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Gambling And Golf

March 2024
2min read

A match made in heaven

Gambling, of course, is a tradition in golf practically as old as the game itself. The records of the venerable Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews tell of an incredible “death match” between Sir David Moncreiffe and John Whyte-Melville in 1870 in which they actually put their lives on the line. While the club maintains no official record of the outcome, there is documented a speech by Whyte-Melville 13 years later in which he mourns the death of Sir David Moncreiffe and “the causes that led to it.”

The United States Golf Association (USGA), which oversees the rules of the game, even has a policy on gambling for amateurs. According to official etiquette, the association “does not object to informal wagering” as long as “the amount of money involved is such that the primary purpose is the playing of the game for enjoyment.”

Unlike most sports, the challenge in golf is not necessarily to beat the other player. It is to play the course. The opponent, in essence, is yourself. This makes the game a natural fit with betting.

But the one thing that sets golf apart when it comes to wagering is the handicapping system, adopted in 1911. A player’s handicap is calculated by taking the average of his most recent scores. This is then compared with the number of strokes for par. The difference is the number of strokes to be deducted from the player’s score at the end of the round. Once lesser players had been granted strokes, everyone could compete on even terms regardless of skill level.

The system works so well, in fact, that a study published by the Harvard Medical School in 2002 concluded that only 15 percent of private-club players either never or infrequently gambled on their games.

The standard bet in golf is the Nassau. Invented at the Nassau Country Club in Glen Cove, New York, at the turn of the last century, the Nassau is actually three bets in one. In a $50 Nassau, $50 rides on the first 9 holes, $50 on the second 9, and $50 on the lowest 18-hole total—for a total of $150. A “press” starts a new bet for the same dollar amount on remaining holes of a 9-hole leg. Bets can also be declared on individual holes, including bets for the longest drive, the straightest drive, “greenies” for hitting the green on par-3 holes, “sandies” for making par from a sand trap, and “Paul Bunyans” for making par from deep in the woods. Sometimes there can be so many bets going on at once that it might well take a CPA to keep track of it all.

Another popular form of betting in golf was the Calcutta pool, in which tournament competitors were auctioned off to the highest bidders according to their declared handicaps. Some pools ran as high as a quarter-million dollars. (The name originated from England’s Royal Calcutta Turf Club, sponsor of a horseracing sweepstakes.) The money raised was pooled, and at the end of the tournament the “owners” split the winnings with the tournament victors. Cheating was rampant in such pools, with some golfers turning in falsified handicaps and others taking bribes to lose. Following a scandal in 1955 at the Deepdale Country Club on Long Island in which two Massachusetts hustlers playing with phony handicaps, made off with $16,100 in a $45,000 pool, the USGA outlawed Calcuttas.

“The second worst thing in the world is betting on a golf game and losing,” Bobby Riggs was fond of saying. “The worst is not betting at all.”

—T.L.

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