THE OPEN: The world’s grandest tournament returns this week to cap off a thrilling year of major championship golf, as the LIV/PGA Tour rivalry added a bit of intrigue that turned out to be good for the sport, especially in light of their much-discussed merger last month. This is probably the last tournament ever where the LIV vs. PGA dynamic will be in full effect, and though 16 LIV guys are in the field this week, many longtime Open stalwarts who defected to the Saudi tour– names like Lee Westwood, Ian Poulter, Paul Casey, Graeme McDowell, and Sergio Garcia– have been frozen out of the proceedings due to their results on LIV not earning them any World Golf Rankings points.
Still, the best of the best are here this week, and by “here” we mean Royal Liverpool, more commonly known as Hoylake, a 150-year-old links course on England’s west coast that will be hosting its 13th Open and third this century. Hoylake has produced some fantastic champions, from the likes of Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen in the old days to most recent winners Tiger Woods (’06) and Rory McIlroy (’14). That said, the course that everyone will be playing this week is quite different from what we have seen previously, as the routing has been altered and several holes have been changed significantly. The end result is a 7,383-yard par-71 that won’t play nearly as firm as it did in ’06 or even ’14, when Tiger and Rory were able to mostly leave the driver in the bag in favor of long irons that would roll about 50 yards after hitting the cement-like fairways. The par was 72 then, and though the course is a true links with all the characteristics you’d expect from a great, old links course– subtle mounds and runoffs; strategically placed bunkers that give the players fits; long, wispy rough and thick gorse bushes that punish errant shots; wind-exposed vistas– it was softly criticized for being less memorable than some other Open venues, and perhaps not having a hole that could rightly be defined as a “signature” hole.
The powers that be at Hoylake and the R&A seemed to take these criticisms to heart and have re-designed and re-routed the course with the intention of producing a memorable, dramatic finish. The most notable thing done in this vein was the creation of the par-3 17th, known as “Little Eye”, which is now a treacherous 136-yard hole with a turtleback green that, if missed, can leave the players with some impossible up-and-downs. There’s been speculation that there will be several disastrous outcomes on that hole this week– think 8s and 9s– and the reaction to Little Eye has been decidedly mixed, with some suggesting that it injects an element of hokeyness into an otherwise fair golf course. Veteran caddie Billy Foster, for instance, called the hole a “monstrosity”, pointing out that some players may be forced to hit as much as a 5-iron depending on the wind, and the size of the landing area makes it a laughably difficult shot bordering on unfair. Others, like Jon Rahm, have been more charitable in their assessment of the hole, but we’ll see if the famously hot-tempered Rahm will still have positive things to say about it if he gets stuck with a big number or two.
As always in an Open Championship, the biggest factor when it comes to scoring and difficulty level will be the weather. Hoylake is a flat, exposed course right off the ocean, so wind and rain can rip through the place and make things terribly difficult. Looking at the forecast, precipitation is expected every day, and though the winds are currently predicted to be in the 10-15 mph range, which is pretty average for a seaside course like Hoylake, the weather often changes in an instant in this part of the world, so the players should definitely be prepared for difficult conditions. It’s the Open, after all.
The top two players in the world, Scottie Scheffler (9.4) and Rory McIlroy (9.5), head BETDAQ’s Win Market this week, but as is always the case with a tournament of this nature, there’s some great-looking value down around the middle of the market. With that in mind, here’s what I’m thinking:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Scottie Scheffler (9.4)– While many have deemed McIlroy the favorite this week, which is certainly understandable given his performance at Hoylake in 2014 and his rousing victory at the Scottish Open last week, I’m having a hard time overlooking Scheffler. He is, quite simply, the best player in the world, and you could make an argument that we haven’t seen this type of week-in, week-out excellence since Tiger was in his prime. After his 3rd-place showing in Scotland last week Scheffler has now finished 12th or better in 19 straight events (!), and 5th or better in 7 straight. He’s making bogey or worse on just 10.1% of his holes– we haven’t seen anyone finish below 11% since Tiger in 2002– and his +2.81 strokes gained tee-to-green is the second-best ball-striking year we’ve seen since “stroked gained” began to be tracked, trailing only Tiger in 2006. Oh yeah, and his current scoring average of 68.13 is the lowest the PGA Tour has seen since… you guessed it… Tiger in 2009. The guy is an absolute machine, and he showed again last week that he enjoys and understands links golf. He is most definitely worth a bet this week, price be damned.
Shane Lowry (45.0)- The 2019 Open champion has been in fine form lately, finding the top-20 in 5 of his last 6 worldwide starts and ranking in the top-30 on the PGA Tour in strokes gained off the tee, strokes gained on approach, and total strokes gained. In other words, he’s been absolutely striping it, and a balky putter is all that’s kept him out of the winner’s circle this year. Well, the greens at Hoylake are both flatter and slower than players normally see on Tour, which has led to some speculation that this might be a ball-strikers championship, with the importance of putting lessened somewhat compared to most weeks. Lowry grew up playing links golf, and indeed very few men in the field can boast of the type of links success that he has experienced, going all the way back to his victory at the Irish Open as an amateur and stretching through the win at Royal Portrush in ’19. That would seemingly make him a perfect stylistic fit for a place like Hoylake, and after a T12 in Scotland last week you can be sure that Lowry enters this week with plenty of confidence and an eye toward reclaiming the Claret Jug. He’s a tremendous value at better than 40/1.
Cameron Young (90.0)- When I first saw this price next to Young’s name, I thought it must be a mistake, or a misprint of some sort. But no, it turns out you really can get the big-hitting New Yorker at nearly 90/1, and at this price Young is an absolute no-brainer. He’s coming off a T6 at the John Deere Classic, where he opened with rounds of 65-64, so there shouldn’t be any concerns about his current form, and he proved at St. Andrews last year that he can not only thrive on links courses, but that he can excel in the pressure cooker that is Major Championship Sunday. His runner-up in this tournament was actually his second top-3 in a major last year, having also pulled it off at the PGA Championship, and he finished T7 in this year’s Masters, so he definitely appears to be one of those players who produces his best stuff in the biggest moments. Don’t hesitate to back Young at such an inflated price.