Presence Of PGA Tour Defectors Heightens Intrigue For This U.S. Open

Mickelson among LIV participants drawing lots of betting interest for 2022's third major

Betting handle this past weekend on the PGA’s RBC Open in Toronto was up only slightly from what a normal non-major tournament would produce at PointsBet. Yet Michael Hollenberg, one of the online sportsbook’s golf analysts, said, “I’ve never had more of my family interested in golf.”

This had little to do with the action on the Canadian course, where Rory McIlroy prevailed over Tony Finau and Justin Thomas in thrilling fashion, but rather with another tournament occurring across the pond in London, England. No mere European Tour stop, the tourney won by Charl Schwartzel marked the inaugural event of LIV Golf, an obscenely well-financed operation bankrolled by the highly controversial Saudi Arabian government.

Unless you’ve been living in a burrow alongside the pesky gopher in Caddyshack, you, like Hollenberg’s relatives, probably know that the PGA powers-that-be are none too pleased with the emergence of the Saudi-backed upstart. They took the extraordinary step of suspending the Tour memberships of all golfers who teed up in London — among them Phil Mickelson, Sergio Garcia, and Dustin Johnson — and promised to revoke the cards of anyone else who chooses to play in an LIV event.

But the PGA doesn’t control who gets to play in golf’s four majors. And, thus far, their controlling entities have shown no intent to follow the PGA’s lead in barring LIV participants. Hence, at this week’s U.S. Open, Mickelson and Johnson will share a locker room at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts, with some of their now bitterer rivals — among them McIlroy and Thomas, who are the consensus favorites to end up in Sunday’s final pairing.

D.J., Oosti LIVin’ the dream

Among the LIV refugees, oddsmakers are united in thinking that past U.S. Open winner Johnson, at odds ranging from 36/1 (WynnBET) to 44/1 (FanDuel Casino & Sportsbook), has the best chance of winning this year’s third Grand Slam leg. But at 200/1, Mickelson was PointsBet’s biggest liability as of Tuesday, while Caesars golf analyst Anthony Salleroli was somewhat bullish on two-time U.S. Open runner-up Louis Oosthuizen (65/1), who finished 12th in London last weekend.

“He’s always a great U.S. Open contender,” said Salleroli. “I question his form, but if you look at his stat lines in previous U.S. Opens, it’s not short of outstanding.”

Among active PGA Tour members with odds longer than 30/1, Salleroli likes Sung-Jae Im and Hideki Matsuyama (both 35/1), as well as Justin Rose (50/1), who shot a sizzling final-round 60 to finish tied for fourth in the RBC Open.

Added Salleroli, “If you want a deep shot, there’s Lucas Herbert (200/1). He’s an awesome putter and one of the best sand players.”

Bettors cooling on Rahm-bo

At just over 7,000 yards, The Country Club, Hollenberg noted, is “a little shorter than we’re used to seeing at a major.” And with this being a tournament run by the USGA, the course is, as WynnBET golf analyst Andy Morrissey put it, “so tough, so narrow. You have to hit the fairway. The rough is impossible to get out of — then you have small greens. Par will be a good score.”

“I think it makes for good television,” observed Salleroli. “Some people probably like a birdie fest, but I like to see how they play when there’s junk in front of them — increasing rough that just gets nastier or nastier. That’s why accuracy is such an important component in this particular U.S. Open.”

To that end, Hollenberg said the “two key stats” he and his PointsBet colleagues are looking at this week are “accuracy off the tee and approach from 150 to 200 yards.”

“With respect to those two stats, the first name that jumps out is Xander [Schauffele, 22/1]. He’s second in driving efficiency — a combination of accuracy and distance — and sixth in approach from 150 to 200. The other one is Patrick [Cantlay] at 25/1 — above average on approach and fourth in driving efficiency.”

The defending U.S. Open champion, Jon Rahm, is another analytics darling. And despite enduring something of a lackluster first half of 2022, sportsbooks are giving him a decent chance to repeat, offering odds ranging from 12/1 at WynnBET to 15/1 at FanDuel, which just debuted a golf-centric TV ad featuring another former U.S. Open champ, Jordan Spieth (25/1).

WynnBET was one of the few sportsbooks to feature Thomas (+720) over McIlroy (9/1) as the favorite on Tuesday. This flip-flop came by virtue of “a few max bets,” said Morrissey, who personally likes Rahm’s chances, due in part to the sense that McIlroy and Thomas might be “a little drained after Sunday’s battle.”

“He’s been the favorite for the Masters, didn’t do well — the favorite for the PGA, didn’t do well,” Morrissey said of Rahm. “He’s still got game and can turn it on and play with everybody. This weekend, too, I like him especially. But we haven’t really got many bets on him, so I feel like maybe the bettor is cooling off on him.”

Could Brooks chase Chase?

One LIV golfer who didn’t have to worry about having his (nonexistent) PGA membership revoked was Chase Koepka. Having plied his trade in golf’s minor leagues, he finished 37th out of 48 golfers in London, shooting +10 over the tournament’s 54 holes.

If Koepka’s last name is instantly recognizable, that’s because he’s the baby brother of Brooks, who won back-to-back U.S. Opens in 2017 and 2018. Newlywed Brooks, who was priced from 35/1 (Caesars) to 55/1 (FanDuel) on Tuesday, “kind of just plays when he wants” these days, said Salleroli.

So, given the massive disparity in prize money between PGA Tour and the LIV Tour — where Schwartzel just pocketed a record $4.75 million first prize, more than triple McIlroy’s $1.56 million payday — might a prop bet involving which Koepka brother will make more money in 2022 be in the offing?

“If golfers came out with a preliminary schedule ahead of the list of tour events, that would present a unique scenario,” said Salleroli. “But Chase playing on the LIV Tour is awfully compelling, and there’s certainly the suspicion that Brooks will go ahead and join his brother.”

“That’s really creative and I like the idea,” PointsBet’s Hollenberg said of the bro-vs.-bro prop. “We’re not trying to get into predicting who’s going to make the jump [to LIV Golf], but I’m sure there’s going to be a second tier of big names after this first group takes the P.R. hit.”

Photo: Reuters via USA TODAY


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