance Open leaderboards of the past and assume it will play out similarly, but I caution you to do so.
Not only that, but this year's championship could be viewed as a fork in the road for the USGA and on a larger scale the game of golf. Are gone the days of the likes of Corey Pavin, Tom Kite, or even Chez Reavie competing for our national crown? Will only players built like Bryson DeChambeau, Dustin Johnson, and Rory McIlroy be able to compete for years to come? I don’t have the answers to these questions, I wish I did, but from a non-betting perspective it provides for a nice thought exercise.
I believe taking the scenic route and truly analyzing some of these questions should only help us from a betting perspective, especially when talking about Torrey Pines South. As it was here in 2008 that two polar opposites clashed like mighty titans, going blow for blow, until one finally blinked on the 91st hole of the championship. I could go on for hours about said championship, but we’ll save it for another day, as we look further into Torrey Pines and this year’s U.S. Open.
The USGA have had their hands all over Torrey Pines since the end of January and it is certain to play much more difficult. Not only more difficult, but also differently. Having played as a par-72 this winter, Torrey Pines will play as a par-71 for the U.S. Open as the 6th hole has been rebranded from a par-5 to a par-4. Still, the yardage remains similar, tipping out to nearly 7,700 yards, putting an emphasis on brute strength as most U.S. Opens – at least recently – tend to do.
Distance off-the-tee combined with strong iron-play will be our path to success as we attempt to hone in on a potential first-round leader. Timely up-and-downs and clutch par-saving putts will be needed as well as avoiding the big numbers will be just as, if not more, important as making birdies. Putting tends to be a bit of a crapshoot on poa annua, but by targeting those players who have had success on this grass in the past is the best way to go.
I have made the bold decision to stack all of our selections in the afternoon wave, which may be unpopular to many. The way I see it, the course won't firm up all that much on Thursday as temperatures will remain in the mid-70's for the entirety of Round 1. While bumpy greens are always a concern, I look to those championships held at Pebble Beach and Shinnecock Hills, where a total of five first-round co-leaders all began their Thursdays in the afternoon.
The oddsmakers at PointsBet Sportsbook have priced the first-round leader market ahead of the U.S. Open. To no one’s surprise, Jon Rahm is alone at the top at +2000. Coming off a positive COVID-19 test, Rahm will surely want to get off to a fast start as many are saying this championship is his to lose.
Odds to Lead After the First-Round (Odds via PointsBet):
+2000: Jon Rahm
To Lead After the First-Round (Odds via PointsBet):
Justin Rose (+5000):
Is Rose flying under the radar? It feels like Rose is flying under the radar. This is one of the rare opportunities where three first-round leader factors seemingly come together. The first is current form and Rose surely has that, boasting top-10 finishes at both The Masters and last month’s PGA Championship. He tacked on another top-20 finish at the Charles Schwab Challenge in his last start for good measure.
The second is course history, and let me tell you, Rose certainly has that as well. Since 2017, Rose has a 4th place finish and 8th place finish in 2018 to go along with his Farmers Insurance Open victory in 2019. He has a couple other top-25 finishes as well, dating back to 2010. In total, Rose has a clear affinity for Torrey Pines and should find comfort on the cliffs of La Jolla.
Last but not least, there is championship history. The 2013 U.S. Open champion went on a bit of skid there for a bit, missing the cut in 2016 and 2017, but he has since regained the form that led him to his lone major championship. Rose finished inside the top-10 at Shinnecock Hills in 2018 and followed it up with a tie for 3rd at Pebble Beach in 2019 where he led after Round 1. All of this and the way Rose has been putting as of late, leads me to believe he will be leading this tournament at the end of first-round, much like he did at The Masters earlier this year.
Cameron Smith (+5000):
Ever since the first round at Kiawah Island, Smith has not looked like his normal self. He opened the PGA Championship with an even-par 72, and if not for a faulty putter he could have threatened Corey Conners by day’s end. He followed up that round with three mediocre days of golf and things didn’t get much better in his last start at The Memorial.
Smith surprisingly missed the cut at Jack’s Place, but once again, his Round 1 numbers weren’t all that bad. He gained 1.6 strokes ball-striking, but was offset by losing the exact same number on and around-the-greens. The Zurich Classic champion now returns to the state of California, where we last saw him nearly chasing down the likes of Max Homa and Tony Finau in the final round of the Genesis Invitational.
Smith will eventually figure out his putter, it’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when and history suggests it could be this week at Torrey Pines. He has gained strokes on these greens in four of his last five Farmers Insurance Open appearances, including performances of +6.2 SG: Putting in 2019 and +6.3 SG: Putting in 2017. His short-game is simply too good for this mini slump to continue and I’m betting he breaks out of it in a big way on Thursday.
Sungjae Im (+7000):
While many were looking to see how Johnson or maybe Hatton looked at last week’s Palmetto Championship ahead of the U.S. Open, I was looking at Im. He showed me more than enough in South Carolina as he finally appeared to figure out his irons, which he had been struggling with over the past month.
For the week, Im posted +5.2 SG: Approach, ranking 8th in the field in the category. Some may look at this as resurgence of some sort, Im has surprisingly been very strong with his ball-striking on Thursdays alone. Since the RBC Heritage, in seven starts, Im has gained strokes on approach in six first-rounds. Not only that, but he’s been able to avoid the big numbers as he been positive in bogey avoidance in six of his last seven Thursdays as well.
He now comes to Torrey Pines where he had a strong showing back in January. If not for a back-nine collapse on Sunday, he had a real opportunity to put pressure on Reed down the stretch. Clearly comfortable around this place, Im has the potential to ride the momentum he generated at the Palmetto Championship into the first-round of the U.S. Open.
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Branden Grace (+8000):
2021 has been a revival year for the man who played alongside Spieth in the final round of the 2015 U.S. Open. Highlighted by his victory in Puerto Rico, Grace has looked extremely solid this season and even more so when looking at just the past two months. Despite a T-4 finish at The Memorial, Grace still needed to go through a U.S. Open final qualifier to make his way to Torrey Pines.
It was a successful 36-holes at The Bears Club as Grace was able to conquer the longest day in golf. I’m not sure he’s quite to his 2015-2016 form, but he’s getting closer by the round. Those were the two most successful seasons of Grace’s career, highlighted by a fourth-place finish at Chambers Bay and a fifth-place finish at Oakmont in back-to-back U.S. Opens.
Clearly comfortable in this championship and difficult conditions, Grace could ride this recent wave of momentum into a low round on Thursday. He’s gained strokes on approach, around-the-greens, and putting in his last three first-rounds. This stretch of golf includes Round 1 at Memorial where he gained nearly five-strokes with his irons alone. If he can bring just a semblance of that game to Torrey Pines, he has real opportunity to set the early pace.
Stewart Cink (+8000):
With all of this talk of revival, I would be remiss to not mention Cink as well. A two-time winner on the PGA Tour this season, the 48-year-old has found the fountain of youth. As if he needed any more inspiration, one has to wonder what Phil Mickelson’s recent victory at the PGA Championship will do to his fellow elder statesman.
Cink has been the model of consistency over the last three months, including strong showings at both of the first two majors of the year. A T-12 at the Masters was followed up with a victory the very next week at the RBC Heritage. He then went to Kiawah Island where he was able to finish inside the top-30 at the PGA Championship.
Some of his success can be attributed to his solid play in the first-round. He’s gained more than one-stroke on approach in three of his last four first-rounds, including performances of +3.4 SG: Approach at Harbour Town and +3.2 SG: Approach at Muirfield Village. He has plenty of fire power from off-the-tee, so if the irons cooperate, he’s just a hot putting round away from yet another strong Thursday.
Kevin Streelman (+10000):
Here’s a trivia question I am sure you have never been asked before. Can you name the first-round leader from the 2008 U.S. Open? No? Well, it was Kevin Streelman, alongside Justin Hicks, who posted rounds of 3-under 68 to begin the 108th edition of this championship. 13 years later, is it too much to ask for Streelman to do it once again?
After a strong showing at the PGA Championship resulted in a top-10 finish, Streelman continued his good form at the Charles Schwab Challenge and The Memorial. Top-20 finishes in both of those events were highlighted by iron-play at Muirfield Village where he posted +4.5 SG: Approach. I expect him to carry his approach play into Torrey Pines as he finished his Memorial Tournament by posting +2.6 SG: Approach in his final round.
Streelman has a nice history in the state of California, mostly due to his play at Pebble Beach, but it’s still another box ticked off. Another box is ticked off when looking at his ball-striking numbers in Round 1, as he has gained strokes both off-the-tee and on approach in each of his last five first-rounds. He typically does his best work on poa annua greens, which we haven’t seen on the Tour in quite some time, so hopefully that makes all the difference in Streelman’s case.
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