Now that the door to legal gambling on golf has been flung open, naysayers are flooding in, warning of all sorts of dire consequences if the game succumbs to what heretofore has been occurring in the shadows and exposes it to the light of day.
The Supreme Court this week overturned a New Jersey law banning gambling on sports (“Court ruling opens door to golf gambling,” May 15). Before the ruling, Nevada was the only place in the country where you could legally place a bet on a sporting event. New Jersey led the fight to make sports gambling legal because the state wanted sports books in its casinos. Now, it will be legal all over the country, and it will be up to each state to decide whether it wants to participate.
PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan has made it clear that he is in favor of gambling on golf. So much so that he wants in on the action, calling for a 1 percent “integrity fee” from all golf gambling proceeds to be paid to the Tour.
Critics say that golf will lose its integrity if wagers are allowed on tournaments and individual golfers. They say that it will corrupt what has been the most scandal-free sport in the world.
It’s a hard argument to make. If you’re worried about players taking a dive in a tournament, remember that 156 players tee it up in most Tour events, and it’s awfully difficult for one player to adversely affect the outcome. Besides, there is so much prize money to be had in PGA Tour events that you’d have a hard time getting a player to do business with a gambler.
Even in a match-play event, you'd have to bet enough money to pay the diver and make plenty of money for the bettor. If a bet that large were placed on a single match, it would be unusual enough to get the attention of the casino or gambling commission, and the legal sports book might not take the wager.
Some even say that U.S. fans, who have become increasingly rowdy, might cause a disruption at the wrong time if they have money riding on the outcome of the tournament. A boozy few at PGA Tour events have made the problem look larger than it really is, and gambling won’t worsen fan behavior.
Gambling on golf has been legal in the U.K. for years without apparent problems and without impugning the game’s integrity.
Let’s face it: Gambling has been a part of golf since the early days of the game. Dean Knuth, former USGA director of handicap services, wrote on his website, popeofslope.com:
“Thomas Kincaid, a medical student at the University of Edinburgh in the 1680s, kept a diary. In it, on January 21, 1687, he wrote the first known reference to handicapping, discussing options of betting. ‘At golf,’ he wrote, ‘whether it is better to give a man two holes of three, laying equal strokes, or to lay three strokes to his one and play equal for so much every hole.’
“Kincaid was comparing types of betting; was it better, he asked, to give a player a two-hole start every three holes and play with no strokes, or play even, paying three-to-one odds per hole?”
Knuth wrote that Allan Robertson, widely considered to be the first professional golfer, made part of his living playing money matches, even when he had to give strokes to his opponents.
Not much has changed since. In the lean early days of the PGA Tour, pros played for money among themselves during practice-round days. Doug Ford, the 1955 PGA Championship winner and 1957 Masters champion who died this week, often said that he made more money on Tuesdays than he did on Sundays, when the official prize money was given.
Early in his career, Raymond Floyd never shied away from big money matches, nor did Lee Trevino. In fact, part of the game’s lore has Floyd and Trevino locked up with each other for three days of matches in the days before Trevino tried to make his living on Tour.
Mythic figures such as Titanic Thompson and Mysterious Montague made plenty of money traveling the country and hustling unsuspecting pigeons. Today, Las Vegas gamblers play high-stakes golf matches during the day before they inhabit the casinos at night.
Even at the amateur level, gambling has been a big part of the landscape. Country club Calcuttas have been prevalent for years. When some clubs’ Calcutta auctions reached six figures, the USGA tried to ban the practice, threatening participants with loss of amateur status.
The USGA crackdown didn’t have much bite and hasn’t prevented many clubs from continuing Calcuttas, now often called “auctions” or “sweepstakes.”
The bottom line is that gambling is part of golf’s fabric and hasn’t ruined the game. Legal betting on Tour events won't make the sky start falling, not in the least.
Mike Purkey has written about golf for more than 30 years for a number of publications, including Golf Magazine and Global Golf Post. He lives in Charlotte, N.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @mikepurkeygolf