When fans become gamblers: 'We hear it every single round'

Will the combination of legalized gambling and close proximity make fan interference a problem for golf?

Fans can get very close to players like Max Homa, but are they too close? (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)
Fans can get very close to players like Max Homa, but are they too close? (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

The bet was for three dollars, but the cost could have ended up being astronomical.

Max Homa, one of the best golfers in the world, was lining up a 5-foot putt Saturday on the 17th hole at the BMW Championship when a fan called out, “Pull it!”

Homa, since he is a professional golfer, drained the putt, and then he and his caddy went in search of the fan. They learned he’d bet $3 that Homa would miss the putt.

The incident follows one last month at the American Century Championship, a celebrity golf tournament, where a heckler shouted during the backswing of Mardy Fish. The fan later said he had laid down a bet on Steph Curry, who was also playing in the tournament and would go on to beat Fish by two points (odd scoring).

Even together, the two incidents don’t represent a trend. Thousands of golf shots on which money was wagered have proceeded without fan interference since Fish’s shot. But given the high profile of Homa’s incident, it’s worth asking: Is gambling-fueled fan interference going to become a problem?

"I feel like we hear it every single round," Jon Rahm told Yahoo Sports during a Tour Championship media conference Tuesday. "In golf, spectators are very close, and even if they're not directly talking to you, they're close enough to where if they say to their buddy, 'I bet you 10 bucks he's going to miss it.' You hear it."

The issue in this case isn’t whether gamblers could corrupt an athlete, a game or a sport; that kind of high-level criminal activity has always been a threat to sports’ integrity. Entire divisions of law enforcement, state gaming commissions and integrity analysts working with all major sports leagues keep an eye on gambling activity that could tilt games. Nobody wants a clean game more than the people making the most money, after all.

What happened at the BMW Championship is a crime of easy opportunity. Maybe it was a legal bet with a sports book, maybe it was a simple side bet with a buddy, but the potential game-altering outcome was the same. (Not that you need to worry about the bank accounts of professional golfers, but if Homa had missed that stroke, it could have cost him almost $70,000 in winnings.)

Live, real-time betting allows bettors to gamble on the outcome of the next putt, the next pitch, the next play. No one is getting rich off these bets; most are capped — just like, say, betting on the length of the national anthem at the Super Bowl — because of the easy possibility for abuse. But as Homa’s incident showed, even bets for pocket change can have an impact on the flow of a sport.

Golf is particularly vulnerable to this kind of low-grade manipulation simply because of its structure. Players often walk within arm’s length of fans, and are always within earshot of them. Silence is expected; a shout at the wrong moment can dramatically alter a shot. It’s one thing to shout “mashed potatoes” when the ball is in the air, quite another to scream during a player’s backswing.

Homa conceded that “very rarely” does he hear fans inject themselves into the tournament, but it does happen. “It's just always something that's on your mind,” he added. “It's on us to stay focused or whatever, but it's just annoying when it happens.”

"What is most special in golf is that every fan can have a front-row seat. It's unique among sports," Tyler Dennis, PGA Tour president, said Tuesday. "We have a robust and comprehensive fan code of conduct, we have an extensive security apparatus and plan each week, and we feel really confident about all the aspects of that. We spend a good deal of time monitoring it each and every day and we take it very seriously."

It’s impossible to assess, but it’s worth wondering if this is a case of, as so often happens, 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-on bear hug. Sports books are opening up in actual 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 very easy in golf if you want to affect somebody," Rahm said. "You're so close, you can yell at the wrong time, and it's very easy for that to happen."

Fans have always elbowed their way into the action, whether they’re 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 fans’ behavior was downright hooligan-esque, with everything from dumped popcorn to verbal assaults marring games across the country.

But that was largely just spur-of-the-moment idiocy. Fan interference motivated by gambling is something else entirely. The odds that a fan could disrupt the outcome of a football or baseball game are near zero. The odds that a fan can impact the outcome of a golf or tennis shot, however, are much, much higher. When that happens, a simple $3 bet can become a whole lot more costly.

"It would be extremely difficult for the Tour to somehow control the 50,000 people scattered around the golf course, right?" Rahm said. "You don't want it to get out of control, but you also want to have the fans to have the experience they want to have."