Saturday, August 13, 2011
Betting On Birdies
Money Golf: 600 Years of Bettin' on Birdies
by Michael K. Bohn
You can't play Major League Baseball and bet on a game; just ask Pete Rose. Don't try running a betting ring in the NHL, either. Want the surest ticket out of NCAA sports?
Betting's the way to do it. In stark contrast, however, the United States Golf Association officially sanctions betting among players during their games. And it's not just the pros who bet. Every man, out with his buddies, asks at the first tee, "Shall we make this interesting?" Yet there has never been a betting scandal in organized golf.
Money Golf is the first book that tells the complete story of golf's unique association with wagering and how that relationship evolved. It features anecdotes from fifteenth-century Scots to Tiger Woods and all the smooth-swinging flatbellies, movie stars, athletes, politicians, women golfers, Joe Six-Packs, hustlers, and sharks in between. It also serves as a primer for novice golf bettors, providing explanations of Calcuttas (betting auctions), odds-making, on-course games, and the art and history of golf hustling. It even highlights movies and books that include golf wagers, showing that even writers understand the marriage of the two.
Wagering on golf has been part of the game since it migrated to the United States in 1888. All of the early icons of American golf bet when they played-Francis Ouimet, Walter Hagen, and Gene Sarazen. Even Bobby Jones, the simon-pure amateur, wagered on his game. Sam Snead and Ben Hogan always had a little something on the side; so did Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Gary Player. Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson learned how to bet on golf when they were little kids. All the personalities, stories, and history of betting on birdies are included in Money Golf.
Michael K. Bohn is the author of "Money Golf," a history of the gentlemanly wager on the golf course, and more recently, "Heroes & Ballyhoo: How the Golden Age of the 1920s Transformed American Sports."
Bohn also has written "The Achille Lauro Hijacking: Lessons in the Politics and Prejudice of Terrorism" (2004), and "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003). He served as director of the White House Situation Room, the president's alert center and crisis management facility, during Ronald Reagan's second term. Bohn was a U.S. naval intelligence officer from 1968 to 1988.
A Conversation with Michael K. Bohn
Isn’t betting in sports illegal?
Not in golf. The United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club, the two organizations that govern the game worldwide, officially sanction wagering between players.
Why has golf accepted betting, but major league baseball ostracized Pete Rose?
The game developed in Great Britain away from the antigambling influences of puritanical America. U.S.-born sports—basketball, American football, and baseball, for instance—carry the social mores of the society that created the games.
More important, principle and etiquette govern the game’s core. Golfers rely on an ancient and tested honor code to regulate matches by themselves, without the separate referees and umpires who are central to other games. This code, along with lessons about manners and standards of conduct that accompany instruction on the golf swing, steer the sport away from scandal and betting’s frequent disreputable handmaiden, cheating. Organized golf has never suffered a betting scandal.
How did betting start in golf?
Golf grew out of stick and ball games in continental Europe but began developing its distinct characteristics on the east coast of Scotland in the 1400s. From the beginning, the game pitted two players, or a pair of two-man teams, against each other with something at stake, most often coin, food, or drink.
How widespread is betting on golf?
Among the twenty-six million male and female American golfers, the vast majority bet when they play. More specifically, a 2006 Golf Digest online poll revealed 93 percent of the respondents bet at least some of the time when they played. Additionally, more than half of seventy-two teenage players (thirty-six boys and thirty-six girls) surveyed at a 2006 national junior tournament said they bet on their games.
Do women bet on the golf course?
Yes, especially at the professional level, but overall women generally bet smaller amounts than men and usually talk about it less. A 2006 survey of women amateur players indicated only a third of the women had never bet on their golf game.
Do the PGA Tour players bet on their games?
Today most enjoy a friendly wager during practice rounds before the tournament starts. Some even have a discreet side bet during a tournament. As recently as the 1960s, players freely bet among themselves during tournaments, even with bookies who accompanied the players on tour.
While playing in the British Open, some of the pros enjoy betting on themselves, a common and legal practice in Britain. No one in golf views the custom as scandalous. It’s just golf.
Among the pros, who has bet the most?
Walter Hagen, the first successful tour player, always played for money. Sam Snead was the high priest of money golf, but upon his death in 2002, that title shifted to Arnold Palmer. Palmer is as courteous and friendly while betting as he is during every part of his life, but he plays hard for his own money. Lanny Wadkins bets as aggressively as he plays, and Phil “The Thrill” Mickelson has said that he needs a sizable bet to keep his focus during practice rounds.
Does Tiger bet?
Woods bets on most everything that moves on a golf course. He doesn’t bet much, considering his earning power, but enough to satisfy his keen competitive nature. He started putting for quarters as a three-year-old, and has always enjoyed a friendly bet during informal rounds.
What is a golf hustler?
Stories abound throughout golf’s history about players who win wagers by concealing a special skill or knowledge—the “edge.” At one end of the hustling spectrum is the handicap cheat, a golfer that lies about his skills to gain the edge in a game. All golfers revile these people. On the other end are hustlers whose colorful personalities and creative imaginations obscure much of the larcenous facet of the edge. Titanic Thompson was the most storied golf hustler and his cleverness earned him folk hero status in golf.
How do golfers bet?
Players use dozens of betting games to add interest to their games. The most common is skins, made famous through an off-season TV show called the Skins Game. Played by two or more golfers, whoever has the lowest score on each hole wins a skin, the value of which the players determined at the round’s start--$1, $10, and so forth.
Another common game is a Nassau, which as a minimum involves three bets—one on the first nine holes, another on the back nine, and a third on the entire round. The value of each bet varies with the players, from $1 and up.
The simplest bet is on who shoots the lowest score for the round.
Side bets, often called garbage or trash, enliven the round, and involve payouts for birdies, sandies (getting out of a bunker and into the hole in two shots) or other pre-determined successes or mistakes. Chapter 9 of the book describes betting games and summarizes betting advice from the experts.