A Beginner’s Guide to Betting on Golf

Now that betting on pro golf is legal, are you going to hit it big or go bust?

Golf and gambling have gone hand-in-hand since the game’s inception, the challenge of wielding a club and attempting to hit a little round object into a hole in the ground made more daunting with a few shekels at stake against an opponent.

Perhaps the first purveyors of this game centuries ago weren’t playing a six-man Amigos match using Vegas scoring with escalated wagers on the back nine and each player paying up the ladder upon completion of the round—that’s called “Wednesday morning” at my club—but evidence exists that for as long as we’ve been playing golf, we’ve also been betting each other.

This practice undoubtedly yields greater intrigue and revelry to any competition. As Lee Trevino famously said, “Pressure is trying to make a putt for a ten-dollar bet with only five dollars in your pocket.”

Sure, we all know people who enjoy playing golf without gambling, but for many of us, that’s like eating a PB&J sandwich without the peanut butter and jelly—as boring as a couple of slices of white bread.

The same can now be said for watching professional golf tournaments.

On May 14, 2018, the U.S. Supreme Court repealed the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA), giving each state the right to allow legal, regulated sports betting. As of late 2023, close to 40 states have legalized it in some shape or form, with many sports leagues using this evolution to help chase the almighty dollar.

That includes professional golf, and especially the PGA Tour, which currently has partnerships with six official betting operators, recently opened a sportsbook at TPC Scottsdale in conjunction with DraftKings, and even runs its own betting content platform called Golfbet.

golf betting
Illustration by Pete Ryan

A world which was formerly taboo, never mentioned on television broadcasts or spoken about publicly in anything but hushed tones, has now been embraced by the establishment, which is more than happy to reap the benefits of a much greater percentage of the fanbase gambling on its product. One of the many reasons that PGA Tour executives are so bullish on gambling is that these investments lead to greater personal engagement, which in turn leads to the public consuming more of the product.

While there are no hard-and-fast rules to betting on the pros—although not taking out a second mortgage to play a 500-to-1 longshot seems like a smart one—there are two guidelines by which potential gamblers should abide.

1. Understand What You’re Betting

If you and I were to stand on the first tee and decide to play a match, you’d ask all the pertinent questions, such as, “How much are we playing for?” and “What are the handicaps?” and “Are we playing auto two-downs, auto one-downs, or simply going press-when-pissed, which can get expensive, since I’m a little pissed before we’ve even started the match?”

Okay, so maybe that last one’s just me, but the point remains: Know the unsubtle differences between an outright and a prop; understand what +3000 means in betting parlance. (For the uninitiated, an outright is a wager to win; a prop is a wager on other results, like a top-10 finish; and +3000 is simply a more confusing, Americanized way of listing 30-to-1 odds.)

Similarly, it helps to realize that anything can be wagered upon. Yes, anything. As real-time betting becomes more mainstream, golf offers the perfect lag time in between shots to put your money where your proverbial mouth is, from choosing which player in a three-ball will hit the longest drive to picking which quadrant of the green a player’s approach shot will find.

As golf betting becomes more prominent, there will be a greater number of bettors who indefatigably jump in with both feet and might only partially realize what they’re betting, then become turned off to the process when this lack of knowledge leads to some immediate losing propositions.

The learning curve isn’t that steep, especially for those who already own an underlying familiarity with the product, but it’s a necessary step before throwing your hard-earned money all over the board.

All of which leads to the second guideline…

2. Understand What Type of Bettor You Are

Any kind of sports gambling should be considered a financial investment, because you’re putting your money in and hoping to see a positive ROI. Which in many ways makes it a Catch-22, since it also exists as a form of entertainment.

If you’re the type who only invests capital in blue-chip stocks and mutual funds, you’ll likely want to stick with low-risk golf bets. Choosing, say, Scottie Scheffler to finish in the top-40 of a tournament isn’t going to wow your buddies at the 19th hole, but it’s a bet which would’ve cashed every single time he teed it up, from the start of the year in January through the season finale in August.

Depending on your tax bracket and how much of a weekly investment you want to make, this can either seem like a waste of time or incredibly appealing.

Those betting a whole 20 bucks each week probably aren’t hellbent on turning it into 25. Add a few more zeroes, though, and a weekly stake of $200,000 returning the same 25 percent profit holds plenty of appeal.

It shouldn’t come as a surprise that the majority of golf bettors are seeking a greater potential return.

Jeff Sherman, VP of Risk and golf oddsmaker at SuperBook Sports, estimates that 95 percent of all tickets at his sportsbook are on outright (i.e., to win) bets as opposed to other options, though he acknowledges that the ratio isn’t as expansive for major championships.

If you’re part of this majority and prefer a little more risk/reward—perhaps you’re the type who always believes you’ll carry the pond on a par five—then these outrights on specific players to win a tournament should offer more intrigue.

Such wagers vary in level of risk, of course. With three wins in the 2023 calendar year prior to the Masters, odds were a mere 10-to-1 for Jon Rahm to claim the green jacket, as he did at Augusta National in April.

There were, however, seven winners during the recent 54-tournament PGA Tour “super-season” who’d entered the week with odds in the triple-digits, including a pair of eventual major champions in Wyndham Clark (100-to-1 going into the U.S. Open) and Brian Harman (125-to-1 before the Open Championship). Therein lies the allure of playing a “lottery ticket” and hoping for a massive payday over a more conservative approach.

If you’ve read this far, there’s likely one question still lingering: “So, how do I get rich while lying on the couch watching golf tournaments?”

Last year, seven PGA Tour winners entered the week with odds in the triple-digits. Therein lies the allure.

The easy answer is to only make bets that are eventual winners, but short of nailing 100 percent of your plays, there’s no magic formula. Many gamblers will employ a statistical model to help decipher which bets to make on a weekly basis. For example, when competing on a massive, 7,800-yard course, a greater edge will often be given to those players who hit it the farthest; on a 6,800-yard track, you’ll likely favor those with exquisite wedge games.

Employing a computer program to spit out the numbers doesn’t ensure success, though, just as success isn’t solely relegated to those with such innate knowledge. Just as with horse races, some bettors will look only at recent performance, some will more strongly consider a player’s history on that specific course, and some will play the best prices, meaning those with odds which appear longer than perhaps they should. Long-term prosperity likely includes a combination of all these strategies.

If this all sounds too intimidating or time-consuming, a variety of alternative options might seem more palatable, especially for beginner bettors.

Companies such as DraftKings and FanDuel offer a weekly assortment of Daily Fantasy Sports (or DFS) contests, in which you choose six players to fit under a salary cap for a full tournament, or the weekend rounds, or just a single afternoon. This assortment includes an extensive range, from 25-cent “cash games” where finishing in the top 50th percentile is good enough, to pricey tournaments which can reap a seven-figure bounty for the winner.

For more traditional fantasy players—think of your annual fantasy football league, which holds a draft and allows you to keep a more permanent roster each week—season-long golf leagues are growing in popularity, potentially offering an advantage to those who have done their homework and already realize that Ludvig Aberg is the game’s next big superstar or Min Woo Lee could contend for a few major titles in the impending year.

There are also the less laborious “one-and-done” pools, which require contestants to choose one golfer for each tournament, without an ability to use that golfer again. It should come as little surprise that even this leisurely method of investing in professional golf comes with plenty of diversification. Some pools require all picks to be submitted at season’s beginning, others call for weekly submissions; some allow choosing just one golfer each week, others ask for more at the bigger events; some employ money-earned as the sole way of determining overall standings, others might use FedExCup points or some combination of both.

All of which gets us back to those initial guidelines. Knowing the rules is important, but perhaps not as vital as knowing what type of bettor you are: whether you want to play aggressively or conservatively, whether you like diversifying your portfolio each week or utilizing a single-bullet theory, whether you’re in it solely for the ROI or the entertainment value.

Just as you might’ve started to understand long ago that playing a round of golf with buddies is less exciting without a wager, don’t be surprised if you soon realize that watching the game’s most elite professionals can feel the same way without having a little of your own skin in the game, too.

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