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Despite positive reaction, gambling aspects bring dark possibilities to golf

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ORLANDO, Fla. – It was only five years ago that Phil Mickelson was linked to Las Vegas businessman and gambler Billy Walters in an insider trading investigation spearheaded by the FBI and Securities and Exchange Commission.

Mickelson was never charged with any crime and was listed as a “relief defendant” in a civil case, but his association with Walters, who was sentenced to five years in prison and fined $10 million for his involvement in the insider-trading case, prompted some interesting questions.

At the time, the PGA Tour had a relatively straight-forward regulation on gambling. Players were not allowed to “associate with or have dealings with persons whose activities, including gambling, might reflect adversely upon the integrity of the game of golf.”

So much has changed since then.

Last week, the circuit unveiled a new player endorsement policy that now allows members to sign deals with what the circuit defines as “gambling companies” like DraftKings and FanDuel (but not companies whose primary purpose is sports betting).

It’s a fine distinction, but a necessary move, following last year’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down a federal act prohibiting gambling in most states.

During a mandatory player meeting last week at the Honda Classic, Tour commissioner Jay Monahan outlined the circuit’s altered outlook on gambling.

“We are aggressively and also carefully pursuing commercial deals in the U.S. gambling and daily fantasy spaces and expect to make announcements in the coming months,” Monahan told the gathered players. “We see strong opportunities for commercial deals.”

Beyond the obvious – gambling is bound to become a big part of the sporting landscape – the Tour’s interest here is really two-fold. To prepare for the onset of legalized gambling, the Tour initiated an integrity program in 2018 and is pushing, like most professional sports leagues, to have whatever gambling legislation that is passed to include “integrity fees” that would be paid to the leagues in exchange for the Tour’s real-time scoring data [ShotLink].

The Tour also sees a vast segment of new fans that legalized gambling can bring to the sport.

That is the upside to the circuit’s newfound endorsement of gambling, but there is a dark side.

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“It can become problematic. It became a problem in cricket how they started fixing games,” Ernie Els said this week at the Arnold Palmer Invitational. “They have to watch that very carefully. In golf I don’t know. I would say we still play by the honor of the game. I still feel like guys give their best.”

Cricket has been scandalized by several gambling and match fixing allegations in recent years, including a case involving South African cricketer Hansie Cronje in the 1990s that led to a World Cup investigation in 2007.

The Tour is well aware of the hazards of gambling and the circuit’s integrity regulations cover nine pages and is published in English, French and Spanish. The program covers players, anyone affiliated with players [caddies, managers, trainers] and even tournament volunteers, and addresses everything from “contriving an outcome” to “providing insider information.”

“I want to stress protecting our brand and our competition is paramount. We must all remain vigilant in this area. Our brand is 100 percent linked to our reputation,” Monahan reiterated to players at last week’s meeting.

A cautionary tale can be found in the Tour’s performance-enhancing drug policy that was introduced in 2008. Although officials spent more than a year educating members about the consequences of seemingly inadvertent violations, the program has been defined by exactly that type of accidental issues.

In 2009, Doug Barron was suspended for a year for violating the PED policy for taking two drugs [testosterone and beta blockers] that had been prescribed by his doctors. Six years later, Scott Stallings made a similar mistake after being prescribed medication by his doctor and self-reported the infraction. He was suspended for 90 days.

Tour players regularly prove themselves exceedingly talented at focusing on the smallest of details, from the nuances of the golf swing to game management, but as a general rule they don’t spend much time reading the fine print and most players agree that if there were to be some sort of gambling dust-up on Tour it would be the result of an inadvertent violation of some subtle detail of the integrity program.

“These things will probably happen because it’s the world we live in, but if guys will go for it [potentially throwing a match]? I don’t think so,” Els said.

Most see the potential for “action” at Tour events in match-ups, bets that will feature one player against another for a round or tournament. Three- and two-ball bets are popular in the United Kingdom, where sports gambling is a way life.

“You can walk down to your local village and there's usually a betting shop there and you can bet on horses or football or golf or whatever,” explained Northern Ireland’s Rory McIlroy. “It's an added interest in terms of fan engagement and obviously that's a big term used by the PGA Tour and giving fans of golf a better experience.”

In the cost benefit analysis, the Tour is betting on that new fan engagement and, to be fair, the circuit has gone to great lengths to avoid a potential scandal like the ones that rocked cricket. But in an imperfect world it’s impossible to predict what lurks behind the gambling corner.

“They are opening themselves up and I’m a little fearful of it,” Els warned. “Guys are going to have to be careful because things are going to start coming out of the woodwork.”

The Tour’s enlightened outlook on gambling has come a long way since Mickelson’s brush with Walters, but the new gambling reality has created many more questions and no shortage of concerns.