As the old adage goes, there’s no money to be made in mini-tour golf.
A far cry from the lavish land of the PGA Tour sits a world where dozens of players gather with hopes of turning three-figure entry fees into four-figure paydays. Many operate at a financial deficit to compete, while even the best often barely break even as they look to move up a level.
But amid unprecedented times brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, a new revenue stream has branched off the mini-tours and developmental circuits – not on the course, but in Las Vegas.
During a normal week, the action on the Arizona-based Outlaw and Cactus tours won’t get the attention of oddsmakers in Sin City. But with nearly every professional sport sidelined by the coronavirus, bettors are itching for action on, well, something.
Enter mini-tour golf, with a handful of circuits continuing to press on in light of the ongoing pandemic. Shortly after the PGA Tour suspended its operations in mid-March, oddsmakers started to focus on the circuits still standing, filling a sudden void with odds on events and players with little to no name recognition.
“You can tell that people are looking for something to wager on, and are betting something they normally wouldn’t,” said Matthew Metcalf, sportsbook director for Circa Sports which currently operates in two Las Vegas casinos. “It’s been a good exercise in oddsmaking, anytime you get to make odds on something like this that no one really follows.”
Las Vegas casinos have been closed for more than a month, but Metcalf still has bets rolling in through Circa’s mobile app. While bettors can place wagers on the app from anywhere in the U.S., only Nevada residents are currently able to access the casino’s remote funding option to add (or withdraw) money from their accounts.
Even without the use of a walk-up window, Metcalf estimates that he’s still getting about 10 percent of the action he would from a typical PGA Tour event. Those bets are coming at significantly decreased limits; while the PGA Tour’s Zurich Classic this week would have meant limits between $30,000 and $100,000 on bets to win the event, action on the Cactus Tour and Outlaw Tour this week will be capped closer to the $3,000-$5,000 range before Metcalf “aggressively” adjusts his odds.
“You can log onto our app at any point usually and bet to win at least $3,000 on anyone,” Metcalf said.
Those figures are a drop in the bucket compared to the money changing hands during a typical PGA Tour week, but they’re also eye-popping amounts relative to the prize money handed out at the actual mini-tour event. First prize on the Cactus Tour (entry fee $560) is only $2,500, while last week’s winner on the Outlaw Tour pocketed $5,000.
The unexpected attention from the betting community has created a very real scenario where players can make more money via legal bets placed through a Vegas sportsbook – by them, a friend or family member – than they can by winning the actual event.
“It’s been really interesting to see guys out here playing for other people’s money, I guess,” said Outlaw Tour director Toph Peterson. “I wouldn’t want the added pressure, to put 5 grand on myself in Vegas to have to win. So I don’t think many of the guys are going to be doing that, but they could be.”
The Florida-based Minor League Golf Tour suspended operations earlier this month when Florida governor Ron DeSantis issued a statewide stay-at-home order, but prior to that they were also getting attention from oddsmakers. Tour officials added a new rule on March 24 making it clear that even legalized gambling wouldn’t be tolerated.
“With most of the major sports world shut down, some major sports betting companies have placed odds on players and taken bets on MLGT events,” the rule read. “MLGT members are not permitted to place a wager on themselves or another player in the field of a MLGT event. Any player caught doing so will face suspension and loss of membership dues.”
Peterson’s group hasn’t amended its rule book, but he has “discouraged” betting among Outlaw participants. Still, in a cash-centric environment filled with side games and skins action, he admits, “we really can’t control it.” But even tour staff have noticed a dramatic uptick in recent weeks from interested parties looking to glean any extra advantage in a previously untapped betting market.
“Our Instagram has been blowing up,” Peterson said. “We get a lot of DMs from guys asking who may be a member at the host course, and who’s going to be the hot hand. We don’t respond to any of those, but it’s been interesting.”
While he’s still putting out weekly odds on the Outlaw Tour, Metcalf noted that he’s currently getting about three times as much action on the all-female Cactus Tour. He believes that’s due in large part to familiarity derived from smaller fields, with recent tournaments hovering in the range of 20 participants while Outlaw events typically include 60 or more players.
“There seems to be slightly more continuity in the top players on the Cactus,” Metcalf said. “The more people can remember names and form opinions, the more likely they are to bet.”
That continuity has been seen especially at the top, as two women have dominated since the shutdown: Sarah Burnham won two out of three events before finishing second last week to Sophia Popov, who also has a recent runner-up. The two began this week’s Dallas Cup Series event as the betting favorites, and Popov promptly fired a 61 to build a five-shot lead.
While second- and third-place finishers at a Cactus event might struggle to get back $1,000, the money is flowing a few miles north in Las Vegas. Metcalf now has all sorts of betting offerings, ranging from odds to win the event (with a four-figure cap) to head-to-head matchups between two specific players ($500 max).
There’s even a “Yes/No” prop, whereby bettors can take the entire field against a single player by betting “No” on whether that player will win. Limits on those bets against individual players are set at $1,000 on potential profits tied to the three biggest names – Burnham, Popov and former NCAA champ Haley Moore.
It’s all a surprising development for Cactus Tour director Mike Brown, who is in his 10th season running the circuit and has never seen quite this much attention on the birdies and bogeys of his players.
“I heard they’re betting on us in Vegas and I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’” Brown said. “If somebody told me that you had to go bet on Sophia Popov, I would not know how to do it. I’m just not a gambler. So I laughed when I heard that.”
But there’s no laughing these days from the bettors who are cashing tickets on mini-tour players they may have never heard of a month ago. Metcalf admitted that the recent dominance of favorites like Burnham and Popov, as well as last week’s Outlaw win by Alex Cejka at short odds, have mitigated his longshot exposure. But that doesn’t mean that he’s shying away from writing tickets that could dwarf the entire tournament purse, let alone the winner’s payout.
“I will take 100 bucks on anyone, so if you have a 300/1 longshot that’s $30,000 right there,” Metcalf said. “Last week I took $200 on an Outlaw guy at 300/1 (meaning a potential $60,000 payout). I don’t remember the name of the golfer. I knew his name for about 12 hours until he shot an 80.”
Eventually the spotlight will shift back to the larger circuits, with the PGA Tour still expected to resume in June. The Arizona heat will likely pause any Outlaw or Cactus Tour competition by then, regardless of the status of the ongoing pandemic.
But for now, center stage belongs to smaller circuits that previously went unnoticed – and there’s money to be made, off the course as much (or more) than on it.
“Some guy asked me, did you ever think for a moment that this little mini-tour would ever get national exposure,” Brown said. “I said, ‘Never.’”