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For Bettors, Masters Is a Major Event, Too

Sam Borden|The New York Times
Thursday, 5 Apr 2012 | 11:02 AM ET

Golf and gambling have been linked forever. Countless weekend foursomes begin their rounds with the familiar first-tee question: “So, what are we playing for today?” Lee Trevino even said that “real pressure is playing for $10 a hole when you don’t have a dime in your pocket.”

Tickets scalpers look for badges along Washington Road in front of Augusta National Golf Club.
Getty Images
Tickets scalpers look for badges along Washington Road in front of Augusta National Golf Club.

Yet, while many (if not most) golfers think of their sport as the perfect betting game — who hasn’t at least played miniature golf for an ice cream or a soda? — it was not until recently that golf’s popularity surged in the more traditional gambling sense.

Street bookies, casinos and online sports books have all reported a rise in golf betting. There are several factors, including increased television coverage, improved technology that allows bettors to literally wager on a golfer’s every swing if they so desire — and, of course, Tiger Woods. As a result, experts believe that this week’s Masters could be the most wagered-on golf event in history.

“It is leaps and bounds ahead of where it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Pat Morrow, the head oddsmaker at the online casino Bovada.lv, said in an interview. “The money coming in now doesn’t even compare.”

While industry totals are difficult to calculate, golf’s popularity across the spectrum of gambling options is undeniably rising. Jeff Sherman, who runs the Web site GolfOdds.com and is the assistant manager of race and sports at the Las Vegas Resort & Casino, said late last week that his sports book’s handle, or betting total, on the Masters had already surpassed the previous record almost a week ago.

In previous years, Sherman said, the sports book executives might hope to reach just over $100,000 in total bets by the end of the weekend; this year, they will see that in futures bets, or bets on players simply to win the tournament, alone. Adding in expected wagers on matchups (Woods versus Rory McIlroy in total score, for example) and proposition bets (will there be a hole in one?), not to mention in-round betting, Sherman said the hope is for a total handle approaching $250,000 to $300,000 at his sports book.

Fifteen or 20 years ago, he added, a casino would scrounge to get as little as $50,000 in action.

“I barely remember Jack Nicklaus being on the board in ’86,” said Nick Bogdanovich, the director of the sports book at Club Cal Neva in Reno, Nev. “I mean, he was, but golf just wasn’t a factor then.”

Of course, the Nevada casinos are just a tiny sliver of sports gambling over all. Online casinos can draw from a much larger customer base, and while sites with large European betting contingents have seen strong golf numbers for years, those sites with primarily North American bettors are also experiencing golf rushes lately.

Morrow said roughly 90 percent of his site’s customers were from North America and he still expected to see a handle approaching $500,000 for this year’s Masters. In an attempt to capitalize on golf’s popularity, Morrow said software specialists at Bovada.lv had been working feverishly to get the site’s in-round betting offerings ready for the Masters; those pages allow bettors to wager on players on a hole-to-hole basis, literally betting while lying on their couches.

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Think there is no way McIlroy can make par from off the fairway on No. 1? Click. Click. You just bet on a bogey. Like the way Vijay Singh is hitting his short irons? You can wager on him making birdie on the par-3 12th.

“As golf has become more of a spectator sport, this is a way for people to feel more connected to the experience,” Morrow said.

Opinions on the reason for golf’s betting boom vary, but most trace the beginning to Woods’s dominant stretch beginning in the late 1990s. Golf has always been a “name sport” when it comes to betting, Sherman said — meaning the tournaments where stars like Woods or Phil Mickelson play attract more betting — so its rise in general popularity at that point also sparked an interest in wagering.

At that time, however, Woods won so often that there was little value in betting on him; the odds were simply too low.

Now, with Woods’s career revived, the interest in golf has spiked again and there is more payoff on backing Woods because of his inconsistent form and the emergence of other stars to challenge him. On Wednesday, Woods was roughly 4 to 1 to win the Masters in most sports books, with McIlroy at approximately 6 to 1 and Mickelson at 12 to 1.

Once the tournament begins, many sports books will update their odds after each round (something that rarely happened years ago) and a number of books are attempting to seize upon the increased TV coverage of the Masters by offering variations on the hole-by-hole betting structure.

In the past, when TV coverage of golf was minimal, it made little sense to offer in-round betting because “no one could see what they were betting on,” Morrow said.

“When they would only show the back nine or only show one or two players, there was no point,” he added. “With Web site video coverage and more coverage on TV though, you can sit at home and make your own decisions on how a particular shot will affect a player and then make your bets.”

The sports books’ interest in promoting golf betting is strategic, too; while golf will never challenge the handles for events like the Super Bowl (which routinely approaches $100 million in Nevada alone), it does fill an important void. The late spring and summer are slow times for sports books, so increasing the interest in golf betting is important to the industry’s growth.

Any PGA Tour players who might be interested in joining the craze with a bet on themselves are prohibited by the tour’s rules. While it would be naïve to think casual practice-round wagers between players don’t take place constantly on the tour — in addition to betting on other sports, like Mickelson’s famous forays into N.F.L. betting — there are strict regulations prohibiting players from betting “money or anything of value on a golf tournament or similar event, whether or not the player is in such competition.”

That does not preclude the rest of the world from putting money down, and it seems as though this year in particular, much of that money — in record numbers — is being bet on Woods.

“We love Tiger, like everyone, because he drives our business,” Morrow said. “But you know what? With betting like this, if Tiger wins, we lose.”

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