US OPEN: The toughest test in golf gets underway this week from one of the sport’s most iconic venues, Pinehurst No. 2, a course that was carved out of the North Carolina countryside by Donald Ross over a century ago and has played host to three U.S. Opens, three U.S. Amateurs, a Senior U.S. Open, a Women’s U.S. Open, and a Ryder Cup. It’s a site worthy of a major championship and I expect to see typical U.S. Open scoring, meaning par will be a good score and bogeys will far outnumber birdies. This is going to be a grind.

Pinehurst No. 2 (there are nine courses on property) has been tweaked and altered several times since Ross originally cut out the holes in 1906, and the course today looks much different than it did even 20-25 years ago, when Payne Stewart and Michael Campbell pulled off dramatic victories six years apart. At that time the lush green rolling hills stretched as far as the eye could see, but in 2011 Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw made significant changes in an effort to restore Ross’s original vision and the result in a course that looks like something you’d find in Australia’s famed Sandbelt, with waste bunkers and scruffy natural areas lining nearly every hole. This creates a bit of unpredictability for off-line tee shots, with Viktor Hovland pointing out earlier this week that luck is certainly a factor– “Sometimes it’s a good lie, sometimes it’s just a hack-out”. Keeping it in the short grass is the best way to avoid the bad breaks, but we won’t be seeing many irons off the tee on this 7,540-yard par-70… this is a big boy course and players will need to challenge holes with driver.

The one aspect of the course that has remained largely unchanged is the shape of the greens, as they still feature Ross’s signature “upside-down bowl” style– crowned with runoffs in every direction. This makes approach shots extremely challenging and will leave players with delicate up-and-downs that may require serious imagination. As is always the case with a U.S. Open, the greens are expected to be quite firm and fast, and we’re sure to see some disastrous short game bloopers this week (this is where John Daly infamously slapped his still-rolling ball off the green in frustration some 25 years ago). Tiger Woods remarked on Tuesday that it will be like “watching guys play ping-pong”, which sounds fun from a spectator’s perspective but maybe not so much for the guys who are trying to win a tournament. Expect high scores– the last player to win at Pinehurst, Martin Kaymer, did finish the week at 9-under, but he won by 8 shots and was one of only three players to finish under-par. This will be a test of a player’s ability, nerve, and patience.

One player in particular has demonstrated those qualities in spades this year, and it’s difficult to even discuss this tournament without starting with Scottie Scheffler. The Scheff has been cooking, to say the least, with five victories and two runner-ups across his last eight starts, including a win at The Memorial last week, where we had him tipped at 5.3. He’s even shorter this week (4.3) despite the fact that it’s a 156-man field featuring the best in the world, including the LIV stars. Even at that price it’s difficult to stay away from a guy who is so clearly the best in the world right now, but, alas, we’ve decided to go in a different direction this week. Here’s what I’m thinking:

WIN MARKET

Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)

Ludvig Aberg (26.0)- The young Aberg is no longer a sleeper– pretty much everyone has now come around to the fact that this guy is one of the very best players in the world and will be contending on big stages for years to come. His runner-up finish at the Masters back in April showed that he’s impervious to major championship pressure, and though a minor injury slowed him down in the month of May, when his only start was a missed cut at the PGA Championship, he appeared to be fully recovered at The Memorial last week, finishing 5th in U.S. Open-like conditions. Aberg is both long and straight off the tee, ranking 3rd on Tour in total driving, but he also has a deft touch around the greens, ranking 7th in scrambling, and scrambling is always a key stat at Pinehurst because it’s so difficult to hold the greens. Oh yeah, and then there’s his iron play… did I mention that he’s 4th on Tour in proximity (distance from pin on approach)? The kid has it all, and he’ll win multiple majors before his career is done. He might get started this week…

Hideki Matsuyama (52.0)- Matsuyama has quietly had a big year, with six top-15 finishes and a victory across 12 starts. It feels “quiet” largely because he didn’t contend in either of the year’s first two majors, finishing T38 at the Masters and T35 at the PGA, but his record in major championships throughout his career speaks for itself, so there is zero concern about how he’ll react to high-pressure situations. He was in the field when the U.S. Open came to Pinehurst in 2014 and finished T35, but he was a different player then, particularly around the greens. It’s hard to believe now, but chipping/pitching used to be considered a weakness of Hideki’s– he was known as a ball-striking machine who struggled around the greens. He’s still a dominant ball-striker, ranking 3rd on Tour in strokes gained tee-to-green, but, incredibly, his short game has been even better, as he leads the PGA Tour in strokes gained around the green (!) and ranks 6th in scrambling. He is now a complete player who is in the midst of his golfing prime– it’s only a matter of time before he gets another major. At better than 50/1, Matsuyama might be the best value on the board this week.

Tony Finau (82.0)- Does Finau have the short game to win at Pinehurst? I think that’s the question on many people’s minds and it’s the biggest reason for his inflated price this week– you won’t find Finau at better than 80/1 too often these days. But the “struggles around the greens” thing might be more reputation than reality at this point, as he ranks a respectable 31st on Tour in strokes gained around the green and is top-20 in scrambling from 20-30 yards (should be a very popular distance at Pinehurst this week). Of course, Finau’s biggest strength is still his ability to overpower a golf course, and he’s turned himself into an elite iron player as well, ranking 4th in strokes gained on approach and 16th in proximity. He’s one of the few in the field who has both the length off the tee and the ball-striking chops to handle this beefy 7,540-yard layout, and if he catches a little heat on the greens he could absolutely win this tournament. This is a guy who has recorded four top-20 finishes in his last 5 starts, including a T8 at the Memorial last week, so he’s bringing his best stuff. I’m happy to take a chance on him at a price like 82.0.


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