This story began a year ago with an unforgettable headline in
London's The Sun: LUVLY JUGGLY. Though it sounds vaguely vulgar,
the headline was actually a Fleet Street rave for a cab driver
from Kent named Kevin Foster, who had won ¬£217,000 on Ben Curtis
at last year's British Open. (An experienced gambler, Foster laid
out a total of ¬£23,000 at odds ranging from 8 to 1 to 10 to 1
before the final round.) The headline was memorable, but it was
the larger story that captured my imagination. ¬∂ Punting, the
British word for betting, has long been part of the culture of
the Open Championship. There are more than 8,000 bookmaking shops
throughout Britain, open to anyone 18 and over, and during
tournament week it seems as if every fan, reporter and caddie has
stopped in to have a punt. (Players also bet, even though they're
not supposed to; they use their wives or agents or friends to
place a wager and thus skirt the bylaws of various tours.)
Inspired by the cabbie, I wanted to report on the phenomenon of
Open punting and felt that it was important to experience it
myself. Thus I hatched a plan to take ¬£1,000 of SPORTS
ILLUSTRATED's money--$1,870.55 at the present exchange
rate--and let it ride at this year's Open. Somehow my editor
signed off, despite his better judgment.
Since the original outlay wasn't mine, I would not keep the
winnings. I thought my all-but-certain windfall should go to
needy junior golfers. My heartless editor decided instead that
the winnings would be wasted on a more disenfranchised bunch:
GOLF PLUS staffers, for an end-of-the-year boondoggle. So my
mission became to win enough to take the crew to Bandon Dunes, on
the Oregon coast. I knew that if I failed we would be sleeping in
our cars in the parking lot at Bethpage. Needless to say, the
stakes were high.
I'm on the verge of hurling haggis. Rich Beem has made another
birdie, to go out in a sizzling 31. I had planned to bet Beem to
win at 150 to 1, but due to a series of snafus and rookie moves,
I was unable to get down a single punt for the first round.
July 25, 2004
In advance of my trip I had been told that the easiest way to
wager in Britain was to open an account with a credit card at one
of the large firms, allowing one to place bets over the phone, as
well as in person with cash. Around midnight on the eve of the
tournament I finally got around to phoning the 24-hour customer
service line at Ladbroke's, Great Britain's biggest bookmaker. I
was horrified to discover that my U.S. credit card companies
would not accept charges from an overseas gambling operation.
The only recourse was to borrow the cash the next day. Heroic
pressroom fund-raising brought me ¬£980--yes, I was already down
20 quid--but by the time I secured the money it was too late to
place any bets.
I decided to salvage the day by doing some reconnaissance.
Hunched over an old computer in a corner of the pressroom was
Jeremy Chapman of the Racing Post, for three decades the leading
golf handicapper in Britain. Chapman regaled me with philosophies
and theories on punting, interrupted only by a ringing cellphone.
"Give me 20 quid, quickly," he said to me, breathlessly. "I've
just got a tip on a horse." I did as I was told. He called a
special number, placed the bet and then listened to the
play-by-play of the race. "Oh dear, dear," he muttered. "One
furlong out our horse stopped as if he had been shot." I was down
Thursday was an exciting day in the bookmaking industry because
word had gotten around that an unnamed punter had put ¬£62,500 on
an Ernie Els victory, at 8 to 1. It was reputed to be the largest
golf wager ever recorded in Great Britain. (Chapman estimates
that ¬£30 million is wagered during Open week.) Betting winners at
odds that are updated in real time is always popular, but the
real action of the first two rounds is in three-balls, in which a
punter predicts which member of a threesome will have the lowest
score, with each player given different odds.
Searching for a tip, I sought out Pete Coleman, Darren Clarke's
jolly, gnomelike caddie, who is an oracle for European tour
punters. "You must find the nonrunners," Coleman said. "Find a
group where you are sure one of the three has no chance. Then it
is a two-man battle, and choose wisely."
As a punter with a press pass I was traveling on two passports,
giving me access to information unavailable to the masses. I
decided to hang out on the range, hoping to gain an advantage. I
overheard Kenny Perry say, "I think I found something. I
strengthened my grip, and it feels a whole lot better."
This felt a bit like insider trading, and I confided to Chapman
that I had misgivings about using the information. He was
unmoved. "Dear boy," he said, "if you have knowledge that the
bookmakers do not, it is your duty to use it."
As soon as I stepped into the Ladbroke's in Kilmarnock, the burg
where I was staying, it became clear to me that punting is not a
profitable hobby. I'm pretty sure I was the only person there
with a full complement of teeth, and though it was mid-morning, a
couple of gents in line with me had 100-proof breath.
Clutching an elaborately marked-up pairings sheet, I bet on 20
three-balls, each at ¬£20. I took Chris DiMarco over Rod Pampling
and Scott Drummond, and Perry over Clarke and Adam Scott, though
clearly there was not a nonrunner in the latter group. Having
studied the stats and scores from the first round, I felt I had a
couple of other sure things: Steve Lowery, strong enough to play
out of the weeds, had shot 69 on Thursday, to the matching 79s of
his unknown playing partners, Yoshinobu Tsukada and Matthew
Hazelden. I loved feel-player extraordinaire Chris Riley (opening
72) versus two nonrunners, Hidemasa Hoshino (76) and Paul Sheehan
(75). It wasn't all science. I tabbed Sven Struever simply
because I like to say his name.
I also laid some money on would-be winners, beginning with a
second chance on Beem, though his payout had plummeted overnight
to 66 to 1 in the wake of his first-round 69. I plunked down ¬£20
"each way"--that is, ¬£20 to win outright and ¬£20 more to finish
first, second, third or fourth, at one quarter the odds. I made
the same bet on David Toms (66 to 1) and Trevor Immelman (40 to
As play commenced I anchored myself in the pressroom, monitoring
the computerized scoring and multiple TVs. When the first two
matches came back victorious--the no-brainer of Mike Weir over
Aaron Baddeley and David Howell, and Ian Poulter over Simon Dyson
and S.K. Ho--I felt as if I had been overcome with a fever. The
excitement was unbearable, the torture exquisite. I began dying a
thousand tiny deaths with every scoring update.
Then things began to fall apart. On the 18th hole Lowery drove
into a pot bunker, had to pitch out sideways into the rough and
from there took a double bogey, losing to Hazelden 73-71. Steady
Zach Johnson made seven bogeys and got smoked by Daniel Sugrue
(who?). Perry, with his newfangled grip, acquitted himself with a
70 but was nipped by Scott by two strokes. In need of some fresh
air, I went out to watch DiMarco play the last couple of holes.
To my horror he finished bogey-bogey to tie Nick Price with a 71,
which was a loss for me.
After he signed for his betrayal, I told DiMarco about this
article and that he had cost me 20 quid. "Gee, sorry," he said,
not sounding very sorry. "You're not going to bet the rest of the
thousand on me, are you?"
"Don't flatter yourself, pal."
With a late rally I won nine of the 20 matches, which meant I got
back ¬£370 of my ¬£400. Having finally gotten a taste of the
punting life, I resolved to be more aggressive. Gulp.
The third round brought another jazzy new bet, two-balls. After
the cut each pairing featured two players who had shot more or
less the same score, which led to well-balanced matchups. I bet
on 18 two-balls for a total of ¬£617--an odd number, to be sure,
but I wanted to get rid of my coins.
In the kind of sentimental punting that would make Chapman
shudder, I decided to reward my winners from the previous day by
backing them again. Justin Leonard, even money against someone
named Kenneth Ferrie, was a strong bet at 40 quid. When two of my
boys--Weir and Colin Montgomerie--were paired I decided to punt
¬£20 on a tie, which paid a handsome 15 to 2.
There was some other easy money sprinkled throughout the draw. I
knew Tiger Woods would drill Scott. The young Aussie is the star
pupil of Woods's ex-coach Butch Harmon, and Tiger uses such petty
grievances as rocket fuel, so I put ¬£50 on him, even at 8 to 13.
I also loved Brad Faxon--who birdied six of eight holes in the
middle of his second round--at evens against Alaistair Forsyth, a
young Scot laboring under the expectations of the home crowd.
Faxon, Leonard and Woods all came through with victories, but the
day ended in heartbreak. Monty and Weir reached the final hole
with Weir one down. I needed the gutty lefty to make up that
stroke for a tie that would pay 150 quid and wash away many of my
mistakes. Weir faced a 30-footer for birdie, while Monty had lost
his approach right of the green. Paralyzed in front of a TV in
the pressroom, I was rooting for Weir to two-putt and for Monty
not to get up and down. This didn't look like a very good bet
when Montgomerie pitched to five feet, but then--bang!--Weir
buried his birdie putt, which suddenly had me rooting for Monty
to save par, and my behind.
"Monty has a chance to help out a writer?" my colleague Gary Van
Sickle said, through the side of his mouth. "Don't count on it."
Sure enough, the goon from Troon knifed me in the back, missing
his putt to lose the match by a stroke. That ended a bloodbath in
which I had lost ¬£281, yet I have to say, the entire day was kind
of a blast. As I poured over the next day's pairings, another
colleague, John Garrity, gingerly approached, having finally made
it to an ATM. He asked if I still needed ¬£100. I lunged for the
money, snatching it from his hand under the guise of applying it
to my creditors. In fact, it was going straight into the till,
giving me ¬£556 for what I was convinced would be an epic rally.
A brief conversation with my heartless editor:
Me: "So, uh, exactly how much do we need to get to Bandon Dunes?"
"How much of that has to come from my winnings?"
Therefore, laying a few careful bets hoping to get my money back
was a nonstarter. I had to swing for the fences. Among the long
shots, I became fixated on one: Weir, at 48.5 to 1. He was five
back of the lead but has made a career of big Sunday finishes,
and that long birdie on 18 was the kind of putt that can turn
around a tournament. A punt of ¬£150 would yield 7,275 quid, or
about $13,641. If we stayed out of the bar, we could make the
Bandon trip work on that. The other great thing about a Weir punt
was that it left ¬£406 for a backup plan.
Chapman walked me through a dizzying number of combination bets
that could get me to 7,500 quid, and after hours of anguish I
settled on a so-called five-man accumulator, or what we in the
States call a parlay. I would be betting on five two-balls, and I
needed a clean sweep. If one lost, all lost, and the dream was
I had already decided to take Els over Hamilton, which seemed as
close to a sure thing as possible. Mickelson-Goosen was too sexy
to pass up. I rang Chubby Chandler, the agent to Westwood and
Clarke and a celebrated punter. He all but guaranteed Leonard
over Paul Casey: "Better putter, better in the wind." When I
spoke to Chubby he was hanging out with Westwood, who shouted
from the background, "Go with Westwood--he's a sure thing!" I had
already liked him over a faltering Skip Kendall, but the
Englishman's brashness cinched it. Now I needed only one more
I called Coleman, and he raved about Nick Price over K.J. Choi.
"Nicky is a great links player--he controls his ball beautifully
in the wind." Price was my last pick. When I laid the bet at
Ladbroke's they did the math: ¬£9,036 was all but on the way.
Sunday's action couldn't have begun any better. Weir birdied
three of the first six holes, shooting up the leader board to
within two strokes of the lead. I was delirious, but the
unreliable Canadian bogeyed 9 and 10, and just like that the bet
was extinguished. It was now all about the two-balls.
Leonard had been first off among the fivesome and was locked in a
taut battle with the cocky Casey. They were all square with two
holes to play, but Justin dropped a birdie putt on the par-3
17th, and I sprinted from the safety of the pressroom to watch 18
play out. I arrived in time to see Casey carve a gorgeous
approach to 15 feet. Leonard went from the rough to a nasty pot
bunker short left, but he hit a great shot to 10 feet. I couldn't
bear to watch Casey's birdie putt, but the crowd reaction told me
he missed. If Leonard made his par putt, Bandon was still in
play. I'm embarrassed to admit my legs were wobbly while Leonard
went through his preshot routine. As he addressed the ball my
breathing became labored. I felt like a Tour wife. When the putt
dropped, gloriously, I loosed a guttural "Yes!" and pumped my
fist, drawing quizzical looks from the Scottish gallery
I skipped back to the pressroom to check the scores. Westwood was
going crazy and would easily trump Kendall. Mickelson was burying
Goosen. Els was one down against Hamilton, but I never doubted
he'd reel him in. So, in my mind, all that was keeping us from
Bandon was my boy Nicky Price. He was one down heading to 18, so
I made the usual trudge to the final green but with little of the
old spunk. I was sure a glorious run was now over. Yet when I
arrived one ball was in the middle of the putting surface, and
everyone was pointing at the other. It had rolled through the
green to the base of the clubhouse, out of bounds by about three
feet. If that was Choi, it was game over, good guys win.
Price and his adversary were now coming up the fairway, and their
walks gave nothing away. But when they got closer, I could see
Choi grinning, while Price's lips were pursed tight. It was,
finally, over--¬£1,080 was gone, and the staff's morale with it.
Els lost the British Open to Hamilton but, far more important, he
won the two-ball, giving me the consolation of a 4-1 record in my
accumulator, not to mention the smug satisfaction of knowing that
some poor dolt had lost ¬£62,500 ... of his own money. Still, for
closure I needed to commiserate with Price. I found him in the
We talked about the vagaries of the betting life for a while, and
then I asked him for some counsel in the unlikely event that
anyone ever entrusts me with another thousand quid. He took a
hard drag on his cigarette and squinted into the wind,
momentarily reflecting on 27 years of professional golf
"Next time," he said, "you should go to London, find a couple of
birds, enjoy a few drinks and have a good time. You'll get a lot
more out of your money that way."