Tiger Woods chasing PGA Tour history at Zozo Championship in golf's new gambling era

By Iain CarterBBC golf correspondent
Jason Kokrak with the winners' trophy
Jason Kokrak won his first PGA Tour title at his 233rd attempt at last week's tournament in Las Vegas

What are the odds of Tiger Woods successfully defending the Zozo Championship this week and making history with a record 83rd PGA Tour title?

Before we look at the answer, consider the way the question is framed. It is through the prism of betting, which is just how the professional sport now wants it.

Golf has fallen headlong into the world of wagering after the relaxation of gambling laws in the United States. The PGA Tour recognises the potential to tap into millions of dollars of extra revenue and has put betting at the heart of its product.

Last week's CJ Cup was played in Las Vegas, the gambling capital of the US, and official television leaderboards not only reflected the state of play but also live odds markets for the outcome of the tournament.

When the final pair arrived on the last tee, eventual champion Jason Kokrak and runner up Xander Schauffele shared a television image with a graphic asking: "Who will win the 18th hole?"

Kokrak led by one at that stage but on screen odds showed the bookies felt Schauffele was more likely to play that closing hole in fewer shots. Temptation was being dangled - make this more interesting for yourself. Go on, have a wager.

Cards on the table - if that's an appropriate metaphor - I enjoy an occasional small sporting investment. Sometimes I win, more often I lose and I'm fully aware that the people who know best are the bookies.

The PGA Tour is just as savvy and recognises it is worthwhile to be on the same side as the betting companies. In August it signed a multi-year content and marketing deal with BetMGM, a firm that has betting licences in seven states.

According to a PGA Tour press release, the company "offers multiple betting formats, from moneyline and point spread bets to parlays and futures".

In other words it is pretty hard-core gambling that is now at the very heart of professional golf. And last week it was put firmly in the faces of anyone watching it.

This audience includes people who simply love the game, not needing the opportunity to make a fast buck to find it interesting. Fans were genuinely thrilled that the 35-year-old Kokrak finally won a PGA Tour event at the 233rd attempt.

They did not need his triumph to be accompanied by a betting slip that showed his name next to some tasty pre-tournament odds.

Indeed, many viewers already detest the constant bookie bombardment that accompanies most ad breaks. They must now feel there is absolutely no escape when odds are officially embedded in coverage content.

And there are those for who gambling is a life and livelihood threatening problem, people unable to enjoy a small wager without more destructive impulses taking over.

Yes, the tour is committed to responsible betting and is a member of America's 'National Council on Problem Gambling'. And it has an integrity programme for its players.

But, ultimately, this is an exercise in extracting cash from punters' pockets. It finds its way into the hands of bookies, the tour and by extension the players.

The PGA Tour exists for the betterment of its members - the golfers. That's why they did a lucrative deal in 2018 with IMG Arena to licence its official live scoring data to betting operators all over the world.

Professional golf is a business, a money-making enterprise that continues to evolve and seek new revenue streams.

Historically, this is nothing new. Last Sunday was the 160th anniversary of the first Open Championship, which was played at Prestwick in Ayrshire.

The original field was made up of the best protagonists from the many 'money matches' that proliferated in the mid-19th century.

Allan Robertson, a St Andrews based ball and club maker, was the best of the lot and is reputed to have never lost. When he died they needed to find a successor, hence the need for a tournament to identify 'the champion golfer of the year'.

So the oldest and most famous golf championship originated from an intense gambling environment. Given the imperatives at play in Las Vegas last week, it feels as though the game is back where it started - all be it in the digital age.

Which brings us to Woods' odds for the tournament which last year was played in Japan and yielded a record-equalling 82nd PGA Tour title. Because of the coronavirus pandemic it is being played this year at Sherwood Country Club in California.

Since that win, which tied Sam Snead's 55-year-old record, Woods has played only seven tournaments and although he has won his own event at Sherwood on five occasions, those were limited 18-man fields rather than the 78-strong contingent this week.

So the reigning Masters Champion is a modest 28-1 shot (you can get 33's if you look hard enough) behind 10-1 favourite Jon Rahm.

For those less interested in wagering on the outcome, the fascination will centre around state of Woods' game with his long-awaited Masters defence at Augusta National next month fast approaching.

The 15-times major champion is now 44, has a creaky back and knees that niggle. He says he still enjoys competing and fans certainly love seeing him in contention.

But when the fun stops?

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