Head vs. Heart: Bettors Love Phil Mickelson at 2021 U.S. Open, Despite Shortened Price & Red Flags

Head vs. Heart: Bettors Love Phil Mickelson at 2021 U.S. Open, Despite Shortened Price & Red Flags article feature image
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Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images. Pictured: Phil Mickelson

SAN DIEGO – This week’s 121st U.S. Open at Torrey Pines could offer us the opportunity to witness not only one of the greatest golf stories in recent years, but one of the truly best stories in all of sports.

Phil Mickelson is fresh off last month’s record-setting victory at the PGA Championship, becoming the oldest player to ever win a major championship.

He turns 51 this week, but still has a chance to capture the elusive title for which he’s come so close, so often, with a half-dozen career runner-up results.

It would cinch his ticket into the game’s most exclusive club, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and Tiger Woods as the only winners of the career grand slam.

And he can do it all in his hometown, on a golf course he knows as well as anyone.

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There’s a reason why, in the days leading up to this week’s opening round, Mickelson owns one of the highest ticket counts and handle percentages at U.S. sportsbooks, despite his odds shortening severely after that victory at Kiawah.

Everybody wants a piece of Lefty — or perhaps more to the point, nobody wants to be left out if he wins again, even if it simply means a small outright play just to frame and mount the winning ticket on the living room wall someday.

For many public bettors, wagering on Mickelson this week epitomizes the classic struggle between head and heart that so many wrestle with on a regular basis. Even those who don’t think he’s going to win still want him to win badly enough that they’ve tricked themselves into believing it can happen.

Maybe it can, maybe lightning really will strike twice and we’ll witness another historic result in a major championship. Or maybe we should listen to our collective heads over our hearts.

Let’s examine that inner turmoil which is afflicting so many bettors this week.

Hey, if he can win the PGA…

This is the simplest rationalization anyone can make when it comes to Mickelson leans at this one. The inarguable theory is that if a player – Phil or anyone else – is capable of winning a major just a few weeks ago, then he’s certainly capable of winning another one this week. Bettors know there’s really no such thing as a “law of averages,” so nullifying his chances because he just won a major shouldn’t factor into this decision-making process.

… but that was clearly an outlier.

Sure, Mickelson is “capable” of winning, but his recent track record doesn’t exactly suggest that he’s one of the game’s better closers anymore. Last month’s victory wasn’t just his first major title since 2013, it was his first top-10 at a major in five years. In fact, he’s won just three times in his last 173 starts worldwide, a rate well below many of his fellow elite-level players during the same time period.

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He’s a great U.S. Open player…

This is a notion which too often remains unrecognized. Just because Phil owns so many excruciating, agonizing defeats at this event, many observers believe he’s either not cut out for this style of golf or that he doesn’t play these setups well enough. The truth is, of course, that he’s been good enough on six separate occasions to beat everyone in the field except one player. You could make an argument that he’s a much better U.S. Open player than some who have won this title multiple times – and it’s an argument your heart could win if you’re deciding whether or not to bet him this week.

… but there’s a whole lot of scar tissue.

Too often in these situations, our brains tend to view the data and analytics, which help make these decisions. This one needs to delve a little deeper. Perhaps the reason why Mickelson was able to essentially cruise to the PGA Championship title last month is because it wasn’t a U.S. Open and he didn’t have all the ghosts circling around him.

Then there’s the fact that this event has largely become the domain of the big, strong, young, athletic player in recent years. Yes, Mickelson can still bang his drives a long way, but he’s no Brooks or Bryson when it comes to gouging his ball out of the rough.

Nobody knows Torrey Pines better…

This is true. Mickelson has a long history on this property, from back in his junior golf days to becoming a three-time winner of the Farmers Insurance Open. He’s played the event a whopping 31 times, which includes 74 trips around this week’s host venue, the South Course. There’s literally no sightline, no angle, no tricky putt that he hasn’t already seen.

… but it hasn’t been good to him lately.

The last time Lefty won at Torrey? Two decades ago. In fact, so much of his success on this golf course came in the early part of his career. Take nothing away from a record which shows 10 top-10s in the annual tourney here, but none of those have come in the last 10 years, as a T-14 in 2017 remains his lone finish inside the top-40 over the past decade.

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