Sobel: Examining Dustin Johnson’s Performances as the Betting Favorite at Major Championships

Credit:

Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images. Pictured: Dustin Johnson

Sep 14, 2020, 11:50 PM EDT

Dustin Johnson enters this week’s U.S. Open on a serious heater.

After squandering the 54-hole lead at last month’s PGA Championship, eventually finishing in a share of second place, he dominated the FedEx Cup playoffs, posting a pair of victories and another runner-up in a three-week stretch.

Not coincidentally, he’s now the favorite (+650) at Winged Foot GC – a position which feels perfectly acceptable and a price which feels presumably fair, yet also a bit circumspect, considering his history at major championships.

Any golf afficionado knows that DJ owns just one career major title, the 2016 U.S. Open at Oakmont, despite seemingly an entire career of close calls, like that recent PGA.

What many might not realize, though, is that next week will mark the eighth time he’s served as pre-tournament favorite (or co-favorite) at a major in the past four years.

That’s not exactly Tiger Woods in his prime-level steam, but the public confidence on Johnson has still reached impressive levels during a period when his frenemy Brooks Koepka has captured so many of these majors and Rory McIlroy has continued to chase after ‘em.

If there’s anyone who seems impervious to the pressures of competing with a target on his back as the field favorite, it would be Johnson, who might never have known he was ever in that position in the first place.

And yet, if we take a look at his major championship results as a favorite, we’ll find that he hasn’t just failed to live up to the hype, he’s usually fallen dreadfully below expectations.

Tournament Odds Result
2017 Masters +700 WD
2017 US Open +700 MC
2017 Open Championship +1200 T54
2018 US Open +900 3rd
2018 Open Championship +1200 MC
2018 PGA Championship +800 T27
2019 US Open +700 T35

On these previous seven occasions, Johnson owns a solo third-place finish at Shinnecock, but no other results inside the top-25. That includes a pair of missed cuts and his infamous slip-and-fall prior to the 2017 Masters, which led to a last-minute withdrawal.

Is there a connection?

Is there some correlation to Johnson’s position on the odds board prior to each of these tournaments and his position on the leaderboard afterward?

If there is, he certainly isn’t letting on.

Prior to the first time he was a major favorite, before that stairs-slip in Augusta three years ago, he was asked: “Is there something about this course, about the pressure of being the leader, the favorite, that can get to people?”

Employing his patented DJ philosophy, he replied simply, “I don’t know. It’s the first time I’ve ever been the favorite.”

In interviews since then, he’s never voiced any concern over being a favorite, no celebration or trepidation or any other impassioned response toward owning the lowest odds.

And yet, when we examine his results at major championships when he isn’t the favorite, they tell a different story. For equal comparison’s sake, let’s take a look at his last seven major starts when he was starting from a bit further down the board.

Tournament Odds Result
2016 PGA Championship +800 MC
2017 PGA Championship +1200 T13
2018 Masters +1200 T10
2019 Masters +1000 T2
2019 PGA Championship +900 2
2019 Open Championship +1200 T51
2020 PGA Championship +2000 T2

Now, first things first: Even though he wasn’t the pre-tourney favorite for any of these events, it’s not as if he owned long odds and was a forgotten man. At each point, he was among the shortest prices in the field.

Still, it is impossible to ignore the disparity between his results when he’s favored at majors versus when he isn’t.

His last seven from this group include a trio of runner-up results, five total finishes of 13th-or-better and only one missed cut.

If we extend this examination two tournaments further back, it would also include a T-9 at the 2016 Open Championship and that lone major victory at the U.S. Open, when he was 12/1 prior to the first round, the fourth player on the board behind Jason Day, Jordan Spieth and Rory McIlroy.

None of this should suggest that Johnson can’t – or even won’t – win the impending U.S. Open, just because he’s listed as the favorite. The takeaway from this analysis is better used as historical perspective rather than future predictor.

What it does tell us, though, is that just because DJ is riding a heater, just because he rightfully owns the lowest price in this week’s field and just because his game should be tailor-made for a venue like Winged Foot, none of that means he’s a lock to win his second major title. Maybe that sounds obvious, but the numbers help provide an important little reminder.

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