2019 U.S. Open Preview: How Often Does Betting the Favorite Pay Off in Golf?

Credit:

John David Mercer-USA TODAY Sports. Pictured: Brooks Koepka celebrates after winning the 2019 PGA Championship.

Jun 12, 2019, 08:30 AM EDT
  • Brooks Koepka is the betting favorite to win the 2019 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach.
  • Should you bet on Koepka to win this weekend? Jason Sobel dug into the data to analyze how favorites have fared over the years.

The following story first ran as part of The Action Network’s preview coverage before this year’s Masters Tournament. It has been updated to reflect results since then.

So, you like Brooks Koepka to win the U.S. Open this week?

Hey, that’s a valid selection. I mean, the guy is pre-tournament favorite for a reason – because the books enlisted the two-time defending champion with the lowest odds and the betting public has backed that assertion.

But that hardly equates to victory.

In fact, this season it’s barely equated to victory at all.

In 21 events on the PGA Tour so far in the 2018-19 campaign, the only favorite who has claimed a tournament win was Rory McIlroy, who was a pre-tournament co-fave before capturing The Players Championship.

Others have come close. Koepka was almost the favorite at the CJ Cup, which he won but he was listed on the board below Justin Thomas, then again at the PGA Championship, when he was listed as the third man on the final board. Dustin Johnson actually opened as the favorite in some books at the WGC-Mexico Championship, but as of the first tee shot on Thursday, again it was Thomas who held that honor. McIlroy was near the top of the board for this past weekend’s Canadian Open, but Johnson went off as the favorite in Hamilton.

Is this season an anomaly? How often do favorites win? Could you ever win money betting on tourney favorites all year?

Using the archives on golfodds.com, I decided to review the previous decade on the PGA Tour and answer all of these questions.

Granted, the numbers might have been skewed more toward the favorites during Tiger Woods’ prime years, but the past 10 should give us some insight into how often the top player on the board comes out on top.

The following numbers are based on betting one unit on the favorite during every PGA Tour event for each of the past 10 seasons. (If a player was co-favorite, that unit was split evenly between all favorites.) Here’s what we found.


2017-18

  • Wagered: 48 units
  • Won: 26.5 units.
  • Final balance: -21.5 units

Winners

  • Justin Thomas, CJ Cup (+700)
  • Jon Rahm, CareerBuilder Challenge (+800)
  • Dustin Johnson, FedEx St. Jude Classic (+600)
  • Dustin Johnson, RBC Canadian Open (+550)

Four winning tickets in 48 events could be very profitable in the right circumstances, but when those wins are all on the favorites, it equals a hefty loss for the season.

While none of the winners had Tiger-in-his-prime type of prices, none reached double-digits, either, with Rahm’s 8/1 payday being the biggest of the entire campaign.


2016-17

  • Wagered: 47 units
  • Won: 37.25 units
  • Final balance: -9.75 units

Winners

  • Dustin Johnson, Genesis Open (+750, co-favorite)
  • Dustin Johnson, WGC-Mexico Championship (+650)
  • Jordan Spieth, Travelers Championship (+900)
  • Jordan Spieth, Open Championship (+1200, co-favorite)
  • Henrik Stenson, Wyndham Championship (+1200)

Even though I mentioned the methodology above, with two co-faves winning events here, this feels like a good time to explain how/why I sliced up the profits if the winner shared top billing.

It’s simple, really: In this model, if we’re betting one unit on each tourney favorite, we can’t just up that bet to 2 or 3 units when there are multiple favorites, so the easy answer is to split that wager. As far as favorite-betting goes, this campaign wasn’t a terrible one, with five winners and just a single-digit unit loss overall.

Henrik Stenson cashed as a favorite at the 2017 Wyndham Championship. Brad Penner, USA TODAY Sports.

2015-16

  • Wagered: 46 units
  • Won: 10 units
  • Final balance: -36 units

Winners

  • Jordan Spieth, Hyundai Tournament of Champions (+400)
  • Jordan Spieth, Dean & DeLuca Invitational (+600)

Yikes. Bloodbath time for the chalk-eaters. In 46 events, Spieth was the only player who won from the lowest price.


2014-15

Wagered: 47 units
Won: 39.67
Final balance: -7.33 units

Winners

  • Jordan Spieth, Valspar Championship (+1200, co-favorite)
  • Rory McIlroy, Wells Fargo Championship (+300)
  • Bubba Watson, Travelers Championship (+1200, co-favorite)
  • Jordan Spieth, John Deere Classic (+350)
  • Scott Piercy, Barbasol Championship (+2000, three-way co-favorite)
  • Jason Day, RBC Canadian Open (+800)
  • Jason Day, BMW Championship (+650)

Now this looks more like it.

Still a losing a season betting the favorites, but at least we would’ve given it a puncher’s chance. Three co-faves split the profits, which hurt the overall title, though Piercy cashing in an alternate event feels like a bonus.

Perhaps the biggest takeaway here is that five different players won from the pole position.


2013-14

Wagered: 45 units
Won: 23.5 units
Final balance: -21.5 units

Winners

  • Matt Kuchar, RBC Heritage (+1500, co-favorite)
  • Justin Rose, Quicken Loans National (+1200, three-way co-favorite)
  • Rory McIlroy, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (+700)
  • Rory McIlroy, PGA Championship (+500)

A late-summer surge by McIlroy helped save face, but it was still nearly a 50 percent net loss this season.


2013

  • Wagered: 40 units
  • Won: 46.1 units
  • Final balance: +6.1 units

Winners

  • Dustin Johnson, Hyundai Tournament of Champions (+1000, three-way co-favorite)
  • Tiger Woods, Farmers Insurance Open (+700)
  • Tiger Woods, WGC-Cadillac Championship (+900)
  • Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer Invitational (+275)
  • Tiger Woods, Players Championship (+800)
  • Brandt Snedeker, RBC Canadian Open (+1200)
  • Tiger Woods, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (+400)

And there it is: We actually turned a profit. Had to go back more than a half-decade, but we finally found a season where betting all the favorites earned some money.

It should come as no coincidence that this was also the last season in which Woods dominated. His five victories all came as the tournament favorite this season. Maybe the most eye-popping number here is how he went from 9/1 against an admittedly strong field at Doral to less than 3/1 just two weeks later at Bay Hill.

USA Today Sports. Pictured: Tiger Woods

2012

  • Wagered: 45 units
  • Won: 62.3 units
  • Final balance: +17.3 units

Winners

  • Steve Stricker, Hyundai Tournament of Champions (+800, co-favorite)
  • Rory McIlroy, Honda Classic (+800)
  • Luke Donald, Transitions Championship (+1000)
  • Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer Invitational (+800)
  • Zach Johnson, Crowne Plaza Invitational (+1500, four-way co-favorite)
  • Tiger Woods, AT&T National (+550)
  • Rory McIlroy, Deutsche Bank Championship (+1000, co-favorite)
  • Rory McIlroy, BMW Championship (+600)
  • Ryan Moore, Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open (+1200)

Whoa. Let’s just refer to 2012 as The Year of the Chalk. Six different players combined for nine wins, helping turn a mighty profit. And yes, it wasn’t so long ago that Donald was one of these players, the lowest price in a full PGA Tour field when he was one of the world’s biggest talents.


2011

Wagered: 49 units
Won: 27 units
Final balance: -22 units

Winners

  • Nick Watney, AT&T National (+1200)
  • Steve Stricker, John Deere Classic (+700)
  • Luke Donald, Children’s Miracle Network Hospitals Classic (+800)

I mean, how many 19th hole trivia contest could you win with the question: Which three players won as PGA Tour event favorites in 2011? If some guy downing his third beer can name Watney, Stricker and Donald, just hand him your wallet.


2010

  • Wagered: 46 units
  • Won: 15 units
  • Final balance: -31 units

Winners

  • Lee Westwood, St. Jude Classic (+1200)
  • Steve Stricker, John Deere Classic (+1500, three-way co-favorite)

U-G-L-Y. Only two winners from the top spot all year – and one of ‘em had to share that price.


2009

  • Wagered: 45 units
  • Won: 30 units
  • Final balance: -15 units

Winners

  • Phil Mickelson, AT&T Pebble Beach Pro-Am (+1200)
  • Tiger Woods, Arnold Palmer Invitational (+250)
  • Zach Johnson, Valero Texas Open (+1200, co-favorite)
  • Tiger Woods, Memorial Tournament (+300)
  • Tiger Woods, AT&T National (+175)
  • Tiger Woods, Buick Open (+125)
  • Tiger Woods, WGC-Bridgestone Invitational (+150)
  • Tiger Woods, BMW Championship (+200)

Ah, now this is what life was like when Tiger ruled the world. Lots of wins from the favorites, but not a lot of money to be made. Woods’ biggest number this season was 3/1 and the lowest was at the weak-field Buick Open, where he was 5/4 – just over even-money against a full field of fellow professional golfers. Other fun tidbits from a decade ago: Dustin Johnson won Pebble Beach at 50/1 and Anthony Kim was a tournament favorite on multiple occasions.

Rory McIlroy is the favorite at the 2019 Masters, but faves haven’t been kind to golf bettors. Credit: Rob Schmacher, USA Today Sports

The Final Tally

If you’d bet every favorite on the PGA Tour for each of the previous 10 seasons, you would’ve swallowed a net loss of 141.68 units, while turning a profit during only two of these campaigns.

So yes, there are some years when favorites can help the cause, but on average it’s only one out of every five. This season is hardly an anomaly, as blind favorite-betting would’ve offered just a half-unit bet on McIlroy, leaving us in the red to date.

Does that mean Koepka can’t win at Pebble Beach as the favorite? Of course not.

What it does mean, though, is that if you’re banking on him, as the favorite, to help you turn a profit this week, recent history proves that’s a losing bet much more often than a winner.

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