Last week I wrote a U.S. Open preview and discussed the Oakmont course, setup and some of the keys and strategies to succeed in golfs more rigorous test. This week we analyze and provide some players to consider as long shots and contenders to play well and/or win the Open at Oakmont, and some head-to-head match-ups we prefer.
Statistics are important in evaluating players for performance, but I'm less reliant on them for the U.S. Open. Using stats to identify the winner of this tournament requires caveats. It's worth identifying players in the top-50 in driving accuracy and top-20 in greens in regulation (GIR) and putting, but I'd rather have a proven performer with experience who is in relatively good form and mentally tough.
Some additional thoughts on the course and strategies in selecting players.
Temperatures will be in the 80's and rain is definitely in the forecast Thursday in the Pittsburgh area with thunderstorms likely in the afternoon. Check tee-times as you evaluate match-ups and anticipate the course playing more firm and becoming even more challenging over the weekend.
Oakmont keeps you off balance, and players need a plan with concentration on every shot. There is no bailout at Oakmont. The rough is the biggest imposition, and players who are off line and finding the rough and severe bunkers that line the fairways have no chance for success this week. In addition, no players have putted on greens like this all year or tried to scramble from rough this nasty. The course and conditions put the players under more pressure, as the demand to stay disciplined and mentally tough are like no other event.
Players who are not solid putters or scramblers should also be mostly avoided. The greens are lightning fast and so tilted and undulated that only the most skilled players on the greens will hold up over the course of four rounds. Many will be eliminated and cut before the weekend. If a player hits an approach shot to the wrong side of the hole, they'll often have difficulty making the ball stop. You must stay under the hole more than ever this week.
The U.S. Open more than any other tournament requires great patience and resolve, and I don't like to play on younger or inexperienced players. That includes 22-year old major winner Jordan Spieth, who won the U.S. Open last year when Dustin Johnson handed him the tournament with a 3-putt from 12-feet on the 72nd hole. Spieth admitted he did not play well from tee-to-green in last year's Open, and he won't have near the success this week despite being one of the best putters on the PGA Tour. He's not been playing his best tee-to-green and winning at Colonial is much different than grinding away at Oakmont. There is no value playing Spieth to win the tournament at 6-1, nor will you find value on him in the match-ups. So, playing a proven performer with success in the U.S. Open is preferred, thus Dustin Johnson at +110 is preferred over Spieth (-130) in a head-to-head match-up. Johnson ranks 3rd in strokes gained tee-to-green, enters in great form and you saw how long and straight he was last year at Chambers Bay. He's a contender that can win this week at 15-1.
While I'll note some bigger names and marquee match-ups here, it's still often best to focus on who to bet against rather than just betting on certain players when wagering on match-ups. The sports books usually offer more match-ups in the Majors, so the opportunity to find additional match-ups of interest and play against some players with poor driving accuracy or putting skills like we have below can be a good bet, and often cash before the weekend when they miss the cut.
The Oakmont course plays to a par 70 this week and is 7,219 yards. The over/under winning score is lined at 282.5. The bookmaker suggests that an over-par score will win the tournament, and it should be no surprise if 3-or-4 over-par wins to cash an 'over' the total on the winning score.
Here on some thoughts on players of interest, noting long shots with value and game to succeed.
Jason Day is co-favorite at 6-1 with Spieth and Rory McIlroy, and while the latter two have both won the U.S. Open, it's Day who is now playing the best golf and has the overall game to win this week. He's finished top-10 in four of five U.S. Opens including runner-up twice. He's a two-time winner this year and is the favorite of interest this week.
Matt Kuchar has just one top-10 in 13 U.S. Opens, but he's made six-straight cuts in the U.S. Open finishing top-30 in all of them. Combined with his exceptionally good form of four straight top-6 finishes, and we expect another strong week from Kuchar. At 50-1 or better in places, he's offering up value and shown to play other tough courses well. Kuchar ranks top-15 in strokes gained tee-to-green and believe he has the confidence, temperament and mindset to put together a solid U.S. Open finish. Kuchar has yet to win a major, but Cabrera had never won a major either until he was the surprise winner at Oakmont in 2007 despite very sub-par stats leading into the tournament. Kuchar's accurate driving and brilliant short-game should serve him well this week and he's much more of a contender than a long shot.
Phil Mickelson is now 46-years old, and should he win and complete the career grand slam, he would become the oldest winner in the U.S. Open. While he's had his share of criticism in the U.S. Open, one cannot deny his record that includes six runner-up finishes, a fourth and two other top-10s. Mickelson clearly knows how to battle the toughest courses and conditions. He's also played his best on the Northeast in the U.S. Opens, and he's had a solid season thus far with improved play in his approach to the green and in his putting, which has ranked among the best on Tour. Mickelson is 30-1 to win offshore and 25-1 in Las Vegas.
Plenty of quality players who are even greater long shots that are worth supporting in select match-ups and offer value to win or top-10 to top-20 finishes.
This group includes: Martin Kaymer, the 2014 U.S. Open champion, who is a good ball-striker and grinder that plays with patience. He's in good form and can have another solid showing if his weakness of chipping and pitching improves.
Australian Marc Leishman has shown he can compete on the biggest stage and is off the radar for most casual fans despite a runner-up finish in last year's British Open. That's a mistake, despite three missed cuts in four U.S. Opens. He's in good form with good approach play and putting, 15th in scrambling and above average in both driving distance and accuracy. Most of all he's tough and will compete in the most difficult conditions.
Brandt Snedeker is a strong putter with great touch when he's on. He's finished top-10 in each of the last two U.S. Opens with seven cuts made in nine appearances.
Billy Horschel is another long shot whose sublime ball-striking should be rewarded at Oakmont. He'll have to be better with his chipping and scrambling around the greens, but Horschel has finished top-25 in the last three U.S. Opens and in 2013 he was tied for the lead at the halfway point after hitting all 18 greens in regulation in round 2. He's made 12 straight cuts entering this event, and when match-up betting, that's a key, as is finding value with long shots that possess the game to break through.
Additional long shots on the radar this week are Paul Casey, Luke Donald, Brooks Koepka, Russell Knox and Lee Westwood.
Billy Horschel (-125) over Bill Haas
Billy Horschel (Even) over JB Holmes
Matt Kuchar (-125) over Bubba Watson
Phil Mickelson (-125) over Bubba Watson
Marc Leishman (-115) over Emiliano Grillo
Dustin Johnson (+110) over Jordan Spieth
FairwayJay is a leading national sports handicapper and is recognized as one of the sports industries most insightful analysts. Follow him on Twitter: @FairwayJay