Unlike exit polls or subjective approval ratings, some metrics of popularity are jarring, obvious and darned precise.
There’s the eyeball test, such as when fans were lined up 10 deep in spots as Tiger Woods played his way into weekend contention at the Valspar Championship earlier this month. As for the aural feedback, the roars at the Arnold Palmer Invitational one week later, as Woods moved to within a shot of the leadon Sunday, could be heard from a thousand yards away.
Then there are the network TV ratings, which in March have been through the roof compared with PGA Tour viewership in recent years when Woods was injured. Moreover, whenever the 14-time major champion plays of late, Twitter traffic devoted to Woods is back at top-10 trending levels, a clear reflection of fandom’s social-media fascination.
There are more tangible measures of his cultural comeback, too, which can be tracked in hard currency.
Eldrick the Absent, after several years of back surgeries, rehab stints and utterly forgettable play, is again atop the chart of favored sons in the global betting parlors. It’s as though the 13 years since his last Masters victory have been rubbed out by a stubby golf-pencil eraser.
As a fan barometer, money talks. Las Vegas is listening and reacting, sometimes daily, as it relates to Woods’ astonishing comeback.
Jeff Sherman, the longtime golf oddsmaker at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, watched in December as a stunningly nimble Woods played at the Hero World Challenge. Sherman was forced to make repeated calls to the casino office to tweak Woods’ odds at the Masters.
“He’s the only guy in golf who keeps me on my toes on my day off,” Sherman said from Las Vegas on Wednesday.
The reinvention of Woods and longtime foil Phil Mickelson, plus the stellar spring play of younger peers Justin Thomas, Rory McIlroy, Bubba Watson and several others, has caused the world sports books to glow like Glitter Gulch as Georgia week beckons.
“I’ve never felt more anticipation for a Masters than there has been for this one,” said Sherman, a 25-year veteran of the gaming industry.
As usual, Woods leads the way in dollar signs. Sherman actually was slashing the former world No. 1’s odds to win at Augusta during live rounds in the Bahamas, because the casino immediately began receiving Masters bets at 50-1, where Woods’ betting line began the week.
“That’s the thing with Tiger. Any other golfer, it takes the whole tournament, or at least until the end of the round, to make an adjustment,” Sherman said. “With him, we’re making changes after five holes.”
During the Bahamas event, Sherman lowered the odds by half, to 25-1, then 16-1 and then 12-1. Somebody placed a $4,000 bet on Woods to win, and Sherman lowered them again. As always, Las Vegas is more financially exposed on Woods than any other player. In terms of the number of betting tickets issued, Woods’ name ranks first, followed by Mickelson, Rickie Fowler, Thomas and Watson.
Westgate’s overall handle – the total amount wagered – on the tournament already has set a record, “and there’s still a week to go,” Sherman said, laughing. For competitive reasons, he would not disclose the amount of the handle.
After his T-5 finish two weeks ago at Bay Hill, Woods was upgraded to the overall Masters favorite by Sherman. At the moment, Woods is a co-favorite with McIlroy, Johnson and Thomas, at 10-1.
Another comparative relic of a bygone era, Mickelson also is getting plenty of action, at 16-1. Familiarity means plenty in the betting camps, even though Woods is 42 years old and Mickelson is 47. Their combined seven green jackets generates green in another fashion.
“It’s just what these guys have done over the years, especially at the Masters, and people are on them even if they have other players in their portfolios,” Sherman said.
The action hasn’t merely spiked in Sin City, either. Pat Morrow, the head oddsmaker at offshore gaming site Bovada, reports a 30-percent increase in Masters action. Morrow said that Woods factors into 20.1 percent of the tickets written so far at Bovada, with Thomas a distant second at 6.5 percent.
“The play of the big guns definitely gets the hardcore golf fans excited, but no golfer is better at bringing casual fans in than Tiger,” Morrow said Wednesday. “He is almost 100 percent responsible for the increased wagering on the Masters thus far this year.”
Speaking of casual fans, there are some key points to note. The betting line is a reflection of the public’s gambling whims. Oddsmakers regularly adjust the line to ensure that they don’t take a bath on any player. John Reger, a staff writer at OnlineGambling.com, specializes in following sports action. Reger spent several years tracking the PGA Tour as the beat writer at the Orange County (Calif.) Register, and he covered Woods during his peak seasons.
“I love how people say, Vegas thinks Tiger’s going to win,” Reger said. “The reality is that the line is moved by what the people do. Vegas has to cover its bets. If he’s 14-1 and the line changes [drops], they don’t have to pay as much money if he wins.”
The interest in Woods is unlike any other player, and the “prop” bets associated with his performance are a perfect illustration. Proposition bets are separate side wagers typically unrelated to the final outcome, on topics such as whether Woods will make the cut, what he will shoot on a particular day or whether his first tee shot will land in the fairway.
Because of the record-shattering levels of interest, Sherman said he plans to offer approximately 100 prop bets for the Masters, with 10-15 related to the play of Woods.
That said, Reger is somewhat mystified by the wave of rekindled adoration for Woods, who hasn’t won a major in 10 years, or any title since 2013. Woods has four victories in 18 professional starts at Augusta, but he ranks 202nd in driving accuracy and 179th in greens in regulation on the PGA Tour this season.
“There is this delusion of grandeur with Tiger, like it’s still 2000, and it’s not,” Reger said. “He’s 42 years old. He’s had four back surgeries. So, if you are going to bet on him, you have to be smart about it.”
When it comes to players like Woods, fans often vote with their hearts, not their heads.
“People seem to bet Tiger because he’s made a lot of gamblers a lot of money,” Morrow said. “There used to be a time where [gamblers] would bet him regardless of the odds, and on Sundays, he would come out in a red shirt and make the oddsmakers cry.
“I think a lot of people bet Tiger because he has been good to them, and with his play slipping and the ability to get some higher odds, why not place a bet on him and hope to rekindle some of the magic of his glory days?”