News & Opinion

Golf, gambling and inanity: Bet on it

Tiger Woods knew he needed to birdie the British Open’s 72nd hole as he stood on Carnoustie’s 18th tee in Sunday’s final round to have any hope of winning. And he knew Francesco Molinari needed to make a bogey.

A good tee shot could leave Woods with nothing more than some kind of wedge for an approach and a good birdie opportunity.  Then, in mid-swing, just as Woods was starting his forward motion, a spectator loudly yelled some kind of inanity (video). Woods’ hand came off the club’s shaft on his follow-through, and he immediately turned toward the gallery behind him and angrily exclaimed, “No! What are you doing?”

It has happened before, more often to Woods than anyone else because he draws the biggest galleries in golf. He’s Tiger Woods.

It’s not fair, but it happens. In this case, those around the offender lavished him with boos and catcalls for his misbehavior.

Luckily, the tee shot got a favorable kick near the edge of the fairway and Woods was, indeed, left with a wedge shot from a decent lie. He didn’t get a birdie, but it wasn’t because of spectator interference. 

Later, Woods surmised that the fan was a fame-seeker, someone who wanted to be heard on worldwide TV and simply timed it wrong, or someone who’d “tipped a few back” with adult beverages.

That’s probably what happened.

But what if it wasn’t?

What if that spectator’s ill-advised shout was an intentional effort to distract Woods into hitting a poor shot? What if it was on purpose, to gain a betting edge? 

This is the great danger that hasn’t been talked about in the wake of the PGA Tour being “intrigued,” in commissioner Jay Monahan’s words, about daily fantasy and gaming. 

Golf isn’t like other pro sports. You can scream at Aaron Judge as loud as you can at a New York Yankees baseball game, but he’s not going to strike out because of you. You can holler obscenities at Rob Gronkowski at a New England Patriots game, but he’s not going to drop a touchdown pass from Tom Brady because of some pitiful noise made by you. Stadium noise drowns out individual voices.

Golf is one of the few sports (tennis is another, maybe) in which quiet is part of the game, and because of that, a fan potentially can affect the outcome.

At the 1978 Masters, Hubert Green stepped away from a short putt on the 18th green that would force a playoff because a noise distracted him. It was radio announcer Jim Kelly (later the voice of ESPN’s senior golf telecasts) talking a little too loudly in the tower that was located too close to the green.

Green gathered himself, went through his routine again … and missed the putt. Did the distraction change the outcome of a Masters? We’ll never know. Whether it is ignorant fans with their cell phones or occasional pro photographers who jump the gun with their motor-drive cameras, noise interference is a problem in golf. 

Legalized golf gambling could open a new can of worms, as in the kind of gamblers who will go the extra mile to ensure their bet’s success. Sure, gambling on golf has been going on legally in the United Kingdom for decades and there haven’t been any notable reported incidents of attempted golf influencing, have there? Or don’t we really know?

A BBC investigation led to charges of illegal betting and match-fixing on the pro tennis circuit, allegedly reaching to some top players and to Wimbledon. Even if it’s not true, the mere scent of impropriety is a black eye for the sport.

Golf doesn’t need that. Plus, I don’t see professional golfers taking paid dives at tournaments, not with $10 million purses and the ridiculous sums and endorsements at stake. I trust the players.

But the gamblers? I’d keep one hand on my wallet around them at all times. Gamblers have no loyalty except to their own money. When I lived in Milford, Conn., in the early ’90s, my house was about a mile from a popular jai alai fronton. I went there only a few times because I didn’t know the game or the players well enough to do anything except lose money betting. But I got a clear picture of bettors in action.

I still recall one heavyset man standing near the court during a match, urging on his pro, a big man named Fo. He yelled, “C’mon, Fo! C’mon, Fo! Attaboy, Fo!”

Fo won the point. His defeated opponent left the court and was replaced by the next challenger. Due to the step-ladder format of jai alai, it then obviously became better for the gambler if Fo would lose to this next man up. Each time Fo prepared to catch the ball with his cesta in that match, the fat man screamed, “Drop it, Fo! Drop it, Fo!” Classy stuff.

Gamblers root for their money. That’s their only loyalty, and understandably so. Scruples? What’s that, some sort of Russian money? Forget it. 

Can we count on American golf bettors to follow some code of conduct, especially if golf wagering or fantasy golf gets as big as some predict? 

I suppose it’s a moot point. In an age of Internet betting and offshore accounts and FanDuel.com, golf bets are already being won and lost.

Wagering on golf is a sucker bet. One swing tweak on the range Wednesday night or Thursday morning can turn a slumping golfer into a contender. There is no way to reliably predict golf winners over time.

If we don’t consider the possibility that some big bettor will try to improve his odds by shouting “Mashed potatoes!” to rattle a player’s backswing at a key moment late in a tournament, though, then we’re the real suckers. 

Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: gvansick@aol.com; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle