Rowdy fans confronting players (in person and online) exposes potential downside of golf embracing gambling

August 01, 2019

Mike Ehrmann

During the opening round of last week’s WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational, a fan yelled “Get in the bunker!” as Ian Poulter’s ball was in the air on approach to the 18th green at TPC Southwind. Poulter took exception, pointed out the fan to security and had the spectator removed from the course.

Two days earlier, PGA Tour officials announced a multi-year deal with fantasy-sports outlet DraftKings as the tour took the next step toward integrating itself with the rising gaming community.

Coincidental stories in the news? Likely, although who knows whether the lout who Poulter had kicked out had a vested interest in the outcome of his round.

“That’s a good question,” Paul Casey said when asked if he thought such incidents could become more prevalent as the tour creates working relationships with public and private parties involved in the gaming and gambling industries. “It’s such a minuscule percentage [of the fans at a tournament], but with money on the line and people feeling like they can alter the outcome to their benefit, I don’t like the sound of that.”

Neither does the tour, where officials say they have measures in place to avoid such disasters.

“We are monitoring it and taking it seriously, and we’ll continue to get that right,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan said earlier this year. “I think a lot of that behavior is going to be self-policed. I’d much rather be in [the] situation we’re in, where we’ve got a problem to solve with young people coming into our sport. It’s a small number of people, a handful of people.”

It’s easy to understand why the tour would be interested in getting involved with gambling/gaming businesses. The gambling industry is responsible for a total contribution of around $150 billion annually to the U.S. economy. Gambling is a popular activity for young male adults, many of whom might be only casual golf fans but could become attracted to the sport with the ability to have wagers on it.

Since last year’s U.S. Supreme Court decision that overturned a law prohibiting states from allowing gambling on sports, the tour—with several professional sports associations—has explored ways of aligning with betting operators to help control how the industry grows as well as to capitalize monetarily. In return for providing official data to gambling companies, the tour would get roughly 1 percent of the handle (dubbed an “integrity fee”). With a formal relationship, the tour also hopes it can control the types of wagers available—i.e. “positive bets,” among others—to mitigate the possibility of corruption.

Still, what’s to stop more fans from potentially impacting the action, particularly if there’s big money involved?

“What happens when you’re playing against a guy in the final round and [a fan] tries to put you off because their guy needs to win?” Jason Day said. “I don’t think betting in general is a good thing. To bring it into golf, it will bring in a lot of money, but unfortunately it goes with the fact people get very emotionally attached to what they’re betting on and take it very seriously.”

That much was evident last week on social media as well.

After Max Homa shot a four-over-par 74 in the opening round, some fantasy golf participants were overly critical of the 28-year-old’s play and directed their displeasure at him on Twitter. Homa fired back, saying he couldn’t emphasize enough how little he cared about messing up his followers’ fantasy golf lineups.

As negative as the social-media outlet can sometimes get, that incident at least sparked a positive outcome, with a number of Homa’s followers coming to his defense and pledging to donate to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital for every birdie he made.

But what if an on-course outburst had cost Homa a stroke? Or worse, a chance to win a tournament?


Sam Greenwood/Getty Images

“I would hope people could still be respectful regardless of money,” Homa said. “Maybe before social media I had a lot of faith in people. We [deal with it in Phoenix], and people are great.”

Not always.

During last year’s Waste Management Phoenix Open at TPC Scottsdale, Rickie Fowler said he was “disappointed in some of the stuff that was said” by obnoxious fans during the early stages of his opening round. The week before, a fan shouted as Tiger Woods was mid-stroke while putting at Torrey Pines during the Farmers Insurance Open.

There have been other incidents, too, including in 2018 at the Honda Classic, when Justin Thomas, like Poulter last week, had a fan removed in the final round for yelling “Get in the bunker!” shortly after Thomas hit his tee shot at the par-4 16th at PGA National.

“It is a shame. I hope we can control it more going forward and it gets stamped out, because it is not needed in the game of golf,” Poulter said of last week’s incident in Memphis. “It is disappointing, to be honest. I get it, I’m an Englishman, I play on the Ryder Cup team, I’m sure I’ve upset a few of these guys from time to time when they’re watching TV. But when we’re playing a world-class event like we do week in, week out, and you’ve got guys like that, in a small group and want to feel big in front of their friends, and they scream silly things out, it is disappointing.”

Not to mention troubling, at least to some players, when money is on the line.


Jamie Squire/Getty Images

“I played with [Poulter] in the [FedEx Cup] Playoffs last year, and he’s dealt with it for a long time and he’d had enough,” Gary Woodland said. “Enough is enough. From the fantasy standpoint, it’s huge. I see it on social media. I get blasted all the time from guys betting on me.

“It’s something that probably needs to be addressed, but I don’t know how you address it,” Woodland said. “It’s only going to get bigger and bigger. Social media, you don’t have to look at it [if you’re a player]. Hopefully out here [with spectators], we can police it better.”

Will potential problems increase as influx of bets do? Not everyone believes so.

“We’re professional athletes,” Brandt Snedeker said. “We’re going to have to deal with hecklers at some point. Whether you give them credence or let it roll off your back, it’s not anything different than now.

“But that is something the tour will have to look at the first time it happens in crucial situation.”

Of course, by then it would already be too late.