The relationship between golf and gambling is almost symbiotic, the games between friends or rivals underpinning the game itself, so much so that the language is part of golf’s dictionary – Nassau, press, two-down automatics.
Golf and gambling exist independently but they have come together over the years, laws be damned. Member-guest tournaments might cease to exist if wagering went away. Just last fall, Phil Mickelson and Tiger Woods played a match with a $9 million prize plus six-figure side bets.
Attend a PGA Tour event and, particularly on weekend afternoons when the beers have been flowing, it’s not hard to eavesdrop on buddies betting a few bucks on a closest to the hole contest with each group that comes through a par-3.
It’s not exactly a forbidden dance that golf and gambling have done through years.
Soon, though, it will become a marriage of sorts, wagering on professional golf having been sanctified by a Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down a federal law prohibiting legalized sports gambling. Each state can now pass its own legislation to allow sports gambling and a handful have already begun the process with many more expected to follow.
Within five years, legalized sports betting is expected to be a familiar piece of the national landscape and the PGA Tour will be a part of it.
“It will be good to get casual fans involved that like to gamble on sports to make a bet and maybe get more into it that way. I’m for anything that gets more eyeballs and more people to be engaged with the game of golf.”
Perhaps more to the point, the PGA Tour wants to be part of it.
“We’ve had people betting on PGA Tour competitions that have been on our property and at our tournaments for a long period of time. It’s legal in certain markets, it’s illegal in others,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said.
“People still bet. They find a way. As we got into it and really studied it and looked at fan behavior at our tournaments and what people are doing, it’s very clear that some people are here for that purpose. They have been for a long period of time.”
It’s an issue and an opportunity dotted with questions:
- Why now?
- What will it look like?
- How will the PGA Tour be involved?
- When will it start?
- Is there a danger to the sport?
Ultimately, it is about fan engagement and money, two driving forces not just on the PGA Tour but throughout organized sports. The more people who are engaged, the more money that will flow into the sport. Fans who might not otherwise pay much attention to the Valero Texas Open will suddenly have more interest if they have a wager riding on the outcome.
“From where I’m from it’s a part of life. You can walk down to your local village and there’s usually a betting shop there and you can bet on horses or football or golf or whatever,” said Rory McIlroy, a native of Northern Ireland.
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“It’s an added interest in terms of fan engagement and obviously that’s a big term used by the PGA Tour and giving fans of golf a better experience. So I think it will be somewhat good for the game. It will be good to get casual fans involved that like to gamble on sports to make a bet and maybe get more into it that way. I’m for anything that gets more eyeballs and more people to be engaged with the game of golf.”
Actively embracing legalized sports betting is not an idea that suddenly struck the PGA Tour. The organization has been doing its due diligence for several years, preparing for what the Supreme Court decision opened.
Tour officials tracked an increase in wagering on golf in international markets where it’s legal, aware of the rumblings in the United States that the prohibition on sports betting might be lifted.
Experts believe approximately $150 billion is wagered on sports annually in the United States but only 3 percent of those bets are made legally in Las Vegas. The rest are made through offshore betting shops or with bookies. Of that estimated $150 billion wagered, approximately 2 percent – $3 billion – is bet on golf.
Monahan said making money off legalized sports betting is not the main reason the PGA Tour is invested in what will be a new world order. The hope is to get one-quarter of 1 percent of the money wagered on the PGA Tour. That’s approximately $7.5 million annually if the estimates of what’s being bet are accurate.
The PGA Tour partnered with the NBA and Major League Baseball and since last March has been part of a coalition with those leagues working with state legislatures to make sure the interests of pro sports leagues are considered in any new betting legislation.
Currently, seven states have some form of legalized sports betting and another 20 are expected to consider legislation this year, according to Andy Levinson, senior vice president of tournament administration for the PGA Tour. If it’s not happening in the state where you live, within four or five years it’s almost certain legalized sports betting will be within driving distance for most Americans.
“It’s something that’s happening. It’s happening fast. It’s something that Americans seem to want being reflected in the state legislatures,” Levinson said.
“But what we’ve also seen is a general shift in the perception over the last decade but even more so over the past few years. There isn’t that negative stigma attached to sports betting any more. It’s been a legal, regulated activity in international markets for decades and there are a lot of benefits to that.
“When it’s not legal, it’s still taking place. It’s taking place in the dark. It’s in black markets, offshore betting. That’s happening to a significant degree right now in the United States. So by legalizing it and regulating it we’re actually going to be in a better position to protect the integrity of our competition because we’re going to have visibility into the type of activity that’s taking place. We’ll be able to monitor it much more closely than we can now.”
Monahan said the tour would prefer federal guidelines for sports betting in the United States.
“We think the best result for the consumer is if it’s federally regulated. There’s one place to look and we’re all bound by it. That has a long way to go but if you read that proposed bill, you get a sense of how everybody benefits from federal regulation versus continuing to adapt,” Monahan said.
Approximately two years ago, the PGA Tour unveiled its Integrity Program, a detailed policy that spells out to players, caddies, player families, PGA Tour staff, player managers and tournament volunteers what they can and can’t do when it comes to legalized gaming. It also offers guidance on what to be aware of regarding negative influences.
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The short version is the tour’s constituency – even if it’s a tournament marshal holding a “Quiet Please” stand at a tournament – will not be allowed to wager on golf.
The tour understands that the integrity of the competition must be protected at all costs and it is working with various agencies and other leagues to make sure that is its top priority.
“The utmost concern is the integrity of our sport and our game and our Tour,” said Kevin Streelman, a member of the PGA Tour Player Advisory Council, which helps set tour policy.
“We’re trying to stay ahead of it as much as possible which is why we developed the Integrity Program. I think it will be a small, step by step process where we take things as they come and tread lightly.”
Levinson said layers of oversight will be employed when the tour is fully invested in legal sports betting.
“This is an industry that for as long as the PGA Tour has been around has been generating profits on the back of the PGA Tour and its product and its brand without a lot of oversight, without really any relationship with the organization. As this activity becomes more widespread, it does put more risk on the PGA Tour, more on the players,” Levinson said.
“But it’s also something we’ve done prudently and we have taken the steps over the last few years to make sure we had all of our ducks in a row before we really started to jump in and engage in this type of activity. We feel like we’re taking the right steps to mitigate a lot of this.”
When the pieces fully come together, what will betting on PGA Tour golf look like?
It can be as simple as trying to pick the winner of each week’s tournament or as complex as wagering on each shot a player hits. It can be as simple or as complex as a bettor chooses to make it.
Recently, the tour announced a partnership with IMG that will allow for the distribution of ShotLink data for the purposes of sports betting. The focus is on international markets where betting is already legal but it will quickly move to the U.S.
The information will not be available before 2020 but it will allow bettors to get more detailed with their wagers.
“What that’s going to do is give fans the ability to not only bet on the winner and the low score of the day but you’re going to be able to bet much more granularly,” Levinson said.
“You’re going to be able to bet shot by shot. You’re going to have a situation where fans are going to be locked in and engaged throughout the competition. It’s going to be a fun way to bet.
“Our sport is unique in that we have 72 balls in the air at any given moment as opposed to one. For people who like to engage in sports betting and may not be interested in the PGA Tour golf, this is going to be a really fun sport to get engaged with.”
Fan engagement is a mantra within the PGA Tour. Whether it’s the increased social media activity, live streaming of featured groups before television coverage or any number of other initiatives, the tour is intent on expanding its already large footprint.
“We think gaming leads to more engagement,” Monahan said. “We’re talking to betting operators, we’re talking to daily fantasy operators.
“For us, we see that as diversifying your fan base and keeping your fan base for a long period of time.”
It’s possible now to go to a sports book in Las Vegas or a handful of other places in the U.S. and put down money on the outcome of a tournament. Jump into offshore or online betting and the options increase exponentially. Most wagering, Levinson said, is done online.
In the relatively near future, the tour expects fans will be able to make wagers while they are attending tournaments, using their mobile phones. Rather than having a betting kiosk or tent at each event, the practicality of fans using their phones figures to increase potential activity.
“We won’t really have the need to create some sort of betting window or engage in that type of activity at all,” Levinson said.
There is, of course, a dark side to gambling. It can become a destructive addiction for some people and all the safeguards in the world can’t assure a pristine competition.
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When Jason Day withdrew in the first round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational with a back injury, it raised questions among gamblers about why they weren’t aware of Day’s tender condition before the tournament began. That’s new to golf.
If a player misses a string of short putts coming down the stretch, will it be seen in a different light when the event is open to gamblers across the country?
“It became a problem in cricket, how they started fixing games,” Ernie Els said. “They would pay a guy to throw what you call a wild pitch in baseball at a certain time. The guy would do that and get a bit of money for it.”
Els pointed to himself as a potential red flag, citing his six-putt on the first green in the 2016 Masters.
“If they watched me on the Masters, they would have thought I was. … This guy here, he’s getting paid,” Els said with a rueful grin.
“I would say we still play by the honor of the game. I still feel guys give their best.”
On the surface, it seems the tour’s venture into the world of legalized sports betting is a sure thing. Beneath the surface, the tour and its partners are intent on making sure they have protected the integrity of the competition.
It’s coming and while it may not change the game itself, it will change the way many watch it.
“You see what it does for the NFL, for MLB. I think that’s going to be really fun. I think 99 percent of it is going to be terrific,” Streelman said.
“It’s inevitable it’s going to become legalized. That’s coming. Let’s stay ahead of it, have the best partners we can in it and be proactive.”
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