PGA Championship

Valhalla Golf Club

Betting without losing your shirt

October 27, 2008

A little more than a year ago, on a golf-related assignment on another continent, I joined three young American travelers for a drink before dinner. They were reviewing their afternoon round and settling bets. It was "five" for a skin, "10" for a press, "20" for something else. I was thinking, Gee, five dollars is kind of steep for a skin. Then I realized, with an internal gasp, that they were talking about hundreds. (They were investment bankers, and the financial meltdown hadn't happened yet.) I joined them the next day, and they graciously devised a side match involving fewer zeroes so I could play.


Competing for money can be a delicate matter in a group whose members have different ideas about reasonable stakes. The issue can be especially tough on multiday excur- sions, when the wins and losses have time to mount. My friends and I have found a good solution, which we have field-tested twice.

What we do is agree in advance on a stake for the entire trip—say, $100 a man—and then play for shares of the total pot, by assigning point values to things such as gross, net, skins, sandies and anything else that anyone can think of. If we come up with 253 points' worth of competitions, for example, then each point is worth 1/253rd of the kitty, or $4.74 in a group of 12 guys who are in for a Franklin apiece.

This system makes it impossible for anyone to lose more money than he fronted at the outset and makes it easy to add complicated new bets at any time.

In 2006, I spent five days at Bandon Dunes with my friends Ray and Tony. We made up more than a dozen separate competitions, among them regular individual matches (2.5 points each), cumulative low gross for the week (five points), low 18 (one), low front nine (one), low back nine (one), low ringer (one), skins (two), negative skins (minus two) and setback (four), which is the card game we played each night. If one of us thought of something new—such as "low back-nine reverse ringer," an invention of mine—we could throw it in without increasing the size of the pot.

In Scotland this past spring, nine of us juggled the teams, the games and the point values every night, to keep everyone in the race for the entire trip. As a result, all nine guys remained interested and in contention right to the end, and nobody won or lost more than about $30—not bad for eight days and 16 rounds of golf.