Letter from St. Andrews: Millie Bets the Dog

Millie and I were halfway through our early walkies one day last week and nearing a familiar spot beneath the expansive front window of the Rusacks Hotel dining room. Familiar, because it is there that Millie customarily deposits the steaming ecreta of her evening meal, just as the surveillant hotel guests are tucking into their breakfast sausages. Before she could commence her enchanting ritual on this day, however, a gray sedan careened left off Golf Place and headed toward us with alarming speed.

Fortunately it slowed down or Millie would not have been the only one making a contribution to the Ziploc bag. In fact, it stopped smack in front of us and out jumped Professor David Malcolm, known to everyone in town as “Doc.”

“I’ve just spent two days in the library at Edinburgh University,” he said excitedly, “and in the old newspapers I uncovered the most marvelous information.” Doc Malcolm is a man of 65 years with a great shock of white hair and a unique mid-Atlantic burr that betrays an education from both Cambridge and California. By trade he is a research scientist and lecturer with a specialty in genetics. But like most people in this town, his true passion is golf, and Doc’s extends to writing about the game as well as playing it. For the better part of two decades he’s been researching the definitive biography of Old Tom Morris, which he plans to publish later this year.

“It seems that as early as 1850 people were gambling rampantly on golf,” he continued. “At those exhibition matches involving the Morrises, the Parks, and others—they had hundreds of pounds riding on them!” According to Doc, this is the first proof of organized betting in the featherie era. Makes sense, though. In the U.K., they’ll bet on just about anything, and have for centuries.

Case in point: When he won the Grand Slam in 1930, Bobby Jones didn’t earn a penny, but Bobby Cruickshank cleaned up. A canny Scot if ever there was one, Cruickshank had played with Jones in a spring tournament that year and seen him thump the field by 13 strokes. Immediately, Cruickshank  wired a few quid to his bookmaker, with long odds on Jones winning all four titles. When the final putt fell at Merion, Cruickshank potted $60,000, a sum that many a frugal Scotsman could have stretched over a long lifetime.

In the U.K., where by all appearances there are more bookies than dentists, gambling is as legal as dog-walking. At the Open Championship, where the betting parlors are across the street from the course, even the players get into the act, routinely backing themselves and others. Five-time champion Tom Watson admits he’s augmented his winnings over the years, and several competitors’ fortunes were made in 1991 when Ian Baker-Finch came through against 50–1 odds.

I remember well flying back from the 1983 Open on the Concorde (probably because it was my one and only supersonic travel experience) and sitting in front of Peter Jacobsen and Andy Bean. Andy had placed a few bets that week, including some kind of win-place-show on himself, and he’d finished tied for second with Hale Irwin, just a stroke behind Watson. I’m not sure whether he had trouble computing the odds, was flummoxed by the pounds-to-dollars conversion or just couldn’t deal with numbers of such size, but he seemed to take fully half of that three-hour flight calculating his take, which was substantial. Last year, if Ben Curtis had put a thousand pounds on his own head at the start of the championship, he would have more than doubled his week’s pay. Curtis’ odds were 750–1, and first prize was 700,000 pounds.

I must say, the bookies here make it fun. You can, of course, make a basic bet on any individual player in the field. For this year’s Open at Troon, Tiger was installed as the early favorite at 4–1 to win. Ernie was listed at 10–1, Vijay at 12–1 and the defender Curtis could be had at the price of 150–1. But the odds tend to vary a bit from parlor to parlor, so it pays to shop around. You also have the option of picking the winner with Tiger in the field or out; if you bet a player “Without Woods” and that player finishes second (behind Tiger), you win.

You can bet on a player to finish among the top four, but the odds then are divided by four. For example, if you take Sergio Garcia at 40–1 to finish in the top four, then no matter whether he finishes first, second, third, or fourth, you’re paid at 10–1. There are also head-to-head bets. Say Davis Love III and Jesper Parnevik are paired together one day. You pick one of the to win (there are odds on each guy). If you parlay several such bets into trifectas and quinellas (or whatever they call them here), and all your guys win, you can have a very nice payday. And then there are “six-shooters” where the bookie gives you a group of six players and you pick the top finisher. If all that’s too complicated for you, then you can pick the top American, the top Euro, or the top player from the rest of the world.

The wagering on the Open this year is expected to approach $30 million—and by an odd coincidence some of that money will be mine. You see, the local Ladbrokes parlor is on Bell Street, right across from the pet shop, and one day Millie dragged me over there against my will. Once inside, I began thinking how well Phil Mickelson has been controlling his irons this year. I was able to get him at odds of 33–1. Without Woods.