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The PGA Tour has Embraced Gambling and Fantasy, But Could Fans Spoil the Action?

Gambling and golf are seemingly an ideal couple, especially at the PGA Tour level. But too much of a good thing is only good until it isn’t, and that time may be coming soon.
Mackenzie Hughes, 2021 U.S. Open

Mackenzie Hughes (left), his caddie and the gallery look for a ball in a tree on the 11th hole in the final round of the 2021 U.S. Open.

The ads are everywhere nowadays, especially on TV, where the girl with the blonde hair and overactive arms refers to the 60 years of incredible history on the 18th green at TPC River Highlands, which actually opened in 1984. Of course, the facts are insignificant. What really matters is that you can go to, press a few buttons and instantly test your powers of prognostication against the millions of others who oppose the notion that you can’t buy a thrill.

Three years have passed since the U.S. Supreme Court overturned legislation prohibiting legalized gambling nationwide. If the decision was a huge victory for the gaming industry, it also appropriated jurisdiction on the ruling to each of the 50 states — about half of which still haven’t ratified laws that allow betting on sports. While we’re all keenly aware of how ponderous the political process can become, one might easily get the sense that full-blown legalization would have been further along by now.

Reality tells us it’s a foregone conclusion. There is far too much revenue at stake for reluctant states to continue resisting the value of such a resource. With prudent regulations, sports gaming can become a healthy financial asset despite its myriad, potential downsides, which is another way of saying it’s a really good idea until something really bad happens.

In pro golf, a corruption of the competitive element immediately comes to mind.

Few sports leagues have been more proactive in embracing the world of live wagering than the PGA Tour. Camp Ponte Vedra jumped into the pool with both feet, forming business partnerships with The Action Network, DraftKings and IMG Arena, then launching GolfBet, an endemic platform designed to “drive fan engagement and expand our overall audience,” according to Norb Gambuzza, the Tour’s vice president of media and gaming.

Without question, our game has so much to offer in terms of appealing to the gambling public. Almost every field over the duration of an 11-month season includes more than 100 players. Those guys strike the ball somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 times each week, which easily translates into a lot of money won and a lot more lost. If DraftKings wasn’t raking in the dough from such a multitude of frenzied action, it wouldn’t be able to afford the girl with the overactive arms, much less all that commercial space.

Since the Tour itself provides the product, an abundantly rich organization gets even richer. And everyone with a vested interest walks away happy, at least until one Sunday ticket-holder sneaks an airhorn (or even a whistle) into a tournament and decides to use it on the green of the second playoff hole with someone standing over a 6-footer to force a third.

In almost every other sport, crowd noise is encouraged frequently, sometimes vehemently, throughout the contest. When Giannis Antetokounmpo shoots a free throw in a visiting arena these days, thousands of spectators count the number of seconds it takes him to finally stop dribbling and attempt the shot. The Seattle Seahawks have long celebrated the effects of their “12th man,” a euphemism given to the 69,000 who gather eight times a year to support their beloved NFL team.

Pro golf is very different, and therefore, far more vulnerable to the one-in-a-thousand knucklehead who intentionally yells during a crucial backswing. It’s something akin to a minor miracle that it doesn’t happen more often — while covering a Hawaiian Open back in the early 2000s, I watched John Cook basically lose the tournament to a ringing cellphone on the 71st hole. For such occurrences to remain rare is a tribute to the game’s remarkable level of decorum, but with each passing year, galleries seem to get larger, more boisterous and less golf-centric.

Let’s just say that legalized gambling does nothing to minimize the undesirable possibilities.

When Mackenzie Hughes’ tee shot got stuck in a tree at the par-3 11th during the final round of the U.S. Open, a viewer’s sense of hard-luck bemusement might quickly have succumbed to a whimsical scenario. What if a nearby patron with a substantial sum invested on the third-round co-leader were to climb the tree and knock the ball back to earth? Do we have a rule for such an assist? How could anyone (notably a USGA rules official) determine that the ball wouldn’t have fallen from the tree without the aid of a fan?

Hughes, two off the lead before his misfortune, walked away with a double bogey and finished tied for 15th, seven shots back. The golf gods chose to look the other way on this occasion, but the lack of containment between players and observers on many wayward shots — and the potential for result-altering spectator behavior in any number of forms — is a matter the Tour should address.

If Steve Bartman can be accused of preventing the Chicago Cubs from playing in the 2003 World Series, there is no such thing as a $10 million golf tournament impervious to the hazards of negative fan interaction. It might sound farfetched. So does a ball stuck in a tree … or $5,000 on the guy trailing by three.