At its grassroots level, golf is a sport based on wagering – for a soda, for a dollar or, in a tournament setting, for a trophy or a gift certificate. Betting is a large part of country-club culture, and a recent NCAA survey shows that also is the case among college golfers.
The NCAA released a report this month from a quadrennial survey of member institutions regarding gambling behaviors among student-athletes. The total number of athletes – male and female – who report wagering on sports has decreased or remained stagnant in all three NCAA divisions since the 2008 study. Men’s golf, however, stands out at every level – and not for positive reasons.
According to the survey findings, 21.3 percent of Division I men’s golfers reported wagering on sports, a violation of NCAA rules, at least once a month. That number is more than twice as high as any of the other 10 Division I men’s programs surveyed. At the Division II and III levels, men’s golf also leads in sports wagering. And while wagering by athletes in other sports is going down, it is rising among male golfers. When the three divisions are combined, the percentage of male golfers who reported they wager on sports climbed from 14.2 percent in 2004 to 19.6 percent in 2008, then rose again to 20.2 percent in 2012.
Those findings have the NCAA worried.
“It is a culture that we are trying to combat, so it’s a difficult tradition that we’re in,” said Mark Strothkamp, associate director of enforcement for the NCAA.
For women golfers, the figures are much smaller, although golf still leads all other women’s sports with 2.1 percent of Division I wagering on sports, up from 0.7 percent in 2004 and 1.7 percent in 2008. The next closest sport is softball, with 1.1 percent in 2012.
In the survey, the act of wagering is broken into 11 sub-categories. Among the men’s golfers surveyed, 56 percent admit to wagering on “games personal skill,” which includes on-course bets, in the past year. It’s the most frequent betting activity among men’s college golfers, followed by purchasing lottery tickets (45.7 percent), and playing cards for money (43 percent).
Section 10.3 of the NCAA Bylaws prohibits student-athletes, coaches and athletic department staff members from any sports wagering at the college, amateur and professional level. The scope of that prohibition is far-reaching, and extends to sports pools among friends, internet gambling, fantasy leagues and even informal wagers that might have coaches of rival schools making bets in which the loser has to wear the rival school’s logo or colors. It also includes any golf match – no matter how informal – in which money is involved.
Virginia Tech head coach Jay Hardwick said small, on-course wagers are a familiar form of competition. He said the betting culture of amateur golf can make it hard to lump the game with sports such as football and basketball for survey purposes.
“I don’t think it’s a thing that’s out of hand,” Hardwick said. “I’ve never had guys betting on football, basketball. We’re very adament about that. I think kids going out and playing for a soda, for a dollar, on their own ability, it’s a way to kind of challenge themselves.”
Even the Nassau – a game made up of a bet for the front nine, the back nine and the entire 18 holes – is a scoring system covered in the Rules of Golf.
“It’s a form of competition,” Hardwick said.
Honesty and self-policing are other integral parts of golf, which made Hardwick wonder if survey results were further skewed by the sport’s culture.
Still, the survey numbers concern the NCAA, especially since men’s golf seems to be moving in the opposite direction of other sports. Strothkamp said the focus is on preventing student-athletes from nuturing a gambling habit while in college. Rather than exclude men’s golf from future surveys, however, Strothkamp wonders if the NCAA should conduct more specific surveys to find out why men’s golfers report such high gambling practices and how those numbers might be reversed.
The NCAA developed a task force after the initial wagering survey was conducted in 2004. Since then, NCAA officials have engaged in speaking engagements around the golf community, specifically at NCAA golf championships and at the annual Golf Coaches Association of America convention. The campaign carries the slogan “Don’t Bet On It,” and the idea is to create awareness about gambling – as it applies in the NCAA Bylaws.
“That is something that we need to do more of to get the word out to the golf community, make sure that they understand what the ramifications are,” Strothkamp said. “It’s more than just losing your eligibility; it’s trying to explain to them that this could be a gateway to more problematic behavior.”
SMU head coach Josh Gregory says freshmen are often surprised to learn that on-course “money games” fall under the NCAA’s list of prohibited betting activities. By the time golfers reach the college level, money games often already have been ingrained into practice rounds and other competitions such as informal skills contests held before and after practices.
Said Gregory: “There’s no doubt (having money on the line) makes you better.”
Nonetheless, colleges are trying to follow the book. SMU, for example, conducts monthly compliance meetings for athletes, and the topic of wagering is addressed frequently. The 2012 NCAA survey shows that 71.5 percent of Division I male athletes received information on the NCAA rules about gambling, but that’s down from 76.9 in the 2008 survey.
“We have to play by the rules,” Gregory said. “It’s a tough one to police as a coach (and) it’s a tough one to police (from) a compliance standpoint.”