Sobel’s WGC-Mexico Preview: Should We Tail Winners or Runners-up? The Data May Surprise You


Gary A. Vazquez, USA Today Sports. Pictured: Justin Thomas

  • Dustin Johnson (+1100) and Justin Thomas (+1100) are co-favorites to win the WGC-Mexico Championship this weekend.
  • Thomas is coming off a second-place finish last weekend, is it a good idea to back golfers the week after finishing No. 2?
  • Jason Sobel breaks down the data and gives his preview for the WGC-Mexico Championship as well as thoughts on the Puerto Rico Open.

Not long after Justin Thomas blew a four-stroke advantage to finish runner-up at Riviera, I received a handful of tweets and text messages relaying some semblance of the following: “I love this, now I’m going to bet even bigger on him next week.”

Well, “next week” is already this week and this week is the WGC-Mexico Championship, where Thomas just happened to also finish runner-up in the second edition of the event last year.

That’s not the only reason I got those messages, though.

The not-so-subtle insinuation was that JT — and perhaps any other player — is more valuable as a pissed-off, motivated runner-up than a happy, relieved champion.

I’ve often heard this theory and I’ve even espoused it on occasion, though without any real proof to back it up.

But I wanted some proof.

So, I decided to crunch the numbers and analyze whether runner-up finishers really do fare better than winners in their very next tournament.

What I found surprised me – and put a nice dent into these theories.

So far this PGA Tour season, there have been a dozen champions who played an event afterward. (Justin Rose, Rickie Fowler and, obviously, J.B. Holmes have yet to make an official PGA Tour start since their wins.)

With missed cuts factored as an admittedly generous 80th-place result, the winners have finished an average of 16.9 in their next start. That includes three top-10s and just a single MC (by Adam Long). Overall, seven of these 12 starts have finished in the range from 14th to 28th place.

Using the same parameters, there are 18 runner-up finishers who have played a subsequent event. (The larger number is due to second-place ties.) The average result of these players is 51.9 – a full 35 spots further down the leaderboard.

Patrick Cantlay and Gary Woodland are the only runners-up to post a top-10 in their next start, while 11 have finished outside the top-50, including four who missed the cut.

Even though these numbers seemed definitive, I still didn’t feel like I could conclude whether they were more trend or coincidence.

I decided to crunch some more.

During the 2017-18 season, there were 47 winners of PGA Tour events. In their next official start, these players finished at an average of 28.3.

That includes one champion, Bryson DeChambeau, backing up his victory with another the next week, and four of them (Dustin Johnson, Jason Day, Justin Thomas and Francesco Molinari) following wins with runner-up results.

Again using the same parameters, there were 74 second-place finishers on the PGA Tour last season. Their average result was 37.9 – nearly 10 full spots on the leaderboard below those who had won their previous start.

They included more wins (Dustin Johnson, Francesco Molinari, Jon Rahm and Aaron Wise each pulled off this feat), but a much higher percentage of missed cuts, as 17 of the 74 failed to cash a check in their following tourney.

What should all of this tell us? Theories are nice, but statistics are inarguable.

Over the past two seasons, winners finish better in subsequent events than runners-up – and it’s really not even close.

None of this means we should avoid Thomas this week in Mexico – hey, I still like his chances – but it’s something to keep in mind before blindly picking the guy who endured a close call in the most recent event.

With that in mind, let’s get to the WGC-Mexico Championship, where last week’s champion won’t be in the field, but other big names should permeate the leaderboard, as we search for a few surprises to creep up there in the limited-field event, too.


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