Managing emotion is perhaps the most important trait in successfully betting sports. The fear of missing out has hindered bettors since well before hashtags and the FOMO acronym were popular. Tiger Woods epitomizes this concept, and it baffles me.
I get the excitement. I notice the improved health. I see the shades of his vintage game. But so do reckless gamblers, and their illogical wagers prevent fair payouts.
“We get $1,000 bets,” Jeff Sherman, golf oddsmaker at the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, told ESPN. “I don’t think you’ve ever seen true odds just because of the support he gets. When he was 50-1, true odds would have been 150-1.”
The Westgate has posted 25-1 odds on Woods for this week’s PGA Championship, despite the fact that he is currently outside the top 50 in the world golf ranking, hasn’t won a tournament since 2013 and hasn’t yet strung together four strong rounds of golf this season. Put me in the camp believing his 10-year major championship drought will last forever. And yet all sportsbooks indicate he routinely ranks among the golfers with the highest ticket count.
“He’s always going to have these people who obviously like him, cherish him and bet on him until he doesn’t play anymore,” South Point oddsmaker Jimmy Vaccaro told ESPN.
“They’ve won with him in the past,” Sherman said. “They’ve seen what he can do. They think at some point he can harness his talents.”
Well, here’s the truth. Tiger is not the same. He’s 42 years old and has endured too many injuries to list. He’s just over a year removed from back fusion surgery. He’s struggled in hitting his fairways this year, ranking 125th in strokes gained off-the-tee (-0.039) and 175th in driving accuracy (55.28 percent). But bettors are undeterred by a decade of losing tickets.
“People like betting the guys they like rooting for,” CG Technology vice president Jason Simbal said. “It’s the same reason TV network executives get excited when Tiger is in contention on Sunday.”
That dominance is long gone, but it sure was lethal. Between 1997 and 2003, he won 37 of 137 PGA events. That’s as many as the next three golfers combined. His 2006 campaign included a stretch of seven straight wins. Perhaps no golfer has been in better form than Woods in his 2000 season, when he began his Tiger Slam with three majors, including a record 15-stroke win at the U.S. Open.
“We got our ass kicked every week,” Vaccaro said, sharing that Woods represented the highest liability and ticket count during his prime. At his apex, he was less than even money to win a tournament. “It’s hard to even fathom. Sixty-four guys, and you still had to lay money, and he still won.”
“Remember, his competition was just Phil Mickelson and Vijay Singh and not much else. David Duval had a couple years,” Sherman said. “People were cashing tickets at short odds and people were just rolling that over.”
Opponents also rolled over. Tiger’s mere presence and the huge galleries intimidated competitors. That was until the 2009 PGA Championship, when Y.E. Yang did what no golfer had ever done in coming from behind to defeat Woods in the final round of a major championship. The world’s 110th-ranked player delivered golf’s Buster Douglas moment.
That upset ignited a trend that saw others stop fearing him, which was crystalized at this year’s Open Championship. Tiger held the outright lead during the final round, going to +150 to win the tournament in in-game betting at the Westgate. On the 10th hole, he delivered a masterful shot from inside a fairway bunker, lofting a pitching wedge from 151 yards out high in the sky before it settled on the edge of the green. It was vintage Tiger. But then he faltered with a double-bogey and bogey on back-to-back holes, as eventual winner Francesco Molinari and others shuffled past him.
“The old Tiger Woods would’ve come on in Day 4,” professional bettor Bill Krackomberger told ESPN. “I know he’ll go down as one of the best golfers of all time, but he can’t shine Jack’s [Nicklaus] shoes still. I’ll never bet on him to win a PGA event again. That’s over.”
Lost in the fine print of golf handicapping, Tiger occasionally does offer betting value. As recently as last week, he owned the best third-round scoring average on the PGA Tour this season. Ironically, a guy with back issues thrives on “moving day.” So if there were a time to wager on Woods, it would be on the adjusted odds entering the weekend.
“He’s been a slow starter this season, so if you can pick him up after the first or second round at 50-1, he’s made some nice charges and has held the lead in events, which gives us some nice hedge equity later on in the tournament,” Zach Turcotte of Fantasy Golf Insider told ESPN.
At this year’s Open Championship, the Westgate offered 50-1 odds on Tiger after the first two rounds. True to form, he dominated the third round to put himself in ideal position to hoist the Claret Jug. However, the masses had already bet him before the tournament at 25-1 odds, so most felt no need to press their bet, having already scratched that emotional itch. In simpler terms, bad bets at poor odds can prevent you from making good bets.
Another compelling layer is that the Tiger effect only applies to the outright market, which carries large payouts and thus forces bookmakers to skew toward inefficient odds. However, the head-to-head matchup proposition bets provide a much more accurate representation of Tiger’s fair value. The Westgate has posted Justin Thomas (-135) against Woods (+115) for the first round of the PGA Championship, which is a simple binary outcome.
“When there are two-sided markets, prices are more accurate,” professional bettor Rufus Peabody said of matchup betting. The equivalent in the outright market would be betting 1-25 that Woods would not win the PGA Championship, which sportsbooks do not offer.
Woods has always envisioned catching Nicklaus and his 18 major championships. But forget the Golden Bear; recreational bettors would settle for seeing Tiger emulate a group of baby bears in a different sport instead.
“He’s the Chicago Cubs of the golf world. Tiger is now the lovable loser,” Vaccaro said, leaning on his four-plus decades of bookmaking experience.
The Cubs won 90-plus games only twice between 1970 and 1997, yet Vaccaro says “they were always, always the leader in the ticket count. We would open 30-1 and close 8-1 when the season started.” The Cubs ultimately ended their 108-year drought with a World Series in 2016. If the 14-time major champion follows suit, Vaccaro believes the hysteria will resemble another betting phenomenon.
“It’s almost like the Triple Crown winner a few years ago,” Vaccaro said of American Pharoah, who ended a 37-year drought in horse racing history. Numerous reports indicated many tickets for American Pharoah to win the Belmont Stakes and complete the Triple Crown went uncashed. “There will be plenty of $10 tickets on Tiger that will never get cashed that people will show their grandkids.”
Comeback stories are not lost on me. I’m also a sucker for sports history. And hey, Tiger just might win again. But it’s still OK to watch and appreciate a significant moment without having bet on it. You just have to accept a #FOMO moment, because more often than not, you’re just chasing a feeling.