Backgrounded by bare walls and nondescript windows, Xander Schauffele nervously fingers a white coffee mug. His eyelids loom heavy like those of a man freshly roused from sleep, marched in front of a camera, and told to read from the script provided. Word for word. Or else. Wearing a plain T-shirt, he speaks in the too-fast monotone of the desperate hostage forced into recording a video to persuade his reluctant family to pay the kidnapper’s ransom. Please. Except he’s delivering a dreary monologue on behalf of DraftKings, the sports gambling outfit, encouraging fans to get in on the action with Reignmakers PGA Tour (whatever that is) because the golf season is, apparently, just heating up.
“Build your ultimate golf franchise with digital player cards and set your line-up to compete in no-fee fantasy golf contests each tournament of the season for your share of huge cash prizes and more,” drones Schauffele. “From a classic or showdown contest to Matchplay and cup event-based contests, there’s no shortage of ways to get into the action. Head over to DraftKings marketplace to build your line-up and get in the game today. New customers don’t forget to use my promo code Xander when signing up.”
The reaction from the online golf community to the clip of that word salad going viral recently was telling. Most poked fun at his stilted delivery, sleepy demeanour and utter lack of emotion. A few cringed, and others mischievously wondered if something this awful was generated by AI rather than by a human. All valid criticisms except none harped on the most obvious point. Having the world number six golfer, a man boasting lucrative endorsement deals with Adidas, Callaway and Aon, shamelessly shilling for a betting company is a terrible look for a sport seriously blighted by the impact of gambling in recent times.
It’s only a matter of weeks since there was all manner of pearl-clutching around the golf world about Billy Walters’ lengthy and detailed allegations regarding Phil Mickelson losing $100 million in bets and wanting to put $400,000 on the outcome of the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, an event he was playing in. That was considered scandalous and disgraceful. Yet, here is one of the American players expected to star in the upcoming edition of the same tournament in Italy promoting the very same practice.
Then there’s the increasing number of incidents involving aggrieved punters shouting at players mid-shot to try to directly affect wagers they have made for or against the individual. Max Homa and Chris Kirk were heckled by gamblers trying to get them to miss crucial putts in the third round of the BMW Championships at Olympia Fields last month. At Wentworth last weekend, Robert McIntyre was taunted by somebody who approached him to outline just how much money he’d bet on Matt Fitzpatrick and Justin Rose, his playing partners, finishing ahead of him. And Jon Rahm has spoken of hearing punters shouting to him about bets they have running during just about every round.
“We’ve talked about this at the board and the PAC [Player Advisory Council] level for a few years,” said Rory McIlroy last month. “And it is a bit of a slippery slope because ... I think it’s a different environment where people can really affect the play out here. We’re all for people out here having a good time and being able to put something on an outcome, but as long as they don’t feel like they can come here and influence that outcome, I think that’s important.”
Like every other sport, golf was probably blinded by the dollar signs
As an influential member of the PAC, Mcllroy was presumably involved when the PGA Tour opted to take the betting coin in 2020, anointing DraftKings its official gambling partner and giving the company permission to build a large on-course bookmaking facility at TPC Scottsdale, home of the annual Waste Management Open. Some might argue golf’s right to moan about desperate gamblers (are there any other kind?) disrupting tournaments vanished the moment those contracts were signed. What else did they think was going to happen?
Like every other sport, golf was probably blinded by the dollar signs. Since 2018, sports betting has been legalised in 34 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, and has exploded to such an extent that Americans wagered nearly $60bn in just the first six months of this year. It is impossible to watch any sporting encounter now without being bombarded by relentless ads, many providing live betting opportunities, all from companies offering the first hit for free. The tactic historically beloved of drug dealers.
The burgeoning gambling addiction crisis here, especially an issue among young men (the type of lads who frequent golf tournaments) and high school teens, is already being compared by experts with the opioid epidemic. The on-course heckling is only going to get worse as some estimates reckon as many as 20 million Americans are problem gamblers and numbers seeking treatment are skyrocketing. Just the other day, Mickelson announced he would not be betting on the NFL this season because he “crossed the line of moderation and into addiction which is no fun at all.”
There’s a serious public debate to be had about what is doing more damage to professional sport right now, gambling corporations or Saudi sportswashing. Golf, like football, is in the unique position of being able to boast about putting itself at the mercy of both.