A sawbuck Says You’ll Read This Gambling Is Woven Deep Into Golf’s Fabric—And It Needn’t Involve Money


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A Sawbuck Says You’ll Read This

Gambling Is Woven Deep Into Golf’s Fabric—And It Needn’t Involve Money


Golf is a game that will lay a man’s soul bare inside of just 18 holes—will take man from his controlled, pristine, air-conditioned environment to the great outdoors and force him to battle wind, rain and sun. If golf can do all that—and more—why can’t you get off the first tee without someone asking, “So, want to make this more interesting?” Silly me, I thought golf already was. Bob Rotella, the golf psychologist, perhaps not surprisingly says the main reason players bet is simply “so guys can bust each other’s chops while they’re having a drink afterwards.” Dr. Rotella says that many golfers get “socialized into golf” and then they further “get socialized into gambling. If you don’t bet on golf, it’s just not cool.” Golf wagerers care less about the money, says the doctor, than about dealing with—or inflicting—the ignominy of losing. He notes that junior golfers, by and large, “don’t need to bet to have a fun contest,” and that good players trying to get better make sure to bet on stroke play—where the goal is to improve at the game, stroke by agonizing stroke—instead of match play, where all you have to do is beat the other player. “Most players,” Dr. Rotella says, “don’t really want to play the game of adding up your score.” Gambling has been in golf pretty much since the beginning of the game. Mary Queen of Scots gambled that she could get away with playing quite soon after the death of one of her husbands. That match alone didn’t spur her beheading, but it didn’t help. Golf gambling has a language all its own. The mainstay, of course, is the Nassau (named after Nassau County on New York’s Long Island, where it was invented 100 years ago). Presses—automatic, standard and the ever-dangerous air variety—come next. “Junk”— greenies, barkies, sandies and Arnies—can add up fast. Of all the honors for Mr. Palmer, having a bet named after him might be the highest. As far as I know, there is no Tiger or Jack. (Clear as a faceful of bunker sand? See the accompanying glossary.) Gambling is so much a part of the game that the U.S. Golf Association has an official policy on it. Appendix III of the rule book says the USGA has “no objection to informal gambling or wagering among individual golfers or teams of golfers when it is incidental to the game.” Some bets are more incidental than others. Bruce Haislip, a member at Baltusrol Golf Club in New Jersey, takes an annual three-day golf trip with three buddies where the loser buys that night’s dinner. No one can buy dinner more than once a trip, so the game plan is to lose the first day—when everyone is on their best dietary behavior—or win outright and never have to pay. Losing that third night—“Lobster for the house!”—isn’t good. On this year’s trip to Innisbrook, Bruce and another of his friends lost on the first two days. On the final day, the bet, essentially $500 on the loser’s credit card, came down to the other two golfers on the 18th hole. As Bruce later recounted by email, one golfer had a one-shot lead; both hit perfect drives. And then, everything went awry. One guy dumped his second shot into the water and, after some scrambling and chops-busting, the two ended up tied. Both men wanted to just split the bill, but Bruce and his fellow previous-day loser would have none of it. They insisted on a practice-green putt-off, where one golfer eventually made a 30-footer for his right to cry “Lobster!” Both golfers later admitted it was the most nervous they had ever been in a golf bet. A story told in Augusta National lore, which an official there swears is true, involves a golfer playing in a group with the late Jackson Stephens, chairman of the Masters venue from 1991 to 1998. A guest in the chairman’s group objected to the low stakes for golf, then later to the low stakes for the clubhouse bridge game. Mr. Stephens shuffled the deck and calmly asked the overeager gambler: “Son, what is your net worth?” When he was given a number in the low millions, Mr. Stephens coolly replied: “I’ll cut you for it.” Steve Cohen, founder and president of the Shivas Irons Society, a nonprofit dedicated to the game that grew out of the mystical classic book “Golf in the Kingdom,” makes a distinction between gambling and betting. He says he’ll do a little betting with a $1 Nassau, but he eschews gambling for higher stakes where the money involved is “significant” and can overshadow golf’s simple joys. Mr. Cohen says anything that takes away from golf’s competition against par—and your own inner demons—is taking away from the game. “Playing golf for golf is enough.” Wesley Bedrosian

Making It Interesting

Nassau: In a $5 Nassau, players bet $5 on who wins the most holes on the front nine, $5 on the who wins the back nine and $5 (sometimes $10) on who wins overall. Press: A player who’s down two holes in a Nassau can opt to start another bet. Automatic press: Starts when a player is down two holes, no matter what. Air press: While a tee shot is in the air, an opponent can yell “Press!” and make a bet that the hitting player has to take. Rolling press: An air press in which the bet can be made after the ball has landed but before it has stopped rolling. Junk: In greenies, played on par-three holes, players bet on reaching the green with the tee shot; if more than one does so, closest to the hole wins. Barkies are bets on making par after hitting a tree at some point. Sandies are bets on making par out of a bunker. Arnies, named for Arnold Palmer, are bets on making par after missing the fairway and failing to make the green in the expected number of shots.

Jeff Gibson, a teaching pro now in Texas, says he invented a game during his years in Tampa, Fla., called “Bow-Downs” that teaches his young students how to deal with the stress that comes with competitive golf. The Bow-Down loser must get on his knees on the 18th green and bow down, saying: “You’re the greatest. You’re the greatest.” Mr. Gibson says he was looking for something “to make the game competitive, without overstepping the bounds of what a junior golfer should do.” Mr. Gibson admits, while laughing, that “I’ve had to do my share” of bowing down.

Mr. Gibson might be onto something: His 24-year-old son, Patrick, got to PGA Tour Q School a few years back before a motorcycle accident sidelined his career, and his 17-year-old daughter played last week in the Florida Women’s State Amateur.

My middle son, Brian, and I often play “Pink Ball.” He’s 12, so money means little to him, and I’m not willing to play for chores, which Tiger Woods told me that he and his dad played for back in the day. Now, please don’t write me: I’m not sure what makes pink a bad color to a boy. He didn’t get that from me. Or Mom. The game is simple: Whoever loses a hole has to play the next one using a pink ball. As with Bow-Downs, never underestimate public humiliation as a teaching tool. Of course, ultimately golf is a game you play by yourself. On one frosty late-in-the-year Sunday, when the goal is to keep moving and warm, I was playing an early-morning round. On 15, I hit my second shot onto the green—the pitchmark was a foot from the hole—but it rolled back into the pond in front of the green. I was frosted. Without putting out, I headed to the next tee, a short par five. When I pulled out a pink ball, I hesitated for the abuse I was about to get from the guys, but I decided I didn’t care. I crushed my tee shot with a driver, then hit with a hybrid to about 12 feet, setting up an eagle putt. And when you’re gambling that your soon-to-be-stellar play will make everyone forget you’re playing with a pink ball, what is the one thing you mustn’t do?

Yeah, I lost that gamble: I left the putt short.

John Paul Newport will return next week. Email: golfjournal@wsj.com.


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