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Pick and tips: Distance paramount at U.S. Open

·7 min read

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The South Course at Torrey Pines is back on the menu, but it looks a lot different than it did in January.

The U.S. Open returns to the San Diego layout for the first time in 13 years, when a certain player won a 91-hole marathon on one good leg. Those dramatics will be tough to match this time around, and Tiger Woods will be watching this one from home. But there are plenty of notable names and storylines to follow in the third major of the year.

There's Bryson DeChambeau as the defending champ, and there's two-time champ (and perennial DeChambeau foil) Brooks Koepka. Jon Rahm will look to shoulder the burden of betting favorite in his quest for a maiden major, while Phil Mickelson will look to follow his PGA triumph by bagging the one that got away in his own backyard.

But none of them have made my short list for potential winners this week in La Jolla. Instead here are the players that I expect to contend on a brawny layout, where a combination of brute strength off the tee and deft touch on poa annua greens could make all the difference:

To Win (odds via PointsBet Sportsbook)

Rory McIlroy (+2000): I'm buying the dip. At the last major, just three weeks ago, McIlroy was leading the pack in the range of +1100 thanks in part to one performance on that course nine years earlier. Now he's back in the pack at almost double the price, still the same guy that broke through at Quail Hollow and facing a layout where he has had considerable success in the Farmers Insurance Open.

McIlroy's 2011 U.S. Open win is viewed as somewhat of an outlier, since he lit up a soft and vulnerable Congressional instead of besting par like most champions of this event. But he has now cracked the top 10 each of the last two years, and his length off the tee will once again pay dividends this week. McIlroy has finished T-3, T-5 and T-16 the last three years at Torrey in January, breaking par in five of his six weekend rounds on the South Course. While conditions will be significantly different, that bodes well from a comfort level perspective.

There's a big imprtance given to hitting fairways in U.S. Opens, but as Bryson DeChambeau showed last year, sometimes that's overblown. Woods didn't drive it on a string here in 2008. The fact is that everyone misses fairways at this event, so the question is whether you're trying to hack it out of the thick stuff with an 8-iron or a 5-iron. A quick glance at the recent champions shows that, quite simply, distance pays. Add in McIlroy's success at Torrey and it creates a strong case for the four-time major champ.

There isn't a weak spot in McIlroy's game when he's playing at or near his best, and he's been there on several occasions this year. Yet somehow he's flying under the radar as peers like Rahm, Koepka and DeChambeau take up oxygen and headline space. That could change (again) in a few days.

Viktor Hovland (+2800): Hovland was a runner-up at this course a few months ago and is available at almost three times the price of Rahm as both men look for their maiden major. The Norwegian won the U.S. Amateur at Pebble and followed with a top-15 performance at the 2019 U.S. Open, so he knows all about putting on West Coast poa. He was also T-13 at Winged Foot. Just a couple weeks ago he was a chalky favorite at Kiawah, but now he's a bit more in the middle of the pack despite a pair of recent T-3 finishes.

Hovland isn't among the longer hitters on Tour, which gives me pause, but he had enough length to handle the South Course in January to the tune of a 7-under 65 in the second round. Around the green is another general weak spot, but with the rough thick and lush this week it could be a situation where everyone in the field has to hack and pray when approach shots go awry. Hovland already has a pair of victories to his name early in his career, and he has finished T-33 or better in all six majors he has played in his career. It shows that he can handle the biggest stages and the toughest challenges, both of which he'll face this week.

Jason Kokrak (+7000): Winning matters. That's what last week's Palmetto Championship showed, as Garrick Higgo became the last man standing at Congaree after taking a pair of European Tour trophies in recent starts. Success begets success, and sometimes it infiltrates a player's mindset. Kokrak had spent years saddled with descriptions of being one of the best on Tour without a win - a solid player who would contend from time to time, but not a closer. That changed with his win at Shadow Creek last fall, and he bagged another big title (while outlasting Jordan Spieth) at Colonial in his most recent outing.

Kokrak has always been long off the tee, a trait that should play to his favor this week. His U.S. Open record was spotty until last year's T-17 finish, but his success at Torrey includes three straight finishes of T-21 or better at the Farmers. Importantly, like McIlroy he has broken par on the South course in five of six weekend rounds in that span.

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Kokrak's renaissance at age 36 hasn't been off the tee, it's been on the greens. He has actually become a brilliant putter, ranking fifth on the greens this season after sitting at 103rd just two years ago. He has positive putting results on poa annua, and combine that with his prowess off the tee and recent momentum and I'm intrigued. It's admittedly a tall task to bag a major without a prior top-10 finish on the big stage, but that element is factored into his price while on paper he stacks up quite favorably for this week's venue.

Top Finishes (odds via PointsBet)

Louis Oosthuizen (+400 top-10 finish): Expect the South African back in the mix, three weeks after his runner-up performance at the PGA. Oosthuizen was also a runner-up at the 2015 U.S. Open at Chambers Bay and he hasn't finished outside the top 25 at this event since, including top-10s each of the last two years. Oosthuizen has also made the cut in each of his two trips to the Farmers, finishing T-29 and T-41 while making positive gains on the fickle poa greens. He can let it fly off the tee when he needs to, and his smooth swing performs admirably under major championship pressures. He followed Kiawah with a solid T-18 finish at the Memorial and has now finished T-26 or better in five straight starts, including a playoff loss at the Zurich team event.

Jhonattan Vegas (+500 top-20 finish): Vegas is a player I'm looking to back this week, even potentially at +250 as low South American. But it'll probably take a top-20 finish to win that race, so I'll take this prop instead at double the price. The Venezuelan enters off a runner-up showing last week at Congaree, and he's been a regular fixture at Torrey during the Farmers event while racking up five top-30 finishes. Vegas is actually sneaky long, ranking 14th this season in driving distance at more than 309 yards, and he also finished T-9 last month at the Byron Nelson.

Taylor Pendrith (+1000 top-20 finish): Pendrith is another player I'm looking at in multiple markets, including as a +650 underdog to win the four-man race for low Canadian. He's averaging a whopping 319.9 yards off the tee this season on the Korn Ferry Tour, which would put him ahead of everyone not named Bryson this season on the PGA Tour. Pendrith had a strong showing last year at Winged Foot, finishing T-23, and he had a T-34 showing at Punta Cana which, believe it or not, has some similarities to Torrey South. He's coming off a pair of top-25 finishes in his last two KFT starts, including a T-8 finish two weeks ago, and he won't be afraid to lean on the driver this week. He'll need to play well on and around the greens to hit this mark, but at a tenfold return I think it's worth a stab.

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