Ben Coley bagged another winner plus two each-way payouts last week - find out who he's backing for the US Open at Winged Foot.
"Can Winged Foot be overpowered?"
Anyone proclaiming to be anything close to an expert in anything should safeguard their expertise, by listening to those who know more. So when Geoff Ogilvy, winner of the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot, offers his thoughts on the course which hosts this year's renewal, I'm not sure there's anybody who can say they don't need to listen. Ogilvy is an architectural savant and perhaps golf's biggest fan. He understands what and why better than just about anyone.
Speaking with Andy Johnson on The Fried Egg podcast, Ogilvy reflected on what won him that title, and condensed it to microcosm: he scrambled pars at the final four holes. Most famously, Phil Mickelson made double having hit a wild drive into the rough. Colin Montgomerie had already made the same score from the middle of the fairway, and Jim Furyk couldn't make the par he needed to take Ogilvy to a play-off. The forgotten man, Padraig Harrington, bogeyed 16, 17 and 18, when three pars - oh, how easy it sounds - would've been enough.
Ogilvy was not a short hitter, not at the time, and he surely benefited from a remarkably high ball flight which helps when you're hitting approaches into some of the most devilish greens on earth. But he did not win this tournament by thrashing driver and only then engaging his brain. He was prepared and precise in his thinking, but ultimately considers this a triumph for his wedge game, above all else.
"Power is an enormous advantage, but the guy who wins... everyone will look back and be like 'wow, that guy got up and down a lot'," he continued, adding, "it'll probably be a long hitter" - because so many of the world's best are now long hitters - but that alone is not enough. For what it's worth his vote went to Jon Rahm on the basis of his ability with a 60-degree wedge around the greens and, of the market leaders, he's also the one I consider to be best equipped.
The point of all of this is to say that this beast of a golf course, a par 70 which is almost 7,500-yards in length, screams big-hitter on paper, but the path to victory requires a brilliant week around the greens. Ogilvy, Mickelson, Furyk, Montgomerie and Harrington all scrambled well, as had Davis Love in the 1997 PGA Championship here, as did Gary Woodland at Pebble Beach, as did Dustin Johnson at Oakmont. With birdies so hard to come by, avoiding bogeys is vital in any US Open, but a Winged Foot one more than most.
Johnson's short-game is solid but not as strong as that of Rahm, who auditioned for this when winning first the Memorial Tournament (-9, by three) and then the BMW Championship (-4), where he won that famous play-off with that mind-blowing putt. Of all the events played since June these are two of the strongest form guides and the Spaniard, who got better each day when 13th in the PGA, looks the man to beat.
The issue I have is that the scare stories will not be misplaced this time. We've seen already how thick the rough is and know that Ogilvy won in five-over. When conditions are this unrelenting, the form book becomes just a little less reliable - not enough to disregard it, but enough to avoid taking short prices. Ogilvy has long said majors are easier to win because there are fewer genuine contenders and he may be right, but at 8/1 and 10/1 I can let the top two players in the sport go when everyone is liable to making a seven or an eight.
To underscore the value of a quality short-game, consider this: the leader in greens hit back in 2006 still missed an average of six per round. That's more than twice as many as last week's Safeway Open equivalent and makes Winged Foot's greens - treacherous once found - as difficult to hit as anything we've seen since that brutal renewal which Ogilvy won. And it leads me to those who, yes, excel from tee-to-green - but also have the magic in their hands which will help them to avoid disaster.
That description may not scream HIDEKI MATSUYAMA, but the stats confirm that he's absolutely brilliant around the greens and, with the putter showing signs of behaving, he's top of my list.
I don't think there's any doubt that the best male player Asia has produced is good enough to emulate Korea's YE Yang and win a major - but there might be some doubt as to whether he believes it. Ever since he blew a mighty chance to win the 2017 PGA Championship and went on to tell reporters back home that his game wasn't good enough to compete with Brooks Koepka, confidence has been as big an issue as his putter.
That really is the sole major worry and the hope must be that, from the opening 63 at Sawgrass back in the spring to contending for the BMW Championship two starts ago, he's built layers of belief which have him ready to win again.
Matsuyama was third at Olympia Fields and it owed plenty to a field-leading performance around the greens. He'd produced a similar one when 22nd at the PGA Championship where his iron play went missing, and for the 2020 season he ranked fifth. Having been 12th in 2019, that's now three years in four that he's ranked inside the top 20 on the PGA Tour and though a misbehaving putter sometimes undermines it, he's great at getting up and down.
At his best, Matsuyama has few peers from tee-to-green and we've seen glimpses of that lately, too, but it's the improvement with the putter which is particularly encouraging. He was down the field at East Lake but before that ranked 33rd, 24th and 31st, and he's better on bentgrass/poa greens than he is on bermuda - significantly so.
As well as his recent credentials, Matsuyama boasts an excellent record in the US Open, in which he was 10th on debut at Merion (thick rough, over-par winning score) and second at Erin Hills, plus 16th at Shinnecock, 18th at Chambers Bay, 21st at Pebble Beach and 35th at Pinehurst.
Significantly, he flushed his way to fourth place at Baltusrol in the 2016 US PGA and then there's Bethpage, where he finished inside the top 20 in last year's edition of the same event. Both those courses are part of A.W. Tillinghast's portfolio and Matsuyama has all the tools to keep the ball in play and then pass the most serious of greenside tests.
And if Ogilvy is right, and this does develop into more of a wedge contest, you can throw in the fact that his 50-125-yard stats are among the strongest on Tour over the last two years. In other words he can be relied upon to recover whether he misses the fairway and has to chip out, or misses the green and has to get up and down. He's a strong each-way fancy.
Xander Schauffele boasts a very similar profile in that his short-game is sharp, he's been playing well every week including when producing the best score at East Lake, and his major record is outstanding. He ought to go really well and was of course considered, but with the 18/1 gone and 16/1 disappearing he's now short enough at the same price as Rory McIlroy.
On the latter, as a new dad and former US Open winner who hits it long and chips better than many give him credit for, he has plenty going for him. It's a fallacy in my eyes that he can't play tough golf, because everybody else found it very tough when he streaked clear at Congressional and at Kiawah Island and even at East Lake. That said, there's no debating that he is at his most comfortable on a soft par 72 where things are less complicated up at the green.
Instead and at twice the price, TOMMY FLEETWOOD goes back in the staking plan after contending when selected for the PGA Championship last month.
Back then, Fleetwood had played just six competitive rounds and yet he was sharp enough to shoot a sublime 64 on Friday. Come Sunday he was right in the mix only to lose a ball up a tree with a pulled drive to the sixth hole where, less than an hour later, Collin Morikawa's similarly wide miss to the left found a safe spot before he powered to an impressive breakthrough.
Of course it was a frustrating finish and Fleetwood endured another at the Wyndham as he searched for his game post-lockdown. That's what makes last week's third place in Portugal absolutely key: he quite simply found it. Having struggled throughout his previous five starts with his approaches, the 29-year-old was peppering pins throughout and produced an astonishing set of tee-to-green numbers, gaining almost 18 strokes on the field only to give back a third with the putter.
You really don't see performances like that too often so while third place in a modest European Tour event is not in itself all that much to get excited about, the nature of that third really is. It is precisely what Fleetwood needed to see from his game, precisely why he ventured to Portugal in the first place, and a tougher-than-usual test out there could set him up ideally for this.
Remember, Fleetwood spent much of summer practicing in the Hamptons where he waltzed around Shinnecock, scene of his near-miss in 2018. That's one of two top-five finishes in his last three US Opens and he's made the cut in the other two, while last year's runner-up finish at Portrush gave him a first real taste of being in the thick of things at the front in a major championship.
Ogilvy had been sixth in the previous year's PGA and so many major winners have been close in the recent past, such as Francesco Molinari and Patrick Reed, DJ, Brooks Koepka, Rory, Justin Thomas, Jordan Spieth and plenty more besides. My colleague Matt Cooper calls it base-camping, and though Morikawa bashed down the door at the first opportunity, he will surely remain among the exceptions to the rule. Most players win their first major having fairly recently had a chance to, and failed to take it.
Fleetwood has without question experienced everything required to be ready to win a US Open and, after his performance in Portugal, his game is where it needs to be. He's long been an excellent scrambler and few are more reliable off the tee - note that both Ogilvy and Love were top-five in total driving during their victories which, in the absence of strokes-gained stats, still tells us something.
He's going to go off a similar price to the PGA where we had less to go on, for all he'd played Harding Park before. Indeed it's a similar price to when he chased home Shane Lowry and with the each-way terms on offer, a player who arrives in-form and on a run of 12 cuts made in majors looks well worth siding with. I think he prepares better than almost anyone for these and knows exactly how to be primed.
When it comes to short-games, few are as consistently impressive as Patrick Reed and everything I wrote about him last December remains true - except the price. Back then, Reed was 66/1 generally and 80/1 in a place despite having underlined again how well he plays in this part of the US when taking The Northern Trust in New Jersey. He'd won that event three years earlier at Bethpage and also contended at Shinnecock, making him a prime candidate.
The fact he's not had to play out of his skin in the weeks prior to this one to more than halve in price tells you plenty about those early quotes, but I don't particularly wish to go back in. For those not on already - and I appreciate that will be the majority of readers - he's considered no more than a fair price, but very much likeable in terms of profile.
Another who should get up and down more than most is Matt Fitzpatrick, who has been 12th in the last two US Opens. He might well be the best putter among the game's elite right now and his form on tough courses lately includes sixth at Olympia Fields and Southwind and third at Muirfield Village, all of which puts him on the radar given how highly I rate him.
The trouble is for all power isn't the only requirement and perhaps not this time the primary one, it would be second or third on the list. Asked to summarise in a sentence I would say the winner will be among the best around the greens of the best drivers, and the Englishman may just be giving up too much ground off the tee.
With that in mind it's back to TONY FINAU, who has a similarly impressive and relevant set of results this summer.
Finau was eighth in the Memorial where he was a short price having burst clear early in round three, fourth in the PGA Championship where he did absolutely nothing wrong, and fifth at Olympia Fields thanks this time to a quality short-game.
Around the greens he's ranked 12th and sixth in his last two starts and if he can bring that with him to Winged Foot, where his strength off the tee will be a big advantage if properly channelled, he looks a massive contender.
Without wishing to go over old ground, Finau's lack of wins doesn't concern me as much as you might think. He was dreadfully unfortunate in both the Phoenix Open and the 2018 HSBC Champions, losing play-offs in both, and has stood tall in majors ever since he was 14th at Chambers Bay in what was his very first appearance.
Since then he's bagged seven top-10 finishes in 15 starts, including fifth place in this one at nearby Shinnecock, and if and when he does break through with that second win do not be at all surprised if it's at the very highest level. This is where he belongs, and it's on championship golf courses that his skills are really brought to the surface.
Finau was just a little underwhelming at East Lake but that was all down to an off-week with the driver, which is not like him. In fact it was his first negative strokes-gained figure off the tee since March and I would expect him to brush it off quickly. Winged Foot ought to suit and he's another who can be expected to perform.
Paul Casey is respected along with Adam Scott, the pair having played well in the 2006 edition, but that's probably not a significant edge following 14 years and some Gil Hanse modifications. They could well flush their way into the mix regardless, but if there is to be another Australian winner my idea of it is JASON DAY.
Unlike the first three selections, there's a recent form risk here - Day was abysmal at TPC Boston where he missed the cut, and no better in the BMW Championship last time. Troublingly, on both occasions his approach play - always in and out but very good in the weeks prior to these events - fell off a cliff, and he'll need to have fixed it without old coach Col Swatton.
That's a very definite worry, but Day's credentials are otherwise very good and he was much better in the final round at Olympia Hills, signing off a poor week with a quality round of 68. Granted, ball-striking improvements were not as significant as I'd have liked but the flip-side is he's back out to 40/1, the price at which he contended for the PGA and could have won but for a quiet week on the greens.
Day led the field with his approaches at Harding Park and for a time on Sunday afternoon looked the likely winner. Hinting that he was back close to the levels of 2015, when he won the US PGA and four other titles on his way to world number one, that was his fourth top-10 finish in succession and promised plenty for the months ahead.
Bar the blip - and we saw how quickly Johnson put a poor fortnight behind him - Day would be an obvious candidate here, having been runner-up at Baltusrol and Ridgewood, won at Plainfield, and been third at Bethpage. He was also eighth despite a poor start at Oakmont, whose greens are comparable to these, and five top-10s in his first six US Open appearances underline how well suited he is to this challenge.
Essentially, Day hits it long and high and has a magnificent short-game, surely the best on Tour when on-song, so he fits the bill in profile and he has bags of form on greens similar to these. Had this been the week after the PGA, I suspect he'd have been a 25/1 shot at best. Revised prices of 40/1 are enough to set against the question marks which now surround his game and a fortnight break should've done him the world of good.
Of the outsiders, new dad Thomas Pieters could go well but hasn't played enough golf to quite merit inclusion, Jason Kokrak is undeniably interesting and 500/1 shot Takumi Kanaya may contend even as an amateur. Mackenzie Hughes has a brilliant short-game and could go a long way with it, but Byeong Hun An looks the best option.
Winner of the US Amateur before taking the BMW PGA in his first year on the European Tour, An still has all the tools to become a bonafide member of the world's elite - he'll just need to cut out the big numbers and find a degree of consistency with the putter.
In trying to address the latter he's been working with Brad Faxon and the results were immediate as he contended at Southwind, playing in the final group before stepping aside as Thomas and Koepka served up a dramatic finish. An then made a hole-in-one en route to 22nd in the PGA Championship and when last we saw him played excellent golf throughout the weekend at Olympia Fields, back-to-back rounds of 68 enough for 12th place.
That's three high-class performances in his last four starts and his approach play in particular has come alive. Given that he's long been outstanding around the greens, a solid week with the driver married to the sort of putting he showed on similar greens in San Francisco could make him a big each-way contender.
Ultimately though he's played well without threatening in a handful of majors, including finishes of 16th and 23rd in this one, and a top-20 finish might be as good as it gets. I'm happy to go into battle with a team of four, all equipped for this fearsome test which lies ahead.
Posted at 2020 BST on 14/09/20
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