News & Opinion

Vegas, gambling and golf? It’s not a lock

The PGA Tour makes its annual stop this week in Las Vegas as the game rolls the dice for a cozier relationship with gambling

First things first: I am not a gambler. For all the vices to which I can claim a certain amount of experience over the years, betting is one of the few stones left unturned. Because I’m a golf writer, however, I have a somewhat keen interest in the growing legalization of sports-related wagering and its impact on professional golf.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in May 2018 that allowed sportsbooks to operate across the country, 13 states have approved legislation on the matter. If conventional wisdom tells us the other 37 eventually will follow suit, such a presumption isn’t quite the Patriots-over-Dolphins lock many thought it to be 12 months ago. According to the Associated Press, 18 states rejected sports-betting bills for 2019. California, Texas and Florida, the three most populous states, remain opposed to legalization.

2012 The Justin Timberlake Shriners Hospitals for Children Open-Final Round
The annual PGA Tour stop in Las Vegas plays to sparse crowds, but more sports fans might take a chance on golf as gambling spreads.

Is this reluctance a simple case of wait-and-see, or a more serious conflict involving moral sensibilities vs. fiscal ramifications? Time will tell, of course, but as the PGA Tour heads to Sin City for its annual stop in Las Vegas this week, it’s worth assessing the here and now regarding golf’s position in the gaming marketplace.

It’s probably not as cozy as the principals would like you to think, but invariably, it should provide a solid source of income for facilitators that align themselves properly.

One thing is obvious: almost everyone in the industry has his hand out, which is why it’s so easy to find articles and websites projecting pro golf and gambling as perfect bedfellows. The ceiling is very high, they insist, the demographics appealing and the wagering options seemingly endless, with the term “fan engagement” emerging as a synonym for yet another resource of the game’s growth.

If that were the case, why has the Las Vegas tournament long been one of the least noticeable and most lightly attended gatherings on the PGA Tour schedule? For two decades, it struggled to generate interest on a civic and national level despite being held in the only state in which gambling was legal. If golf represents such a potential gambling boom, shouldn’t the Vegas galleries have been bigger, the fields stronger, the gaming presence at least a tiny part of the storyline?

“There’s a whole industry out there that has been thriving forever, and the Tour hasn’t made a dime off it,” a well-placed source told me. Neither did the NFL, but pro football’s reign as America’s most popular sport – and the gazillions of dollars that it made off that standing – can be traced directly to its betting-friendly nature. Pro golf, meanwhile, refused to acknowledge this underground entity until the Supreme Court decision, making it “very late to the party,” in the words of a knowledgeable observer.

Just last month, the Tour agreed to license its data-collection system (ShotLink) to IMG Arena, ostensibly to provide real-time information for prospective wagerers. It’s a can’t-fail sale for Camp Ponte Vedra, but it’s also fair to wonder how relevant ShotLink will become in boosting golf’s gaming identity. There obviously is a sector of gamblers who bet on golf before states began legalizing it. Those transactions were placed through covert or online sources, with most bookies charging a “juice” (the actual price of a wager) of 10 percent. That cost certainly will increase under the guidelines of state-by-state regulation. Why would any veteran bettor ditch his longstanding method and pay perhaps twice that fee to the state?
It doesn’t make sense. People who gamble for a living, or even the millions who partake for reasons involving adrenalin or the competitive rush, are far more likely to recognize the deterrents of legalization. They’ll stick with what they know, with whom they’ve done business for years, which leaves the state-operated agencies to lure new customers under the premise that it’s no longer against the law.

Hmmm. I read somewhere that golfers make perfect clients because they routinely play for money in their weekend foursomes and member/guest outings. Talk about false economy. I’m among those who won’t leave the first tee until we’ve agreed on the size of the Nassau and the reward for birdies, which, according to the first paragraph of this story, that makes me a bald-faced hypocrite. I also know guys who put down 20 bets every year at the Masters but won’t play for 10 cents at the local muni.

I just don’t see the correlation. You’d have to be a fool to think legalized gambling won’t lead to immense cash flow among leagues such as the NFL or NBA, but pro golf represents a harder sell. It’s a niche sport with a largely endemic fan base, many of whom know that all the random variables on any given week make picking winners very difficult. And in many cases, it’s not worth the commensurate payoff, given some unfriendly odds for the consumer.

Besides, if 30,000 show up at TPC Sawgrass for the third round of the Players Championship, 20,000 couldn’t care less about the actual tournament. It’s a party at which the featured entertainment is a bunch of tour pros instead of a musical act. On that note, there are a million things to do in Las Vegas other than attending the golf tournament, which is why this week’s Shriners Hospitals for Children Open will be next to invisible.

It wasn’t always that way. When the old Panasonic Las Vegas Pro Celebrity Classic debuted in 1983, it featured the game’s largest purse ($750,000), then became the first to offer more than $1 million the next year. Fuzzy Zoeller, Curtis Strange and Greg Norman were among its early champions. It was during this period when a tournament director approached Deane Beman and vigorously lobbied the commish to strike up a relationship with the local bookmakers.

The idea was to post some betting lines and promote the event from a gaming standpoint, a process that might have started with the casinos and perhaps led to wagering areas at each of the three host courses. It was a concept that never materialized, an opportunity lost. In 2014, DraftKings, a fantasy-sports content provider, approached Camp Ponte Vedra to inquire about becoming an official partner of the PGA Tour, a deal that would have provided both parties with leverage and insight regarding a landscape on which change was imminent.

Tim Finchem, Beman’s successor, turned down the pitch due to concerns over competitive integrity and consumer confidence. Five years later, the Tour has struck a deal with DraftKings and can’t open its ticket window fast enough. Perfect bedfellows? Let’s see if anyone wakes up on the wrong side of the bed.

John Hawkins is a longtime sportswriter who spent 14 years covering the PGA Tour for Golf World magazine. From 2007 to 2011, he was a regular on Golf Channel’s “Grey Goose 19th Hole.” Email: