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Is golf vulnerable to a gambling scandal?

'I hear something at least once a week out here'

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Editor's note: This article first appeared in The Undercover Newsletter, where we grant anonymity to people in golf who’ve got something to say. Here a current PGA Tour player is interviewed by Senior Writer Joel Beall.

As legalized sports gambling began to become prevalent, my former instructor asked me if I was worried it was going to affect me. I laughed. There are people at my own club who don’t know my PGA Tour status, so no chance the common fan knows me, let alone cares enough about me to bet on me. Golf gambling would be focused solely on the superstars, I thought. I had no idea how wrong I was.

I watch other sports. It feels like every other commercial is an ad for a new sportsbook or online betting app. Same with billboards on the fields. And of course, sports gambling has been in the news recently for the wrong reasons. The translator for baseball’s Shohei Ohtani got popped for illegal gaming in California, and there are allegations that NBA player Jontay Porter participated in a prop bet scheme by tanking his performances. These are serious stories that threaten to undermine the integrity of the games. So you might be wondering, same as my former instructor, is golf vulnerable to a similar controversy?

Golf is different from most sports in that we don’t have a winner and a loser. We have one winner, and many people who are not. To even be in a situation to win is hard, let alone to close the deal. I can’t imagine a pro golfer ever purposefully throwing a tournament if they had a chance to win. Now that only the top 70 players earn their cards for next season, every shot matters more than ever, even for top-30 finishes. I can’t see anyone “throwing” an event.

However, golf could be vulnerable to prop bets. Such as, Player A will beat Player B, or Player A’s over/under is 70.5. If it’s a Sunday and a golfer is out of contention and already has his status secured for next year—I could see that person being in on a fix. I think it’s highly unlikely, but there are a lot of guys out here, many who don’t have the financial security you assume they would, and I’m not going to act like everyone is a choir boy. So, yes, it’s possible.

And I think the PGA Tour knows this, too. The tour got a lot of heat last year when they suspended two Korn Ferry Tour players, Vince India and Jake Staiano, for betting on exhibitions in which they were not playing. From what I heard, a big part of those punishments was to appease government regulators. But that’s above my pay grade. Personally, I think those suspensions were a message to the rest of us: Don’t screw around with sports gambling.

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Dominic Bugatto

To me, the bigger issue is what we’re dealing with on the course. I know golfers have it easy when it comes to dealing with crowds. We’re not trying to hit a fastball or evade a 350-pound lineman before a stadium rooting for our demise. But all it takes is one idiot to yell something to make things awkward. No matter where you are on the money list, you hear something at least once a week out here, sometimes once a day. The comments are mostly innocuous, things like “Hey, I have money on you today, let’s go!” or “Going to need some more birdies from ya!” but occasionally it goes real south. I had a fan earlier this year tell me I was “Costing him money” after I mucked up a par 5, and a few summers back someone cheered when I missed a putt on a Saturday (clearly, they had the over). One of my friends had a guy jeer him in Detroit last year: “Don’t worry, I bet on Wyndham (Clark), not you.” As mad as that makes us, it’s worse when we have family and friends in the crowd who must listen to it. That’s the part I wish the tour would police more.

But you can’t say anything about this unless (or until) something major happens, otherwise you’re made to feel like a fuddy-duddy. I realize sports gambling isn’t going anywhere. Just about every sports league is viewing the industry as a revenue driver. It’s been three years since the tour started building sportsbooks on its properties. And I’m fine with that. But next time you come to the course, please, keep your bets to yourself.