“What are we playing for?” Those are the most common words heard on first tees around the world. Gambling is the lifeblood of sports, and golf is no exception. Even the United States Golf Association, guardian of all that is good and pure in American golf, recognizes this fact. In the USGA’s policy handbook, it gives the OK on informal wagering providing, of course, that “the amount of money involved is such that the primary purpose is the playing of the game for enjoyment.”
Those words are even commonplace on the PGA Tour during practice rounds. However, with a new notice by the PGA officials, it seems there are some words that touring pros won’t be uttering anymore: “Who do have on your fantasy team?”
What is this Fantasy Sports of Which You Speak?
In an internal memorandum circulated among players, the PGA Tour forbade participation in “fantasy gaming websites that pay out money in exchange for an entry fee.” By now, anyone who can read a computer screen, listen to a radio, or watch a televised sporting event knows what a fantasy gaming website is. The two biggest players in the space – DraftKings and FanDuel – have spent more advertising dollars in the past few months promoting their services than General Motors spent in a year during its heyday.
The concept is simplicity itself. The websites stage tournaments that are open to anyone for a fee. The entrants choose a “team” comprised of athletes playing real sports games including football, baseball basketball, and now increasingly golf. The fantasy team that scores best from the real-world performance on the field wins the lion’s share of the tournament pool. FanDuel does not include fantasy golf at all but DraftKings offers tournaments.
The fantasy websites have been embroiled in legal challenges over whether their business model represents illegal gambling or is “a test of skill” among fantasy team owners. The memo from PGA Chief Marketing Officer and former LPGA Commissioner, Ty Votaw, was distributed back in September, well ahead of the recent fantasy sports brouhaha.
No sport wants even a whiff of impropriety about the goings-on during a game. While it is difficult to concoct a scenario where a single pro golfer could affect the outcome of a fantasy tournament on the back nine just with his skill with the clubs, the PGA was able to stamp out player participation without even addressing the possibility for on-course shenanigans. The Tour’s reasoning was that since a handful of states have already declared fantasy sports to be gambling, “the PGA Tour will regard any player participation in these games as conduct unbecoming of a professional.” OK, then.
Organized Golf’s History with Gambling
This is not the first time a golf body has moved to outlaw betting on the outcome of golf tournaments. In the middle of the 20th century Calcutta pools were all the rage. Before a golf tournament, a festive party was held with the names of all the participants listed on a blackboard. Spirited auctions would ensue for the competitors, with deep-pocketed bidders putting together two-player teams. The name “Calcutta” derived from England’s Royal Calcutta Turf Club where similar auctions were staged around horse racing meets.
The Calcutta pools reached the peak of their popularity after World War II when Americans were particularly flush with cash and optimistic of heart. Many pools at private clubs reached well into the tens of thousands of dollars. Such handicap tournaments were ripe for hustlers boasting bogus golf handicaps, and the USGA was forced to outlaw Calcuttas from amateur golf after a pair of Massachusetts con men very publicly carted off $16,100 from a $45,000 pool at Deepdale County Club on Long Island.
Calcutta pools were still very much part of the PGA Tour, however. It was not unheard of for players to “invest” in themselves. It was customary for the winner of a Calcutta at a PGA event to slip the pro golfer 10% of the pot for his efforts. In the early days of the Tour that would be a bigger take-home payday than the prize money. In 1959 the PGA stopped allowing Calcutta pools as well. Weep not for the touring pros, however. The year before a young Pennsylvanian named Arnold Palmer had charged to his first win at the Masters, and the prize money tour professionals would soon be playing for would dwarf those Calcutta pool earnings.
So once again the PGA Tour has stepped in to stop potential gambling on their golf tournaments by players. And once again, weep not for the touring pros. Rory McIlroy recently won £2,000,000 (about three million dollars) in Dubai. He probably wasn’t taking time on the 16th tee to check how his fantasy team was doing.