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Showing every shot is no gamble; it's the first look at golf's gambling future

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PONTE VEDRA BEACH, Fla. – Get ready for a glimpse into golf’s future.

This week at The Players marks the first time that the PGA Tour has made every shot from every player available to watch across an entire tournament. Via dozens of live streaming options and hundreds of cameras, fans will be able to catch everything from Rory McIlroy’s tee shot at No. 17 on Thursday to Troy Merritt's 4-foot par save at No. 7 on Sunday. It’s an embarrassment of riches for the diehard devotee, and with the Tour’s recent announcement of a media-rights agreement that runs through 2030, it’s likely an offering fans can expect with increased frequency in the future. 

But the inclusion of every shot from every player in real time also caters to a new audience of growing importance, both for the Tour and within the game: gamblers.

Walk into a Las Vegas casino and you can likely place a weekly bet on who will win a given Tour event, or perhaps take a stance on a handful of 72-hole, head-to-head wagers. But legalized sports gambling in the U.S. is on the rise, with Michigan becoming on Wednesday the 16th state with legal sports-betting operations. More bets mean more offerings on various sports, and when it comes to golf there are no shortage of action options.

Currently more prevalent in U.K. sportsbooks or in the far-less-regulated world of offshore establishments, golf betting can include head-to-head wagers on a single round that often have nothing to do with who’s winning the actual event. There could even come a time when legal wagering in the U.S. includes taking wagers on what a certain player will make on a single hole, or whether he’ll find the fairway with a given tee shot.

So when the question is posed about who in the world would be interested in watching Chris Stroud putt out on the sixth hole this week, one of the leading answers could be the guy who bet on (or against) Stroud in a matchup against playing partners Nick Watney or Byeong-Hun An.

“Sports gambling really opens the doors to bring more fans to our sport, and make us a more relevant sport. I think it’s great,” said Graeme McDowell. “I think the gambling thing can only bring in great fans and crowds, increased money and exposure to the game.”

Those sentiments are certainly shared by executives in Ponte Vedra Beach. The Tour has been aggressive in expanding its embrace of the burgeoning gambling industry, forming a recent partnership with Action Network to produce and promote regular betting content. Last year the Tour also announced a partnership with IMG Arena to distribute proprietary ShotLink data with betting operators, a move that could potentially lead to on-site, mobile-betting products at tournaments in the near future.

“It’s all about engagement,” PGA Tour commissioner Jay Monahan told the AFP at the Zozo Championship in October. “When done right, it gives fans the opportunity to engage with your sport over a longer period of time and have more interest in what’s happening across the entire player field.”

While gambling and golf have long been tied, the movement is afoot to bring it from the shadowy back rooms into the forefront of the global consumer product.

“We have spent a ton of time preparing for this eventuality,” Monahan said on a recent episode of the Rory & Carson podcast. “I think the opportunity is there to engage more people around our sport and our Tour. … I think it’s going to be fascinating to see the way people and fans consume our sport, particularly people that have not been following it.”

But with the increased emphasis on legalized gambling comes a brighter spotlight on the darker side of betting on individual sports. Unlike placing wagers on one team against another, golf seems especially vulnerable to infiltration from nefarious entities, be they parties looking to exploit information about a specific player for profit or those overtly attempting to impact a wager while on the course.

The cauldron of the 17th hole at TPC Sawgrass will be on full display this week, and it’s a place in the past where fan behavior has sometimes shifted from rude to unruly in the late afternoon hours. Add in the prospect of (legal) money riding on the outcome of a single head-to-head matchup or tee shot, and the dynamic between fan and player could take a decided turn.

“Golf’s one of the only sports, if not the only one, where you can legitimately influence the outcome as a fan. You yell at the wrong time of the swing, or whatever,” said Jordan Spieth. “It’s going to be something that, if the Tour can profit off it, it’s going to be obviously great for us players. But at the same time, there are certainly a lot of concerns.”

“Obviously the ability to mess with the sport is very there and very real,” added McDowell. “When you start betting on individuals, it really changes the landscape of what’s possible in sport. There are very real, tangible changes that happen every day, and there’s a lot of money to be made. So it has to be done the right way, and it has to be in a fair environment. It has to protect the players and the integrity of the sport.”

To the Tour’s credit, officials appear poised and ready to tackle some of the complications that can arise with legalized gambling on an individual sport. In 2018, they established an integrity program with a stated purpose of “preventing betting-related corruption in PGA Tour competitions,” and they have since partnered with a third-party group to monitor betting activity in the marketplace, both domestic and abroad.

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Monahan noted that many of the potential betting offerings have existed as products in the legal, international gambling market for “a long period of time,” and that they are now poised to expand on the domestic side. But he is prepared to seriously address the impact that increased betting options could have on the competition itself.

“We take the sanctity of the competition, and the way our players are treated on the course, and the relationship between players and fans, it’s all really important to us,” Monahan said.

How exactly legalized gambling will look and feel within golf remains a work in progress, but the momentum is clearly moving in a more inclusive direction. The introduction this week of making every shot from every player available is a means toward that end, and it could soon become much more the rule than the exception at Tour events.

But the marketplace is changing rapidly, as states continue to open their arms to legalized sports betting and sportsbooks quickly set up shop to satisfy the subsequent demand. And as that trend develops, the onus will remain on Monahan and company to successfully bridge the gap between engaging new fans in search of a friendly wager and ensuring that their passion doesn’t impact what happens inside the ropes.

“Starting to take the right measures to go about at least making [legalized golf betting] possible is great. And then try to take care of that second part as it comes up,” Spieth said. “Because you don’t want a problem to happen that influences the outcome of a tournament. Nobody wants that. But it’s not out of the question of it happening, either.”