X marks the spot at Winged Foot!

US Open

Best bets (8 places, 1/5 odds)
2pts each-way Xander Schauffele @ 14/1
1pt each-way Tommy Fleetwood @ 28/1
1pt each-way Dustin Johnson @ 15/2
1pt each-way Collin Morikawa @ 16/1
0.5pt each-way Matt Fitzpatrick @ 50/1
0.5pt each-way Tyrrell Hatton @ 40/1

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Don’t expect bucketfuls of birdies when the long-delayed US Open finally reaches hallowed Winged Foot this week.

The last time the Open was played in the quaintly-named town of Mamaroneck an hour’s drive north of Manhattan in 2006, the winning score was five over the testing par of 70 and on the previous occasion in 1974, when Hale Irwin won the first of his three Opens, it was even worse at seven over.

Expect narrowed fairways, tough rough and super-slick greens at the classic AW Tillinghast layout as the USGA bid to identify the best all-round golfer in a field shorn of unfit two-time winner Brooks Koepka, Francesco Molinari and Covid-19 victim Scottie Scheffler but otherwise at full strength.

At 7477 yards, Winged Foot – the name refers to the magical sandals worn by Greek messenger god Hermes, a go-between for Olympians and mere mortals – is 213 yards longer than in 2006 but that’s to be expected in these days when so many smash that defenceless little white ball 320 yards and more.

With a 633-yard par five and two par fours over 500 yards you’d expect bombers to thrive but while the 2006 form is so ancient it belongs to the History Channel rather than Sky Sports, it firmly points the punter towards shorter, more accurate hitters who find fairways like clockwork.

Of the top 14 finishers, only three would be classed as long hitters while Jim Furyk, Nick O’Hern, Steve Stricker, Mike Weir, Luke Donald, Jeff Sluman and Ian Poulter were average hitters at best and winner Geoff Ogilvy was no bomber.

The 2006 climax was a crazy comedy of errors with Ogilvy almost champion by default as Phil Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie gave it away with double-bogey sixes at the last when a par would have won and Furyk missed a five-footer to make it a play-off.

Of course, that doesn’t mean a big hitter cannot win and it would be foolhardy to crab the chance of favourite Dustin Johnson who is 2-1-2-1 for his last four starts with 18 of his last 20 rounds in the 60s and in the form of his life.

DJ is a good player of difficult courses too. Winner of the 2016 US Open at another course, Oakmont, that demanded a full skills set, he has filled each of the first four places in his last six attempts at the championship the USGA understandably regard as the most prestigious of the four Majors. We know different but we are biased!

One can only surmise whether playing it in September rather than June and without the typically boisterous, beery New York crowd will make a difference to the result but both Rory McIlroy and Tiger Woods, the two who draw the biggest followings, say they are finding it harder to get motivated.

Their results since lockdown was eased have been the wrong side of ordinary, in Rory’s case in distinct contrast to the wonderfully consistent pre-Covid top-tens he ran up. He is arguably playing his worst golf of the past ten years but maybe now the baby has arrived, his mind will wander less.

As the US Open provides such a unique test, the suggestion is to go with players who have shown themselves to be big-occasion competitors who enjoy tough courses and I give my No. 1 vote to Xander Schauffele.

In his short Majors career, Schauffele has US Open form figures of 5-6-3 and last time out he outscored FedEx Cup winner DJ when finishing runner-up to him at the Tour Championship. That sounds odd but remember that the FedEx was a handicap contest in which Johnson started seven ahead of Xander because of his superior 2020 form.

On level terms now, he can reverse those positions so X marks the spot at Winged Foot! At 26, the quiet Californian is ready to join the Major men.

Europe won four consecutive US Opens from 2010-13 through Graeme McDowell, McIlroy, Justin Rose and Martin Kaymer and while it is difficult to make a case for any of those, there are others at juicy prices who could create a big impression.

Tommy Fleetwood, runner-up and fourth in the two championships won by Koepka in 2017-18, had an ideal warm-up in The Algarve on Sunday with a 64 that saw him jump up to third place in a tournament he began too slowly to win and while his putting from six and seven feet was below standard, the rest of his game was razor-sharp.

Tyrrell Hatton has already opened his account in the States in the last tournament pre-lockdown at Bay Hill in March and was sixth in the 2018 US Open, Matt Fitzpatrick has placed 12th in the last two US Opens, and Paul Casey was joint runner-up with DJ to Collin Morikawa in the first of the Majors, the PGA Championship, last month.

On rankings Spaniard Jon Rahm holds Europe’s best chance and Open champion Shane Lowry has the game to contend but at the prices I would sooner be on Fleetwood despite his sub-standard showings in the US before he played in Portugal.

At 23, Morikawa has shown himself to be a model of consistency in the Schauffele mould and having won one Major there’s no reason why he can’t bag another while 2012 winner Webb Simpson and Justin Thomas also merit serious consideration although JT’s US Open profile (32-9-25-missed cut) is none too compelling.


Open de Portugal

Best bets
4pts win George Coetzee @ 4-1
1pt each-way Scott Vincent @ 28-1
1pt each-way Jamie Donaldson @ 20-1
0.5pt each-way Wade Ormsby @ 25-1
0.5pt each-way Garrick Higgo @ 18-1

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The Open de Portugal at Royal Obidos an hour north of Lisbon qualifies as the weakest European Tour event of the year and George Coetzee, fresh from landing us a 14-1 winner in The Algarve on Sunday, should complete the Portuguese double with a degree of ease.

The burly Pretorian’s price is unattractive at first glance but who can you put up to beat this five-time tour winner who notched his first victory in continental Europe in the Portugal Masters after winning and finishing runner-up on his previous two outings on his home Sunshine Tour?

The 7283-yard par 72 Seve Ballesteros design will be new to Coetzee as it will be to most of the non-Portuguese members of the small field but it reflects the flair and ingenuity of one of golf’s Special Ones.

The Portuguese Open of 1974 was Seve’s first outside his native Spain and on his 17th birthday he shot 89 at Estoril, 20 over par, after dismally failing to overpower the little holiday resort course and finding every tree and out of bounds on the estate. It was the worst score of the day and he burst into tears.

I was there but cannot claim to have seen that round though I would soon be the first British magazine journo to interview this charismatic genius.

Biggest danger to Coetzee could be the Zimbabwean Scott Vincent who ran up a string of good finishes on the competitive Japan Tour at the back-end of last year and finished eighth at Vilamoura last week.

Veterans Jamie Donaldson and Wade Ormsby are well up to contending at this level although Donaldson is a fair way removed from the confident Welshman who struck the clinching blow in the 2014 Ryder Cup.

Coetzee’s young countryman Garrick Higgo, only 21, showed potential when sixth in the Euram Bank Open in Austria in July and seventh on the Challenge Tour in Northern Ireland last time out. One for the notebook.


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