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Tiger Woods Has Changed the Dynamics of Golf Betting...By Hartley Henderson

While Dwayne Wade was announced as SI sportsman of the year on December 1, the award arguably could have gone to Tiger Woods who absolutely dominated the PGA Tour in 2006 with 8 victories, including 2 majors, 2 world golf championships and a 6 tournament winning streak on the PGA Tour to end the year. In fact, Tiger's dominance was so pronounced that for the first time in recent memory a golfer was less than even money to win a tournament when Tiger was listed as low as 4/5 at some sportsbooks to win the Target World Challenge. The last time a golfer was this dominant was, well, Tiger himself in 2000 and 2001. At that time, similar to today, the question was being asked whether Tiger was good for the game of golf, or not. The consensus then was that Tiger was a godsend to the PGA Tour because it spurred interest in a sport that was dying in the ratings. That convinced a lot of people who would normally not have been interested in golf to take up the sport and it spiked the TV ratings.

However, it also made tournaments incredibly dull. While golf viewers and bettors traditionally looked forward to the majors since they tended to be very close, Tiger was winning those events in landslides, including an 8 stroke win at the British open and a 15 stroke victory at the U.S. Open in the year 2000. In fact, Tiger was so dominant in those years, in a sport that was generally one of the most competitive, that quite a few top rank golfers withdrew from tournaments when Tiger was entered. More importantly to bettors, Tiger was also making the events almost unbettable for those who don't fancy low odds. But as dominant as Tiger was in those years, there were very few tournaments with full fields where he was less than 5/2 odds.

From about 2003-2005, Tiger went into a bit of a lull, at least by his standards, after his father passed away and immediately following his marriage to Swedish model Elin Nodregen, causing many to wonder if Tiger could ever return to his 2000/2001 form. In 2006 he outdid himself. And, as mentioned, the odds on Tiger have become almost ridiculous. Sure, 4/5 may not be bad odds for an NFL game or a golf matchup, but betting to win outright in golf is the one sport where many bettors expect double or even triple digit odds on their picks. With upwards of 140 golfers entered in a tourney each week (and the players so evenly matched), it is not uncommon to see "no names" win at incredible odds. For example, while Tiger was 4/5 in the tournament mentioned, at the Valero Texas Open a few couple of months prior, Justin Rose was the favourite at 20/1 odds and Eric Axley won the tournament at between 300/1 and 500/1 for books that offered odds on all golfers. TV ratings have tended to be quite poor in tournaments where Tiger isn't entered, but outright win betting is generally higher in tournaments where he isn't playing.

Tiger's dominance has caused quite the dilemma for bettors. Do you bet on Tiger and likely win at lousy odds, or do you bet against him and more than likely throw away your money? Obviously the correct answer is the former, but it is hard to justify taking less than 2/1 odds for a player going up against 140 others, regardless of how good the player is.

For precisely this reason, European sportsbooks have started to offer odds to win the tournament excluding Tiger Woods, while most books catering to the North American market are reluctant to do so. After talking to a few sportsbooks, it is clear why this is the case. According to one Caribbean bookmaker when asked why his book wouldn't consider offering odds to win excluding Tiger Woods, he suggested that it would be foolish for his sportsbook to offer such odds. He stated that in any tournament with decent players, 20 to 25 percent of the bets come in on Tiger to win, but with odds on him generally at 2/1 or less it is pretty much a guaranteed profit for the book when Tiger wins. And even in the rare instance when Tiger doesn't win, the amount bet on him is usually high enough to offset any large odds on other players. The bookmaker acknowledged that they do get several requests to offer win odds excluding Tiger in tournaments he is entered, but he suggested that if the bettors don't want to bet on Tiger, they can bet a top 5 finish on another golfer at generally 1/5 the win odds. Conversely, in Europe it is clear that bettors there don't mind taking low odds.

At Betfair, for example, the odds on Tiger Woods at the beginning of a tournament are often lower than North American books, since as much as 40 percent of the backing for golfers is on Tiger himself. Of course at Betfair, the trader has the option of buying or selling his position at any time, so no doubt the traders there buy Tiger with the expectation that he'll be in contention at some point and can lay off any backing on him for a profit at that point. But at Betfair, along with Ladbrokes, William Hill and most other European sportsbooks, markets to win the tournament excluding Tiger Woods are offered. And for the most part, the odds aren't substantially different than they are with Tiger Woods included. For example, at Tiger's own exhibition event, the 2006 Target World Challenge, the odds on the tournament's second choice Padraig Harrington were being offered at about 16/1 at Betfair, but he was still 13/1 to win excluding Tiger Woods. And Geoff Ogilvy was being offered at around 40/1 to win the tournament with Tiger, but his odds to win excluding Tiger were still around 32/1. Clearly the odds are lower, but not significantly so, enough to detract people from betting it. After all, if one can still get the high double digit or even triple digit odds on the golfers that they had become accustomed to without worrying if Tiger is going to make a mockery of the event, why not bet it?

Clearly, the way Tiger starts 2007 will determine whether there is any chance that North American based books will change their policy on offering odds excluding dominant players, but unless the bettors demand this option, it is unlikely that the books are going to comply. Regardless, just like Roger Federer has made betting on tennis impossible for those not willing to take less than even money on a 64 player tournament, Tiger has changed the dynamics of how one bets on golf. In tournaments where Tiger is not entered, it makes perfect sense to take a shot at the mega-longshots. But in tournaments where Tiger is entered, it's best to just bet some matchups, take the exceptionally low odds on Woods or, better yet, just sit the tournament out. So to answer the question of whether Tiger is good for the game of golf, for the PGA Tour itself, the answer is unquestionably "yes". For traditional golf bettors, the answer isn't nearly as clear.

Hartley Henderson

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