The European Tour announced last month that Betfred is to become the new title sponsor of the British Masters. Not a moment too soon. The two-year deal is a welcome development for a tournament that in recent years has struggled for sponsorship.
But it also will extend what is now a centuries-old relationship between golf in the UK and the country’s burgeoning betting industry, which is as much a part of the game as the balls and clubs used to play it.
There is documentary evidence to show that betting has been around almost as long as the game itself.
One of the first mentions of golf betting in print came in October 1839 when the Fifeshire Journal reported on a match at St Andrews in which the great Allan Robertson “carried” (won) all the “inputs” (sweepstakes). That was such a regular occurrence that the same newspaper later described Robertson as “the real, legitimate and indisputable King of Clubs.”
Robertson is widely regarded as the first golf professional and he teamed up regularly with Old Tom Morris to win challenge matches which were played regularly at the time. The Montrose Standard recorded that in one such match played over Musselburgh, North Berwick and St Andrews against Tom and Willie Dunn, the pair won the colossal sum of £400 put up by a rich group of benefactors. Sizeable sums also were won and lost on a series of side bets.
In his book, Golf and Golfers, the Reverend Gordon McPherson recounts another occasion when several punters took advantage of a 3-to-1 bet offered when Robertson and a Mr Erskine Wemyss were 1 down with two holes to play in a match at St Andrews against Willie Park Sr and a Mr Hastie MP. It turned out to be a good bet for those who took it because Robertson and partner duly won on the last.
Betting on golf at that time was largely unregulated and conducted in the main by spectators at the matches, which were put together for no other purpose. It became more structured with the advent of official on-course bookmakers in the late 19th and early 20th centuries before booming first when off-course gambling was legalised in Britain in the 1960s and then again with the arrival of the internet and the online bookmakers. The latter has given it massive impetus.
Sports betting in Britain generates £14 billion a year according to figures released by the UK Gambling Commission. It is estimated that seven out of 10 bets are placed on football but golf is now third behind horse racing, which is one of the reasons why Betfred sees the British Masters as a good investment.
Betfred was founded by brothers Fred and Peter Done in a single shop in Ordsall, Salford, in 1967, but is now one of Britain’s largest bookmakers, sponsoring the World Snooker Championship, World Matchplay Darts, Rugby League’s Super League and Scottish League Cup.
“I have been looking at golf sponsorship for some time, so when the British Masters, with Tommy Fleetwood hosting in our native North West (of England), was put to me it seemed the perfect opportunity to get involved,” said Fred Done. “I’m absolutely delighted to see the Betfred brand alongside such a high-profile event in the sport of golf.”
Keith Pelley, the European Tour’s chief executive, warmly welcomed the new sponsors saying: “We are delighted to announce Betfred as the new title sponsor for the British Masters and we look forward to working together to capitalise on the success of the tournament since it came back on the schedule (in 2015, after a six-year hiatus).
“The British Masters has been one of our most popular events over the past four years, particularly in terms of reaching new audiences through our partnership with Sky Sports and the work of the four tournament hosts, Ian Poulter, Luke Donald, Lee Westwood and Justin Rose.
“We have another terrific host this year in Tommy Fleetwood, whose own popularity continues to grow, so to announce Betfred as title sponsor is another major boost for the tournament.”
That is a glowing endorsement of the tour’s latest sponsor but it would be remiss, also not to note that the tour and the other authorities display a certain ambivalence towards betting and understand that strict protocols must be in place lest the game is sullied like tennis, cricket and snooker by tales of inappropriate gambling and players “selling” games for financial benefit.
Robertson, Morris and other 19th-century players might have gambled heavily on the outcome of their challenge matches but that is outlawed under the rules of the European Tour’s Golf Integrity Policy.
The tour’s policy forbids its members and “related personnel,” including their management team, caddies, coaches, back room staff, spouses and partners, from betting or instructing someone else to bet on “any professional or elite amateur golf tournament anywhere in the world.”
In addition, a “covered person” cannot “solicit or facilitate any other person to bet on the outcome” of a professional or elite amateur event or “have any financial interest, either direct or indirect in the performance or winnings of any other player whether through purse splitting, prize money ‘insurance,’ financial assistance, bets or otherwise.”
That set of rules also covers the Open but the R&A’s chief executive, Martin Slumbers, remains wary of the potential problems illegal betting can cause, as he indicated a couple of years ago when the subject was raised at the organisation’s annual media get-together in St Andrews.
“We have not been made aware of any evidence of the type of issues currently being discussed (in other sports) but that doesn’t mean we’re complacent about it,” he said. “Anything where you have inappropriate betting actually undermines that sport, so it’s something we are keeping our eye on very closely and we’re looking at the implications.
“I think there is danger in all sport of inappropriate betting, whether it be by players or members of the public,” he added. “I’d hate to see crowds getting overly involved in their enthusiasm for a particular player, or hole, or shot, based on their betting position.”
Betting is good for professional golf because it heightens interest among fans, but less positive also because it links the sport by association with the social problems it sometimes causes.
The UK Gambling Commission estimates the number of problem gamblers has risen to 430,000 across the country and there are worrying signs that more people aged 11 to 16 are involved than ever before. Statistics published by the commission last November indicated that 14 percent of children within that age group gamble on a weekly basis. That is compared to 13 percent who drank alcohol, 4 percent who smoked cigarettes and 2 percent who had taken illegal drugs.
Earlier this year the Committees of Advertising Practice, the body that writes and maintains the UK’s advertising codes, attempted to mitigate these problems and protect vulnerable gamblers by introducing a set of stricter rules governing what advertisers can and cannot do while advertising “in play.” They come into effect on April 2.
The new rules will restrict adverts that create what CAP deem to convey an “inappropriate sense of urgency.” They state that ads must not play on an individual’s susceptibilities (financial concerns, self-esteem) or contain anything that might exploit vulnerable groups such as those with problem gambling issues. The crackdown also includes the “trivialisation of gambling,” such as encouraging repetitive play, and ending undue emphasis on giving punters “money motives” for gambling.
“We won’t tolerate gambling ads that exploit people’s vulnerabilities or play fast and loose with eye-catching free bets and bonus offers,” said Shahriar Coupal, director of the Committees of Advertising Practice.
“Our new guidance takes account of the best available evidence to strengthen the protections already in place, ensuring gambling is presented responsibly, minimising the potential for harm,” he added.
It remains to be seen how effective the new code is when it comes to protecting Britain’s problem gamblers, but it will not stop many of the rest from having the odd punt on the majors, and some of the other top tournaments, just as we have always done.
In the meantime, British golf also will continue to have its own slightly uneasy relationship with the betting industry. Welcoming, but wary at the same time.
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