Betting operators are anticipating a big week. Wagering on golf has exploded in recent months, thanks to expanded legalized betting and a pandemic-inspired spike in golf interest. At DraftKings alone, the sportsbook handle for golf has increased tenfold this year compared with last.
“We saw an explosion of interest in getting content and betting on golf because it was all there was,” said Patrick Keane, chief executive at Action Network, a media company devoted to sports gaming. “There was only so much Taiwanese baseball and Russian ping-pong that people could follow.”
The proliferation of golf gambling was urged on by the sport itself. When it became clear 2½ years ago that the federal law banning most forms of sports gambling would be struck down, the PGA Tour aggressively began to rethink both its business model and its rule book. While some professional sports leagues were slower to come around, tour officials knew that friendly wagers had long been part of the sport.
“The idea of competing in this manner, it is inherent in the game,” said Norb Gambuzza, the PGA Tour’s senior vice president of media and gaming. “It’s not something that we hide from or are reluctant to talk about.”
The tour’s plans accelerated when the sports world suddenly stopped spinning in March. Even as tour officials canceled and postponed three months’ worth of events, it became clear pro golf would resume play before other sports. The tour knew it had a short window to take advantage.
In barely six weeks’ time, officials rewrote tour policy that governed gambling-related activities and partnerships. Then it struck deals with four top-tier gambling operators. The ink was barely dry when the tour resumed play in mid-June. While players are still barred from betting on golf events, the tour now provides more leeway for tournaments and players to partner with gambling companies and for networks to incorporate odds into event broadcasts.
“And we did that all very deliberately because of that kind of lack of supply,” Gambuzza said.
Meanwhile, with social distancing baked into the sport, golf experienced a historic surge in participation in spring and summer. That interest carried over to improved television ratings and increased betting activity, even as other sports had their viewership plummet.
Several sportsbooks said their golf-related wagering has doubled — and in some cases tripled — from this time a year ago. The sport still trails football, basketball and baseball for betting activity in the United States, but most operators say golf has been the biggest year-to-year growth area.
At Action Network, Keane said, the average number of monthly users accessing golf content has increased nearly 300 percent since last year, the largest growth area on its platforms. As more fans discover it — 20 states now permit sports wagers, with more on the way — they also will discover a sport that’s relatively simple to gamble on.
“People get confused by the vernacular with respect to betting — what’s plus-120, what’s minus-130, a parlay? — so many different confusing terms,” Keane said. “With golf, it’s easy. You bet a winner, top five, top 20, a head-to-head matchup. It’s almost like a futures bet that closes in four days.”
It’s likely to get more complicated — and more lucrative. The tour has tailored some of its biggest initiatives to the sports gambler, with everything pointing toward live, in-play betting.
Streaming video that follows specific players or groups and real-time shot-tracker data available on the tour’s platforms will eventually make it easy to bet on virtually every aspect of a tournament, including individual holes and shots. They will even allow for prop bets on who will hit the longest drive or get closest to the pin on a par-3.
“When it comes to sports wagering, there probably isn’t a better sport because of pace of play for live betting,” said Ezra Kucharz, chief business officer for DraftKings. “Think about all the golfers, all the holes, every single swing — it’s ideal for live betting.”
Those kinds of bets are already popular in “more mature markets” such as the United Kingdom, said Jay Croucher, head of trading at PointsBet. “We expect the U.S. to go in the same direction,” he said. “We’re not quite at that point, but it’s coming.”
PGA Tour officials knew mixing golf and gambling came with risks, Gambuzza said, underscored by the fact that one of its biggest stars, Phil Mickelson, was once entangled in an insider-trading scandal with an infamous sports gambler. Even before the tour started partnering with gambling operators, it signed a deal with Genius Sports, a sports-data firm, to help monitor gambling activity around the game. Gambuzza said a couple of instances have been flagged but the tour isn’t aware of any nefarious activity.
“We understand that nothing is bulletproof and there is inherent risk in running a sporting event across 18 holes where you have 100 to 150 guys competing and fans in proximity,” he said. “And so for anybody to sit here in my position and say that, ‘Yeah, we’ve got a foolproof system,’ would be grossly exaggerating at best.”
With the Masters landing this year in November, with no nightly NBA and NHL games to satiate bettors, gambling operators are expecting a busy week, probably one of the year’s biggest non-NFL gambling events. And even those with no money at stake watching at home won’t be able to escape the growing specter of betting surrounding the sport, especially if DeChambeau — a plus-800 favorite, according to DraftKings — stays in the hunt. It will be right there on his cap.