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Text: Michael Todt. Articel from the February 2014 issue of Compleat Golfer Magazine.

The online age has changed the face of betting and, in the case of golf, capitalised on a sport with an existing reputation for it. But despite the high stakes, the dark cloud of match-fixing remains at arm’s length.

The online age has changed the face of betting and in the case of golf capitalised on a sport with an existing reputation for itBetting, in any context, has the potential to polarise moral opinion, and golf is no different in this regard. Some may think little of it, and even consider it an essential when they peg it up against their mates on a Saturday afternoon. However, there is an inescapable stigma associated with gambling, and many justifiably point to the pitfalls involved.

But just how far-reaching is betting in the sport of golf, both internally and externally?

The 2012 Nelson Mandela Championship at Royal Durban Golf Club provided my first glimpse of it within the professional game. Unfortunately, the weather wasn’t playing ball that week and, for a second straight day, the opening round of the eagerly anticipated co-sanctioned event had to be postponed. It was frustrating for all involved that a tournament staged in honour of our national icon was descending into a farce, and it left players, officials and media with precious little to do.

After submitting features on rainfall numbers, arbitrary statistics and anything else I could think of to give the working day some meaning, I linked up with a mate for lunch at the Suncoast Hotel. As we exited the restaurant afterwards, we found ourselves edging towards the casino and, once inside, I was in for quite a surprise.

There was little shock-horror when the dealer scooped my chips for a fourth successive hand at the blackjack table, but what did take me aback was whose chips he scooped next – and the size of the stack. It was a rather well-known golfer from the very event I was reporting on, and he was gambling hefty amounts of money! I suddenly looked around, and was astonished to see the number of players clamouring around roulette tables or rhythmically inserting coins into the slots.

My very presence at the casino naturally rendered any judgements of these guys hypocritical, and in no way would I presume to tell anyone how they should spend their time and money.

“What took me aback was whose chips he scooped next – and the size of the stack.”

But it did raise a pertinent question. Is there a culture of gambling among golfers? More so than with players from other sports?

Walter Hagen was one of the first players to attract significant amounts of cash to the game.One of the pioneers of the high-roller, rock-star image in golf was Walter Hagen, and the likes of Ray Floyd, Lee Trevino, John Daly and Chi-Chi Rodriguez have all since con-tributed to a legacy of hustling and hoodwinking. Many of their legendary anecdotes are light-hearted, championed by fans and biographies. But did their thirst for a flutter actually put them in the minority?

“I would definitely say there is a culture of gambling in golf,” commented SunshineTour professional Ryan Strauss.” There are always bets on the course. You see it a lot at amateur level too, even if it’s just a betterball, your own individual score, units or things like that. And among the pros, you see a lot of the guys having a bet, be it on golf, or online with horse racing and other sports.

“As a professional, a game of golf might be a bit boring or aimless if there isn’t something on the line,” he continued.”  You’re always playing for money – it’s your livelihood. So when you are playing socially or having a practice round, I think it’s a good thing to have some money on the game so that there is a bit of pressure on. It forces you to concentrate like you would do in a tournament scenario.”

Whatever the extent of internal betting by players, it comprises only a fraction of global monies wagered on the game. Online betting has revolutionised the industry for bookmakers and punters alike, and golf, like numerous other sports, has seen the number and scale of bets soar exponentially in the last decade.

Joshua Chiwanga is the senior sports trader at World Sports Betting, one of South Africa’s leading

“The money keeps coming in, especially online or off mobile devices.” – Joshua Chiwanga, sports trader

 

online sports books, and he was able to provide some rationale for the resounding impact of online and mobile betting.

While still a club pro, Lee Trevino made money placing wagers on head-to-head matches.“For us, our biggest takings are on horse racing, football and rugby,”he noted.” But in terms of golf, the advent of the online age has increased both our client base and the volume of bets tremendously. I don’t want to say that golf is a rich man’s sport, but it is definitely an expensive game and a commercial one.

“Many businessmen clinch deals out on the course, so you generally find that golf is associated with the more affluent. And online betting has really helped to reach out to them, making it easy for them to open their account either on their computers or on their mobiles.

“Imagine someone walking in and handing over R10 000 in cash over the counter for someone to win.  It’s rare, and that’s what online betting has brought in. It’s also brought in the crucial element of confidentiality. You bet on your own, in your own time, and discreetly,” Chiwanga added.

The medium through which one can place their bet is not the only element to have evolved in recent years. The days of only being able to bet on a winner are long gone, and a plethora of options are now at the punter’s disposal each time he or she looks to lay down some money on an upcoming tournament.

“The dynamic of sports betting has changed so much since online betting came into being,” explained Sedley Barr, a well-known private bookmaker in South Africa. “Besides outright betting, you can put money down on things like 18-hole match bets, tournament match bets, nationality of winner, players to finish top four or five, missing or making the cut, leader for each day, and so much more. You can even pair players together and bet on who will beat the other.”

Martin Kaymer's tournament-changing putt in the Ryder Cup had big ramifications for bookies.Such a significant rise in interest has seen the industry grow at breakneck speed, thus creating a sizeable market for bookmakers both small and big. However, being a bookie is by no means a stress-free line of work. Few will ever forget Martin Kaymer’s clutch putt to ensure Europe would retain the Ryder Cup at Medinah in 2012. It appeared to leave little significance for the remaining match between Tiger Woods and Francesco Molinari. The American then casually missed a three-foot putt on the final hole, which meant the Europeans won the Cup outright as opposed to a 14-14 tie. Purely academic to most of us, but for bookies, the ramifications were immense. UK-based SkyBet reported that Woods’ miss cost them in the region of R1.5 million, and they were by no means the only ones left wounded.

“There’s a saying that a bookie in the long run never loses,” Chiwanga laughed.”  But like any other job, you do have bad days. I must be honest, it hasn’t happened a great deal on the golf front in my time here.

“What has added a new dimension these days is in-play betting. There was one instance I recall at Sun City in 1981 when it was still called the Million Dollar. Johnny Miller and Seve Ballesteros battled out a nine-hole playoff! If that were to happen now, the revenue we’d take is huge. You must remember, with in-play betting the odds change with every shot, so we’re taking bets all the time. The money keeps coming in, especially online or off mobile devices, and, with golf, it’s usually the big betters too.”

Given the vast amounts of money being laid down, one is left wondering about the scope for match- or spot-fixing. Is golf potentially a breeding ground for it? Or worse still, has it already been infiltrated?

Sunshine Tour player Paul Bradshaw, whose website Golf and Girls is affiliated with World Sports Betting, is unconvinced, and believes it is unlikely to be a problem any time soon.

“Match-fixing hasn’t hit golf yet, and I’m not sure it actually will,” he mused. “We see a lot of match-fixing culprits from the subcontinent in terms of cricket, but there is a weak following of golf in that part of the world. More importantly, it is difficult to match-fix in golf. A player might be’asked’to record a particular score on a hole, but as we all know, this isn’t easy to execute. There are just so many variables involved.”

Bradshaw continued: “It must be remembered too that golf is an individual sport, and players don’t often play directly against each other like in matchplay. So golf professionals can’t fix a hole and lose to another player, barring a couple of times per year. Also, in golf betting it is very unusual for bookies to offer odds on a player’s score on a particular hole; they stick to standard markets that make it tough to fix.”

Bradshaw’s fellow professional Christiaan Basson, who enjoyed an impressive 2013 season on the Sunshine Tour, was equally confident that match-fixing has not reared its head yet, and provided some salient points as to why that shouldn’t change.

“I can’t imagine a golf tournament being fixed or having any kind of spot-fixing,” he said. “I could possibly see a case where guys are deliberately putting others off, but to me it seems unlikely that guys would play poorly on purpose. I mean, to win proper money in golf betting, it usually involves picking a winner, or someone doing well, so it’s hard to see where big bucks would come from for playing badly.

“Perhaps in the case of a big name missing the cut or throwing a match, but even then, I don’t see it happening because ranking points and things like that are probably more important to that big player than money. I also think there is an ingrained culture of honour and decorum with golfers, and it would be hard to break this down.”

It isn’t just the players who think so either. Chiwanga believes the in-depth level of technological coverage gives professional golf the transparency needed to keep such a threat at bay.

Tiger Woods' illegal drop in the Masters was a reminder of the scrutiny pro golfers are under - and what they still manage to get away with.“There’s always potential for match-fixing or spot-fixing in any sport, but to my knowledge, I haven’t heard of any problems in golf. Technology has come so far too, and the players are really in the spotlight. We can scrutinise things so closely, like Tiger Woods’ drop in the Masters and all the rest. In my opinion, it would be unlikely for golf to be prone to match-fixing any time soon,” Chiwanga concluded.

Such a unanimous vote of confidence is a fine reflection on the integrity of the game. As is the case with doping, match-fixing is a cancer within sport, and the implications are huge. A sport dogged by it can leave the viewer questioning the legitimacy of what he or she is witnessing, and can rob innocent players of a rightful sense of achievement. If the South African cricket team runs through the Pakistani middle order, it leaves doubt in our mind as to whether it is a reflection of the quality of our bowlers, or possibly the sum of money offered by a bookie. It is simply a by-product of a disease too rampant in sport.

Cricket, football, snooker, horse racing and many others are falling foul to match-fixing, but it appears that significant barriers need to be broken before golf suffers a similar fate. By all accounts, we have no reason to be sceptical of the golfing entertainment we pay our hard-earned money to watch.

So let’s be proud of our game. Whether or not the significant presence of betting is good for golf remains open to debate. But for now, let’s take heart from the fact that the next time we see a record broken, a surprising upset, an unfortunate double-bogey or a hole-in-one that ricocheted off a tree, it can be safely assumed that none of it was contrived. Not many other sports can count themselves so lucky.

Betting on tour

Phil Mickelson is one of many pros who like to put a wager on practice rounds. The most common game is Skins, where they play for a set amount on each hole, often $100. If a hole is tied, the amount is carried over, so if four holes in a row are halved, the value of the next hole would be $500.

Mickelson also likes to play Hammer, which is Skins with a doubling component. A player can call a ‘hammer’ on his opponent at any time during a hole, most likely after the other player has hit a bad shot. This doubles the value of the hole. If the hammered player does not accept the challenge, he loses the hole.

“The reason we play Hammer and Skins is because each putt matters,” says Mickelson. “It gets us in a frame of mind that each three- or four-footer makes a difference. It gives us a chance to prepare for the pressure that we will feel during the tournament.”

 

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