The bet was three dollars, but the cost could have been astronomical.
Max Homa, one of the best golfers in the world, was lining up a five-foot putt on the 17th hole of the BMW Championship on Saturday when a fan yelled, “Pull it!”
Homa, being a professional golfer, drained the putt, and then he and his caddy went to find the fan. They learned that he had bet three dollars that Homa would miss the putt.
The incident follows one last month at the American Century Championship, a celebrity golf tournament, where a heckler yelled during Mardy Fish’s backswing. The fan later said he placed a bet on Steph Curry, who was also playing in the tournament and would beat Fish by three strokes.
Even together, the two incidents do not represent a trend. Thousands of money wagered golf shots have passed without fan intervention since Fish’s shot. But given the high profile of Homa’s incident, it’s worth asking: Is gambling-induced fan interference going to be a problem?
“I feel like we hear it every round,” Jon Rahm told Yahoo Sports at a Tour Championship media conference on Tuesday. “In golf, spectators are very close, and even if they’re not talking to you directly, they’re close enough that when they say to their friend, ‘I bet 10 bucks he’s going to miss it,’ you hear it.”
The issue in this case is not whether gamblers can corrupt an athlete, a game or a sport; This kind of high-level criminal activity has always been a threat to the integrity of the sport. Entire departments of law enforcement, state gaming commissions, and integrity analysts working with all major sports leagues monitor gambling activity that can tip games. After all, nobody wants a clean game more than the people who make the most money.
What happened during the BMW Championship is a crime with easy odds. Maybe it was a legal bet with a sports book, maybe it was a simple side bet with a buddy, but the potential game-changing outcome was the same. (Not that you need to worry about professional golfers’ bank accounts, but if Homa had missed that shot, it could have cost him nearly $70,000 in winnings.)
Live, real-time betting allows bettors to bet on the outcome of the next putt, the next pitch, the next play. No one gets rich off these bets; most of them are restricted – much like bets on the length of the Super Bowl national anthem, for example – because of the easy possibility of abuse. But as Homa’s incident showed, even pocket money bets can affect the course of a sport.
Due to its structure, golf is particularly vulnerable to this type of low-grade manipulation. Players often walk within arm’s length of fans and are always within earshot of them. Silence is expected; a scream at the wrong time can dramatically change a shot. It’s one thing to yell “mashed potatoes” when the ball is in the air, but quite another to yell during a player’s backswing.
Homa admitted that he “very rarely” hears fans injecting themselves into the tournament, but it does happen. “It’s just always something you think about,” he added. “It’s up to us to stay focused or whatever, but it’s just annoying when it happens.”
“The most special thing about golf is that every fan can sit in the front row. That’s unique among sports,” Tyler Dennis, president of the PGA Tour, said Tuesday. “We have a robust and comprehensive fan code of conduct, we have a comprehensive security appliance and a weekly plan, and we are really confident in all aspects of that. We spend a lot of time every day monitoring it and we take it very seriously.”
That’s impossible to estimate, but it’s worth wondering if this is a case, as so often happens, of one idiot ruining the party for everyone. Betting is now legal in 34 states, as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico. Sports leagues have embraced gambling with a full bear hug. Sportsbooks open in real stadiums and arenas, including TPC Scottsdale – home of the Waste Management Open – turning spectators into gamblers with a vested interest in very specific outcomes.
“It’s very easy, very easy in golf if you want to influence someone,” Rahm said. “You’re so close that you can scream at the wrong time, and that can happen very easily.”
Fans have always been fighting their way into the action, whether catching foul balls a la Steve Bartman, or catching fists like during the Malice at the Palace. In the first few months after the pandemic-inspired lockdowns ended, American fan behavior was downright hooligan-like, with everything from dumped popcorn to verbal assaults marring games across the country.
But that was largely just spontaneous idiocy. Fan interference motivated by gambling is quite another. The chance that a fan could interfere with the outcome of a football or baseball game is virtually zero. However, the chance that a fan can influence the outcome of a golf or tennis stroke is much, much higher. When that happens, a simple $3 bet can get a lot more expensive.
“It would be extremely difficult for the Tour to somehow control the 50,000 people scattered around the golf course, wouldn’t it?” Rahm said. “You don’t want it to get out of hand, but you also want the fans to have the experience they want.”