After hitting a home run with my prediction that Tiger Woods would win The Masters, and warning bettors not to overlook Brooks Koepka before the 29-year-old phenom won the 2019 PGA Championship, I felt pretty confident in my futures wager on Rory McIlroy to win the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
But there was a factor I’d overlooked in touting Wee Mac. Namely, the weather…or potential lack of it. Tournament officials were hedging their bets, making Pebble Beach too easy to play.
Major championships are supposed to put emphasis on a golfer’s ability to make pars on tough holes, as much or more than the ability to make birdies on easier holes. But the USGA is often merely concerned with keeping the winning score of the U.S. Open close to level par. That means when the organization sets up Pebble Beach for the event, it must weigh the possibility that a gale-force wind will knock the players out of their spikes and cause top-10 linksmen to shoot in the 80s.
If Pebble’s tees, hole locations, green speeds, and rough gradients are designed to allow scores in the 70s even if the Pacific rages, it will also allow scores in the 60s when there’s a gentle breeze. The wind never really blew at Pebble this year, and so the United States Open turned into something more akin to the AT&T Pro-Am…an event where a level-par round can kill you.
Rory shot 68, 69, and 70 on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday of the U.S. Open. That would typically be enough for a commanding lead in a “par is golden” tournament. Instead, even -5 wasn’t close to winning, as McIlroy lost by 8 strokes to Gary Woodland and a host of other golfers after shooting 72 – again usually a solid major-championship score – on Sunday.
No such straightforward analysis of the 2019 Open Championship venue can suffice. All links courses are tough in heavy wind, but the British Open hasn’t visited Royal Portrush since 1951. Sportsbooks will have fun offering “guess the winning score” prop betting markets this time, since it’s anyone’s guess whether the winner will finish -15 or prevail as the only golfer under par.
Will the final major of 2019 turn into another birdie-fest when it tees off on Thursday? Or a grueling test of survival skills?
Handicapping the British Open at Royal Portrush
Uh-oh. I’ve got a bad feeling that if the weather is any kind of passable in Northern Ireland next week (or later this week if you’ve found this preview a few days after publish) then the British Open could turn into a putting contest and a scoring bonanza for PGA and European Tour pros alike.
For a start, the course is simply too short.
Length is not a prerequisite to making a golf course difficult for even the top-ranked players in the world – Merion, for instance, is a relatively-tiny U.S. Open venue nicknamed “Cruel Maiden” for its holes and shots that appear to be easy yet trap the errant golfer in impossible situations. Pinehurst, the USGA layout where John Daly finally lost the plot on the putting green, is often hardest where it is the shortest.
But look at the course map of Royal Portrush – with the setup as promised by the Royal & Ancient Club – and you won’t see a lot of Merion-style hiding spots for the flag to bat eyes at foolish players, nor will you see a lot of difficult driving holes. As played in 1951, the course layout included lots of difficult drives – because a 420-yard Par 4 involved hitting a driver and a 6-iron back then.
Many of the Par 4s at Royal Portrush will be 3-iron drives and wedge approaches for Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka. Holes that were once designed as tests of power and skill will test only skill with the shorter clubs. Par 5s will be reached in 2 on the regular unless playing stiffly upwind.
So do we want to pick Gary Woodland, the 2019 U.S. Open winner who happens to be the overwhelming PGA Tour leader in birdies?
Not so fast. Maybe the British Open winner won’t finish at 5 over par…but there are still some other considerations to make.
How the Royal & Ancient Will Fight Back
I’m certain the R&A has no intentions of watching the “Champion Golfer of the Year” (and the final major champion of the season) score -30 over 4 rounds.
There’s a number of ways that Royal Portrush may be souped-up to try to discourage low scores. The fairways will be fast and unforgiving. Greens could be slicker than tile, especially if it doesn’t rain. A pair of challenging holes from a nearby links are somehow being integrated into the final 7300-yard layout, and 3 bunkers have been added as sheltering sheep were only good for creating 59 of them.
Then there’s the weather…and the wind.
A cold, wet, windy weekend on the links does more than simply punish high-ball hitters and anyone who’s the slightest bit off his game. It prohibits players from working serious swing flaws out between rounds on the practice tee. The champion must be someone who was already at 100% swing efficiency on Thursday, assuming it’s not the first ordinary, pleasant Irish summer in 50 years.
So we’re not just on the lookout for someone who can go lower when everyone else goes low – we’re looking for a birdie king who won’t be dismayed by challenging putts, who can weather the storm (literally) of bad British Open weather, and potentially handle the pressure of leading on Sunday while knowing that a final-round 72 won’t nearly be good enough to hold on.
Here’s a few of the most-popular Open Championship picks on the MyBookie futures board…and some sleepers I’m considering at 1 or ½ unit with a jackpot-winner in the offing.
Brooks Koepka (+650)
Brooks Koepka isn’t just the #1 golfer in the world by means of forgettable PGA Tour wins and top-10 finishes in majors. He’s dominating the most important events on the golf landscape, and enough gamblers think he’ll take the show across the pond to prevail in the British Open to make Koepka the MyBookie futures-betting favorite at (+650).
Is the line deserved? Consider that Brooks has finished 2nd, 1st and 2nd place in the most recent 3 majors, pushing Tiger at Augusta and Woodland at Pebble Beach while holding-off Dustin Johnson at Bethpage Black to win the PGA Championship.
Koepka’s lackluster showings at the Travelers Championship and 3M Open give every impression of a confident player who is using PGA Tour events to hone his game for the big’uns.
However, Brooks finished 36th at the British Open last year, and made his best finish in the R&A’s flagship tournament when finishing 6th in 2017.
Rory McIlroy (+900)
I certainly went hard for Wee Mac prior to the Pebble Beach tournament, and I think he’s got a decent chance to contend at Royal Portrush. It’s hard to understand exactly why Rory would be a futures odds “leader” at MyBookie for the upcoming Open Championship,
Unless it’s by default – with McIlroy seen as the “safe” contender among a group of flawed candidates.
Tiger Woods at (+1300) hasn’t looked the same since the amazing comeback win in April. Dustin Johnson is 12-to-1 but still looking like a perpetual bridesmaid at the majors. Justin Rose is aging and nobody’s favorite pick at 16-to-1 despite a lifetime of excellence on links courses.
Finally, McIlroy has looked solid and steady through 2 rounds of the ongoing Scottish Open.
Tiger Woods (+1300)
Tiger hasn’t played in an event since coasting through the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach with steady but unremarkable scores. At least he made the weekend, as opposed to a miserable showing at Bethpage Black that our blog was able to foretell thanks to the course’s punishing length.
I’m not giving Woods better than 1 chance in 12 to win at Royal Portrush, a course where his up-and-down theatrics will fall short against birdie hoarders unless the wind blows wild.
But Tiger is the type of underdog futures market you want to be interested in leading up to the British Open this year, since a shorter course with fast greens is the type of scenario where a patient legend can thrive.
When Tom Watson nearly won the British at age 58, it was because the Turnberry course had become a virtual pool table on which the power of younger players was turned against them. Watson steered his drives into the fairway while muscular shots skipped into the long fescue.
There could be a similar window of opportunity for a short-hitting veteran to contend and win on Sunday 7/21. Here’s a few of my favorites from the pack of long-shots at MyBookie.
Sleepers Who Can Go Low at the 2019 British Open
Jordan Spieth is my favorite futures pick at (+2000) odds-to-win. Spieth’s excellent distance control and shot-making will come in handy for Royal Portrush’s many elevation changes – not something you always find at a classic links layout like St. Andrews or Turnberry.
Spieth missed the cut at the recent Travelers Championship, and did not have a strong U.S. Open. But he posted several top-10 finishes in a row before that, and his game is suited by a 7300-yard course.
Players like Jason Day (+2500) and Paul Casey (+4000) may have problems with a hilly, windy course over 4 rounds due to their health conditions. But I’m liking Sergio Garcia (+4500) as a spy veteran who won’t get worn down physically or mentally by the endless mounds on the course – he’s used to scrambling around and hitting weird shots anyway.
Finally, don’t forget Phil Mickelson at (+5000). Phil has a much, much better than 1-in-50 chance to win at Portrush in 2019…like any moderate-hitting player with the finesse to go low.
Power hitters like Rory, Koepka and D.J. could overwhelm the Par 5s and hit chip shots into the Par 4s all week. But for the best British Open betting value, look for finesse players who are being disregarded for their lack of power.
It won’t take 6 eagles to win on Sunday in Ireland…just a whole lot of birdies.