‘We hear it every round’

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 stake was three dollars, but the prize 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 yelled, “Pull it!”

Homa, being the pro golfer that he is, drained the putt and then he and his caddy went in search of the fan. The figured 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 an incident occurred during the backswing of Mardy Fish. The fan later said he had placed a bet Steph Currywho also played in the tournament and would go on to beat Fish by two points (odd scores).

Even together, the two events do not represent a trend. Thousands of golf games where money was wagered have gone off without fan interference since Fish’s stroke. But given the high profile of Homa’s incident, it’s worth asking: Will gambling-fueled fan interference 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 talking directly to you, they’re close enough where if they say to their buddy, “I’ll bet you 10 bucks, he’s going to miss it. “You hear it.”

The issue in this case is not whether players can ruin an athlete, a game or a sport; that kind of high-level criminal activity has always been a threat to the integrity of the sport. Entire departments of law enforcement, state gaming commissions and integrity analysts working with all major sports leagues watch for gambling activity that can tip the game. No one wants a clean game more than the people who make 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 sportsbook, maybe it was a simple side bet with a buddy, but the potential game-changing outcome was the same. (Not that you need to worry about pro golfers’ bank accounts, but if Homa had missed that shot, it could have cost him nearly $70,000 in winnings.)

Real-time live betting allows players to bet on the outcome of the next putt, the next pitch, the next play. No one gets rich from these bets; most are limited – like e.g. betting on the length of the national anthem at the Super Bowl – because of the easy possibility of abuse. But as Homa’s incident showed, even pocket money betting can have an impact on the flow of a sport.

Golf is particularly vulnerable to this kind of low-level 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 time can dramatically change 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 admitted that he “very rarely” hears fans splashing into the tournament, but it does happen. “It’s just always something you think about,” he added. “It’s up to us to stay focused or whatever, but it’s just annoying when it happens.”

“The most special thing about 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 a comprehensive security apparatus and plan every week and we feel really confident about all aspects of it. We spend a lot of time monitoring it every single day and we take it very seriously.”

It’s impossible to judge, but it’s worth wondering if, as so often happens, one idiot spoils 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 bear hug. Sportsbooks open up in actual stadiums and arenas, including TPC Scottsdale — home of the Waste Management Open — and turn spectators into gamblers with a vested interest in very specific outcomes.

“It’s very easy, very very easy in golf if you want to influence somebody,” Rahm said. “You’re so close that you can shout at the wrong time and it’s very easy to happen.”

Fans have always elbowed their way into the action, whether catching foul balls a la Steve Bartman, or catching fists like during Malice at the Palace. In the first few months after the pandemic-inspired shutdowns ended, The behavior of American fans was downright hooligan-likewith everything from dumped popcorn to verbal abuse marring games across the country.

But it was pretty much just spur-of-the-moment idiocy. Fan interference motivated by gambling is quite another. The odds of a fan disrupting the outcome of a football or baseball game are close to zero. However, the odds of a fan influencing the outcome of a golf or tennis match are much, much higher. When that happens, a simple $3 bet can become much more expensive.

“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 hand, but you also want the fans to have the experience they want.”

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