The curious statistical case of Dustin Johnson’s rise to dominance

Dustin Johnson continued his incredible rise within the game with his victory in the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play Championship – his third consecutive win, and firmly cemented himself at the top of the official World Golf Rankings.

The 32-year-old South Carolina native has been far and away the hottest player on tour this season, and looking at his game, it is hard to imagine anyone even challenging him, if he is on peak form.

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How has DJ managed to make the jump from a highly talented bomber with no killer instinct, to one of the best players in the game, with the remarkable ability to close out big tournaments?

Many fans and pundits alike have cited Johnson’s improvement from inside 100 yards as something that has enabled him to reach his new-found level of excellence. It wasn’t too long ago that DJ had a 12-foot putt for his first major win, then four feet for a tie and missed both putts. That U.S. Open choke made winning it last year that much sweeter, especially for a guy who was known for not being able to finish.

The stats, however, fail to support that notions. Over the last five seasons on the PGA Tour, here are Johnson’s average proximity to the hole stats from 75-100 years (All statistics supplied by the PGA Tour):

  • 2013 – 17′ 8 ”
  • 2014 – 16′ 0”
  • 2015 – 19′ 0”
  • 2016 – 16′ 6”
  • 2017 – 17′ 11′

There is clearly not much difference there. So how about putting? Surely DJ has improved in that department, right? Nope.

Here are his average putts-per-round stats from the last five years:

  • 2013 – 29.40
  • 2014 – 28.74
  • 2015 – 28.47
  • 2016 – 28.49
  • 2017 – 29.55

Quite remarkable. Now, obviously putting statistics can be extremely misleading, and have a huge bearing on how many greens a player hits. But for someone who is totally dominating the game right now to be averaging over a shot more per round on the greens than he was two years ago really is hard to believe.

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So where has the 6′ 4” in superstar actually improved? His iron play has been stellar all year round, and his greens in regulation percentage statistics highlight the improvement he has made over the past half decade:

  • 2013 – 66.75
  • 2014 – 68.03
  • 2015 – 67.05
  • 2016 – 67.82
  • 2017 – 75.25

The improvement is quite remarkable. He is hitting an extra 6 greens in regulation per tournament than he was five years ago. Those kind of numbers can be hugely significant in a game that deals in such fine margins.

Then there are the scrambling percentage stats:

  • 2013 – 53.22
  • 2014 – 59.76
  • 2015 – 57.85
  • 2016 – 59.58
  • 2017 – 65.31

Again, a huge percentage rise on previous years. Statistics, as every sports fan knows, can be deceiving to say the least. And that viewpoint is supported by the fact that Johnson has regressed in as many statistical categories as he has progressed.

The area where the world number one has arguably improved the most is the six inch area between his ears. He is far more of a serene character now, and seems happy both on and off the golf course. He has family support like he never had before, with a whole team of Gretzky’s in his corner including his wife Paulina, a charming son, Tatum, and a new baby on the way.

Whilst stats are nice, and fairly useful to gain more of an understanding of a player’s performance in general, they do not always tell the whole story. In a world where technology rules, Dustin Johnson has gone against the grain, by proving that a healthy mind can be more important than a healthy stats sheet.

And that is a comforting thought.

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