Golf and gambling have always been comfortable bedfellows, both on and off the record.
Back in the day, it was even a somewhat covert feature of a major championship. Almost every year, Augusta National Golf Club founders Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts would barrack for Ben Hogan, who they invariably purchased in the pre-Masters auction known as a ‘Calcutta’. No proof exists, but one imagines there might have been more than a few pin positions on the right side of greens during final rounds around that time, all to cater for Hogan’s favoured fade.
More openly, first tees around the world have always been venues for negotiation as well as the traditional jitters. Those often lengthy debates over who-partners-who and, in turn, the number of strokes given and taken are always great revealers of character. The most disreputable among us wish to walk down the opening fairway knowing the game is all but over, such is their overwhelming arithmetical advantage. In contrast, the more ethical prefer to emerge with a state of affairs that will hopefully lead to a good, close match, one that ideally climaxes with the holing of a putt on the 18th green.
Whatever, at its best, the wagering of a few shekels has forever been little more than the source of good-natured banter amongst friends in 19th holes across the globe. For 99.9 percent of the golfing population small-time gambling is but a harmless diversion, nothing to be taken too seriously.
In the wider sense, however, wagering on professional sport has a sometimes murky past, especially when the players themselves are filling in the betting slips. Take baseball. Pete Rose, the man who holds the record for most hits in the major leagues, a never-to-be-beaten 4,256, is not enshrined at Cooperstown, venue for the game’s Hall of Fame. Not because he wasn’t a good enough player – such a claim would be ridiculous – but because Rose, when manager of the Cincinnati Reds, bet on games.
Tennis is another sport that has had to take action against players. Soccer too, the nadir coming when a player kicked the ball straight out from the kick-off in order to gain maximum benefit from a spread-bet laid on the time of the first throw-in. Snooker has also had its scandals, multiple players have been banned for “tanking” matches in order to cash-in on bets. So things can get ugly.
"Professional sport has a sometimes murky past, especially when the players themselves are filling in the betting slips."
To be fair though, effective policing of gambling is almost impossible. And golf is in no way immune. Whisper it, but wagers are already made regularly by those on the “inside” (caddies are a prime example) and often done so in real time with up-to-the-second information being used in markets where live betting is permitted.
“Yeah, it goes on and everyone knows it,” says one caddie. “It’s not that big of a secret. It’s also not a big issue or an epidemic. No one’s getting rich off it.”
Some would like to though, most notably the PGA Tour. A recent change in the law has cleared the way for states to legalise sports gambling in the United States. Not surprisingly, Commissioner Jay Monahan was quick to express public enthusiasm for the potential financial upsides. Indeed, he was almost giddy at the prospect, not least in the area of television viewership. It’s a straight line thing. Gambling fuels interest. So people are much more likely to switch on the previously boring golf if they have a rooting interest in a player or players. Monahan also cited the possibility of selling the tour’s Shotlink data to gambling companies as another source of income.
When it comes to the making of bets, the PGA Tour has openly considered the introduction of on-site betting booths at tournaments. Then there are betting apps on mobile phones. The possibilities are almost endless in this ever-changing technological landscape.
Okay, enough of the “upside.” Call me cynical, but doesn’t all of this open up the game that is supposedly rooted in qualities like trust, decency, honesty and integrity to inevitable suggestions of impropriety? How long is it going to take for us to wonder if the guy who choked down the stretch on Sunday afternoon did so because of nerves and the pressure of the occasion, or were there other, more sinister motives behind his collapse?
Spectators might also be tempted to influence events. Those inane post-impact yells that drive purists mad – “mashed potatoes” and “you da man” – become more disturbing if they are announced half-a-second earlier, just as club makes contact with ball. Do we really want players winning and losing because someone screamed out at just the wrong/right moment in order to collect on a bet? Surely not.