OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP: If there has been a golf tournament more eagerly anticipated than this one, I sure can’t recall it offhand. Open Championship week is always the zenith of the golfing calendar, but this year is something special– not only is it the 150th edition of golf’s oldest championship, being held at the greatest Open venue and most famous course in the world, the Old Course at St. Andrews, but it also comes at a unique time in professional golf, when several of the sport’s biggest stars have joined a controversial upstart tour and are facing withering criticism from some of their most prominent peers, the most recent being Tiger Woods himself.
This is the backdrop for this week’s championship– the white hat PGA Tour loyalists vs. the black hat LIV crew; the game’s most vocal young stars in top form; Tiger still able to compete and potentially make some noise; a legend of the game and 2-time Open champion being clumsily disinvited for the week’s festivities… there’s a lot going on. At the center of it all, though, is the course, the Grand Old Lady that has been the beating heart of the sport for centuries. Players and tours will come and go, but the links at St. Andrews will stand forever as a monument to sport, competition, and humanity.
No one can say exactly when they started playing golf at St. Andrews, but by 1457 the sport was so popular in Scotland that James II banned the game due to too many young men neglecting their archery practice. By 1502, however, the ban was removed and the “golfing grounds” at St. Andrews were flourishing. Despite being renowned as a strategic masterpiece– possibly the best links course in the world– the Old Course had no single architect, with the routing and layout of most of the holes having been developed naturally over the centuries. The course was shortened from 22 to 18 holes in 1764, and that became the standard for golf courses everywhere. Calling St. Andrews the “home of golf” is true in ways that stretch beyond the age of the course– these grounds are literally where the modern game was conceived.
Now tipping out at over 7,300 yards, the Old Course can be a bear when the wind blows, but firm and fast conditions this week should make for lots of short irons and some low scoring for the players who catch the weather right. As most know, it’s a par-72 that features only two par-3s and two par-5s, and the course’s main defense is the 112 bunkers that dot the property, some of which are so severe that players will need to play away from the hole– or sometimes back into a different part of the bunker– in order to get the ball out. But it’s not only the bunkers… it’s the nooks, hollows, and ridges that cause the ball to bounce unpredictably, the huge greens with so many subtle breaks, the tightness of the Road Hole… St. Andrews can beat you in a hundred different ways, as golfers have known for centuries, but it’s also a fair test that always produces a worthy champion. There’s a reason the game’s greats always wax poetic about the place– in his later years Bobby Jones was said to have remarked, “I could take out of my life everything but my experience at St. Andrews and I would still have had a rich and full life.”
When it comes down to it, of course, this is a golf tournament, and a major championship at that. All the tradition and history won’t mean a hill of beans to the player who bogies his first two holes on Thursday, or to the man who is standing over a 6-foot par putt on Saturday afternoon. The competition this week figures to be intense, and BETDAQ’s Win Market certainly reflects that, with 10 players currently trading at shorter than 30/1. Rory McIlroy is the undisputed favorite at 11.0, and he’s been on a tear lately, but he hasn’t always been a player who shined brightest when the spotlight was squarely on him, and given his history of sometimes starting slowly in majors before heating up and finishing with a flourish, it may be best to wait until the in-play betting if you want a piece of Rory. If you’re looking for pre-tourney value, I might try one of these guys instead:
Recommendations to BACK (odds in parenthesis)
Cameron Smith (27.0)- When Smith followed up his win at The Players in March with a 3rd-place finish at the Masters, many expected to see a lull in his game– the hangover that often sticks with young players for a while after career-changing stretches of golf. Smith has kept chugging right along, however, logging four top-25 finishes in his last six starts, and he seemed very comfortable in Scotland last week, closing with a 67 to finish T10. He is one of only two players on the PGA Tour who ranks in the top-20 in both Strokes Gained on Approach (5th) and Strokes Gained Putting (16th), which is probably why he makes so many birdies– he’s 5th on Tour with 4.7 birdies per round. Smith does unleash the occasional errant drive, but there’s room off the tee at the Old Course, and his brilliance and creativity around the greens will serve him well this week. This feels like a great setup for the young Aussie, and he’s surely coming in with loads of confidence after his success on the links last week. I’m happy to get him at a price like 27.0.
Sam Burns (60.0)- The one thing Burns lacks is tournament experience on links courses, but we’ve seen straight-ahead birdie machines without much links experience succeed at St. Andrews before– think John Daly in ’95– and Burns’s inexperience is certainly factored into the price. Trust me, you won’t see a guy like this priced at 60.0 very often… someone with three victories on the season and four top-10s in his last ten starts, including a T4 in the Canadian Open last month. Burns opened with a 67 at The Renaissance Club last week, showing that he does have the ability to get it done on the links, though an uncooperative putter left him treading water over the weekend. That’s not a chronic problem, however– Burns ranks 13th on the PGA Tour in Strokes Gained Putting, and for the past year it seems like he’s never missed a crucial putt when in contention on Sunday. The is a guy with a legit chance to win, and at such an inflated price he has to be the best value on the board this week.
Patrick Reed (112.0)- Of all the players who defected to LIV, Patrick Reed was perhaps the least surprising and least mourned. I don’t think too many of his fellow competitors will miss teeing it up with someone who combines arrogance and a prickly nature with a proven track record of dishonesty, but hey, what does Reed care? He’s thrived off of being the “bad guy”, the object of hatred and scorn, ever since he was kicked off his first college team for cheating. The negative energy seems to drive him and sharpen his focus… we’ve seen it in majors, we’ve seen it at the Ryder Cup, and we’ll have a chance to see it again this week, as everyone who is not personally related to Reed (and if you know the backstory with his family, that’s… err… maybe not the best example) will be rooting against him. He is LIV personified– doesn’t care about the fans, the game, tradition, or any of that other garbage. He’s in it for the money, and in it for himself. And guess what? That attitude has worked out pretty well for him over his 10 years as a pro, and he looked awfully comfortable at LIV Portland a couple of weeks ago, finishing 3rd after closing with rounds of 68-67. Reed has had success at the Open before, finding the top-20 three times since 2015, and something tells me he’ll make some noise this week. If you’re looking for a triple-digit longshot with a legit chance to win, look no further. Hold your nose and bet on Reed.