George Peper: The PGA Tour’s Big Bet is No Sure Thing

Gambling on the pros may now be legal, but the biggest bet in golf is on the future of the PGA Tour

We recently published a feature article on the explosive growth of gambling on professional golf, a practice that’s now legal in all but about 10 states. The author of the piece is Jason Sobel, who along with Michael Collins hosts an entertaining Sirius XM radio show called “Hitting the Green,” which has nothing to do with accurate iron play but everything to do with canny golf betting.

I tune in occasionally, and I must’ve learned something, as last year I managed to finish first in the golf fantasy league I’m in. It’s a pool where you get 1,000 points to spend on a menu of a hundred or so Tour players whose “prices” range from over 400 points for the top-ranked guys down to 80 for the no-names (you can also write-in players for 75 points). You pick your team in January and ride them for the full season, their total prize winnings determining your finish in the pool.

My horses last year were Scottie Scheffler (405 points), Viktor Hovland (315), Rickie Fowler (127), and write-in rookies Thomas Detry and Callum Tarren (75 each), who combined to win nearly $43 million, about $6 million more than the next guy’s team. (Incredibly, no other entrant chose both Scottie and Viktor.) I’d tell you how much money I won, but then I’d also have to tell the IRS.

Besides, there are some far more interesting bets currently afoot, and they’ve been placed at the highest level of the golf ecosystem. Indeed, I can think of no time in the history of the game when more or bigger stakes were on the table. It’s as if we’ve all been dropped suddenly into the pit at Caesars Palace. The biggest whale is surely PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, who last year gambled twice and lost big both times, first by vehemently repudiating the oily Saudis and then by clandestinely embracing them. Now he’s betting his $9 million salary he can pull an inside straight in the form of a functioning alliance between the Tour and LIV Golf.

(photos via Getty Images)

At the same time, Monahan is hedging that bet by fattening the already bulging wallets of his marquee players with a series of perks aimed at stemming the flow of Jon Rahm-like defections to LIV: a major sweetening of the FedExCup (next year, the overall winner will reap a windfall of $25 million); bonus schemes, including the notably fishy Player Impact Program that in the last three years has rewarded Tiger Woods with $35 million when he played in only five events; and the christening of eight 2024 tournaments as Signature Events with small (70- to 80-man) fields and large ($20 million) purses.

As part of this crusade to do the greatest good for the smallest number, the Tour also has become an investor in a made-for-TV enterprise cooked up by Tiger and Rory McIlroy along with former NBC Sports Group President Mike McCarley: the TGL Golf League. A fuzzily formed experiment in indoor team competition, it’s built around a 15-week series of simulator matches involving two dozen of the game’s most prominent players. The longshot hope is that this high-tech sideshow will draw new people to the game. TGL was set to launch right about now, but last November it suffered a setback when the dome of its inflatable arena collapsed, an ominous metaphor for the questionable soundness of the whole concept. Now it’s on hold for a year.

Regardless of whether the TGL gamble bears fruit, Tiger and Rory have already squandered a measure of their peers’ respect by attempting to widen the already huge gap that exists between the top 20 and the other 100 or so card-carrying Tour members. Fact of life in pro golf: as the rich get richer, the rest get resentful.

Meanwhile, all the dancing with and around the Saudis has cost the Tour hundreds of millions of dollars, depleting their once-ample reserves and threatening their daily operation to the point that they’ve had to go to tournament sponsors for additional financial support in the staging of events. At the same time—and as another hedge against the LIV situation—the Tour has courted a handful of U.S.-based private equity groups as potential minority owners.

No matter who the new partners may be, they’ll be taking a gamble, as pro golf today is a riskier business than it was a few years ago. Tiger is all but gone, and golf without Tiger is, to quote Herbert Warren Wind after the retirement of Bobby Jones, “like France without Paris—leaderless, lightless, and lonely.” Golf participation may be growing in the post-COVID era, but the game’s fan base is not, and its ever-shrinking television audience is virtually bereft of anyone under the age of 30. Pro volleyball and ping pong have more fans than golf—hundreds of millions more.

The biggest whale is surely PGA Tour Commissioner Jay Monahan, who last year gambled twice and lost big both times, first by vehemently repudiating the oily Saudis and then by clandestinely embracing them.

Any serious investors looking to reap a fat return from that scenario may have to look very hard. As for the deep-pocketed Saudis, if what they’re truly hoping to do is burnish their image, they may at some point realize there are more promising places to funnel the royal riyals.

But even if the Tour is able to sort out its partnership issues, they may be facing a couple of challenges from another flank—the U.S. government. Assuming there’s some sort of merger involving the Saudis, it may come under the scrutiny of the U.S. Department of Justice for possible anti-trust violation. And assuming that passes the sniff test, another battle with Congress may still await as last summer a bill was introduced in the Senate to strip the Tour of its long-held status as a tax exempt 501(c)(6) entity. In the 50 years since gaining that status, the Tour has avoided nearly a billion dollars in taxes; now they may need all the help they can muster from lobbyists and golf-loving lawmakers to stave off the revenuers.

Speaking of legislators, the USGA and R&A, ruling with all the power not vested in them, have finally put their cards on the table, issuing an edict that will require all golfers, professional and amateur, to tee up a throttled-back ball. In keeping with the conservative tenor of those two organizations, their bet was cautious and calculated. They gave everyone (notably golf ball manufacturers) plenty of lead time—the pros won’t have to comply until 2028, the amateurs 2030. They didn’t call for bifurcation (different rules for pros and amateurs). And the borderline inconsequential 5 percent rollback means the average male amateur’s drive six years from now will travel an all-but-unnoticeable five yards less than it does today. (Personally, I’ll take that deal right now.) So the initial reaction from the golf community, while less than rapturous, has been generally conciliatory with no threat of a coup or litigation. The decree was also cagey in that it left the door open for future distance-curbing through a limitation on driver design. That may bring a long-shot gamble of a different sort.

So we begin the new year with several changes, some certain and others still very much in flux. Will those who chose to be LIV golfers remain happy with their decision if they’re shut out of the majors for the rest of their lives? Will those who resisted the temptation to jump, gambling on the Tour’s ethics, be happy with the eventual settlement? Surely there are more bets to be placed. Indeed, probably the only soul who’s through with golf gambling is Phil Mickelson. And why not? In the last two years, he’s already won—and lost—about as much as he possibly could.

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