U.S. Open roundtable: Tough courses, favorites, betting strategies

Jay Busbee
·10 min read
Tiger Woods and friends prepare for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. (Danielle Parhizkaran / USA TODAY Sports)
Tiger Woods and friends prepare for the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. (Danielle Parhizkaran / USA TODAY Sports)

The U.S. Open is upon us! Time for another golf roundtable, featuring Yahoo Sports senior golf writer Jay Busbee and Yahoo Sports fantasy impresario Scott Pianowski. Topics today: the ultra-tough course setup, one-time major winners, and ways to make some coin. Now on the tee ...

Busbee: Scott, like a high school movie bully waiting out on the playground to beat up the nerd, the US Open looms dead ahead, cracking its knuckles in gleeful anticipation of pushing around the best golfers in the world. If you remember all the way back to last season — or three weeks ago, whichever — we saw Olympia Fields pummel everyone, with only five players finishing under par. Pros howl and gripe about course setups this tough, but I ask you, sir: how do you feel about the USGA cranking the degree of difficulty up to 11?

Pianowski: Baby, I love it. This is my tournament, my jam. I love the idea that the winner can come from almost anywhere on Sunday. I like that par matters. I like that posting a score matters.

You know the old, famous U.S. Open quote. Are they trying to embarrass the best players in the world? No, they're trying to identify them.

And when the players are challenged, we see interesting golf shots. We see creativity. We see unusual stances and unorthodox situations. Contrast this to the Erin Hills U.S. Open, where -16 was the winning score and the drives and approaches were practically grouped into collection areas. What's fun about that?

I want to lose my shoes in the rough. I want putts to slide off the green sometimes. Maybe Phil Mickelson will be back to his stickhandling ways, fine with me. This should be the toughest week on the schedule.

Busbee: I like the way you think. Make these fools sweat out a bogey like the rest of us! Hell, grease up the greens, let the rough grow to three feet, let's see if we can put them into triple digits!

... all right, all right, I'm calmer now. So, assuming we know that this tournament is going to punch everybody in the face, who's the best positioned to take that punch? Who do you see as your favorites to weather the Winged Foot storm?

Pianowski: Let's start with who can't win. Koepka, because he's not here. Phil, because he's too old. Such a shame, the U.S. Open owes Lefty one. And Tiger is just a horse for the course now; a major threat at a track he knows intimately, like Augusta, but he's not sharp enough to win here in 2020, especially given his middling form at the moment.

Form kicks Bryson DeChambeau out of the mix, too. He couldn't find anything that worked in the playoffs.

The stars seem aligned for Dustin Johnson. Koepka, effectively his rival, isn't here. He's obviously long enough and generally straight enough, especially with less than driver. His short game has improved dramatically over the years. And he's been a striping machine for the last few weeks.

I just don't know if the low favorite odds justify a DJ punch.

Webb Simpson's price intrigues me. He's won this year, and he's won a major before. He'll wear the fairways out. He has the reputation as a short hitter, but his distance is only a few ticks off average. The closer the winning score is to par, the more I like Webb's chances on a grueling setup like Winged Foot.

I'll probably bet on Phil to make the cut, because I'm a sucker for the narrative. But then I'll fear the inevitable 78 on Saturday.

I am getting out of the Rory McIlroy prediction business. That 2014 monster year seems so long ago. I'm always going to root for the empaths, but is Rory too nice? Did he give up some of the terminator blood along the way?

Busbee: All excellent points. This is, what, the fifth time in the last eight majors that DJ has come in as the betting favorite? And in that time, he's won as many majors as you and I have. So ... congratulations to us, I guess, for matching DJ.

I'm with you on Rory — I don't think there's a more fun dude to watch when he's on. I remember seeing him strut down fairways a few years back, chest jutting out, chin high, and it was this strange and wonderful combination of arrogance and confidence that's been missing from his form at every major — or, at least, every Sunday at a major — of the last half-decade. You almost wish he could talk himself out of looking at the calendar when he's at one of these. Maybe being three months off will help.

This is a course that's going to punish wayward shots, which is why I'm not exactly big on Jon Rahm. He's not quite at Phil levels of recovery from self-inflicted pain, and he'll need to be to win a U.S. Open. Though it wouldn't exactly pull people away from Sunday's Denver-Pittsburgh or Baltimore-Houston games, I could definitely see a final leaderboard with more controlled strikers like Collin Morikawa and Viktor Hovland. Watch out also for Mr. Social Media Faux Pas himself, Kevin Kisner. Hopefully he reads the greens better than he read the room earlier this week when he tried to get clever about COVID-19.

And hey, speaking of Morikawa — what's your perspective on players winning majors early? My man Shane Ryan over at Golf Digest kicked this one around; let’s do the same. Is it possible to win too early? We mentioned McIlroy already, and then there's the great, almost-forgotten Jordan Spieth ... not to mention the array of post-Rory one-major winners. Do you think it can damage a player's career to win the Big One (or one of 'em, anyway) too early?

Pianowski: Too much, too soon can definitely be a thing. It's all a matter of how ready you are for wild success, and how it changes your life. You're no longer anonymous. You no longer can duck the interview room. There's the potential to make big money off the course, and major appearance fees enter the picture. Many players have jet-setted their way out of relevance.

I just perused the list of one-time major winners and there are some unbelievable players. I know when Hal Sutton won the PGA in 1983, it was proclaimed the "first of many." No one thought Fred Couples was done winning majors after his velcro win at the 1992 Masters. Davis Love, Jim Furyk, Lanny Wadkins, Mark Calvavecchia, Tom Weiskopf, they all seem too good to have just one major. I'm still not sure what happened to David Duval's career (I was pulling so hard for him to pull off the miracle at Bethpage in 2009).

I skipped the more modern golfers on that one-major list, in part because I can't believe players like Justin Thomas and Dustin Johnson will be done at one. Thomas, of course, has so much time ahead of him; it's not a story yet. With DJ, it is a story. The bag is light. Is he destined to be this generation's Greg Norman? (Norman, famously, won just two, lost every major in a playoff, and even had a year, 1986, where he led every major entering Sunday.)

Some of the current but older golfers stuck on one is a curious list. Adam Scott. Sergio Garcia. Justin Rose. Jason Day. Are they the modern versions of Couples and Love?

I don't have a good theory on what's happened to Jordan Speith, other than it's so hard to watch him putt these days. It's possible to think too much in this game, to want it too much. He's always seemed like a together kid, a likable sort. Maybe he just needs a different voice, be it through a coach or a caddy. Maybe he just needs one piece of success he can build on. Of course, there's no game that's quite the mental screwing that golf is.

Busbee: Everyone who plays this damn game knows about the mental fortitude it requires, but I wonder if we’ve done enough digging into the mental toll that it exacts. We talked about Rory’s strut, but man, you see how Rory — or, for that matter, Spieth — looks now on major Sundays, you’re looking at men searching for answers they’re not even sure exist.

What will be fascinating to watch is how Koepka handles this bump in his road. Obviously he needs to be healthy, but when he is, will he regain that aura of “everybody’s fighting for second place” that he had until very recently? Will Collin Morikawa follow up one of the great starts to a career in golf history with another major? Will Justin and Dustin get rid of their Best-Never-To-Win-Two-Majors label that I just made up?

The pressure is real, the cliffs ever-present, the decline inevitable. Given all that, I’m thinking that the over/under for golf immortality is now somewhere around 4.5 majors.

And hey, speaking of over/under ... it’s time to bet! You know the rules: $100 apiece. Where’s your capital going?

Pianowski: Put $10 on Simpson to win at +2500. Give me $10 on Patrick Reed at +3500; he’s never been my favorite, but my wallet wants what my wallet wants. Another $10 on Matthew Fitzpatrick at +5000.

DJ is -110 to finish Top 10, which sounds absurd. Okay, I’m absurd, and I think another near miss from DJ would be great theatre. I’ll drop $22 to win 20 on that. And I’ll drop the rest of my bankroll on Simpson to finish Top 20, checking in at +110. (I feel bad that I don't have a Morikawa ticket. I didn't talk about it, but I'd be shocked if he lost his way after this brilliant career start. Of course, I would have said that about Speith, too. And Rory's recent form has me puzzled. I wish I could walk the fairways as cool as Couples 1992, or as confident as Rory, 2014.)

I’ve hit my full bucket. You’re on the tee, sir.

Busbee: All in on DJ! Wait, what? That’s not a sound strategy? Fine. I like your DJ/top 10 play, but I’ll flip it to Rahm, who’s straight-up 100. That gives me a little room to account for Rahm losing it for a hole or two. Twenty bucks to him, and another $20 to DJ to finish top five (+200), leaving some room for carnage.

I’ll also throw $10 apiece on Xander Schauffele (+1400) and Webb Simpson (+2500) to win. And you know what? I’ll go nostalgia play: $10 on Jordan Spieth at +10000. Yes, that’s surely throwing good money after bad, but we’re not paying for this ourselves. (Note to Yahoo Sports expense account trackers: that was a joke. We love you.)

I want a tight finish, but I’m expecting a blowout. So I’m going with $10 on the winning margin being four strokes or more (+350). And I’m going for some easy money with the winner being American (-143). That leaves me $10. I would like to see Tiger play the weekend, so I’ll throw an emotional hedge in there and say he’ll miss the cut at +140.

There you have it! Remember, all bets are for entertainment purposes only, unless you win, and then you owe us a cut. The U.S. Open begins Thursday. Enjoy the tournament, everyone!


Follow Jay Busbee and Scott Pianowski on Twitter at @jaybusbee and @scott_pianowski, respectively.

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