For a while, I assumed it was just my delinquent friends who needed to place a bet on just about every aspect of a round of golf. Front nine, back nine, overall, sandies, birdies, bobs, skins. As a purist, I couldn't be bothered, I was there to play my game, post my lowest score. Sometimes it was just easier to agree to the game than argue, and at the 19th hole wait for someone to hand me a few bucks or tell me what I owe.
Over time, I've learned there's so much more to a golf wager than the $2 - or $2000 - on the line.
Betting on the golf course has roots in the game as deep as hickory shafts and balls made of feathers. Back in the days of Old Tom Morris, winning wagers made up a significant portion of the meager income of what were the earliest golf professionals. Often playing as partners to the wealthy few who could afford the game, the pros would pocket their share after scoring a big win. Reading accounts from the 19th century, you might even think the golf was just an excuse to get out there and gamble.
Given the long and storied history of birdies and bets working hand in hand, it's only natural that we should celebrate the action, and the pairing of golf and gambling.
On a recent golf trip with a group of guys I didn't know well, there was this one fella who needed the action, said that without something to play for, he might as well be at the driving range. My first thought was "Weird, but okay…" We played a $2 nassau, so I knew worst case I'm into it for $6. By the end of the week, I realized that there's something to this. I think it's just the ticket to building the competitive nature I wasn't born with, but hope to develop. It's not about the money. It's about the winning. Period.
The trick with golf is that it's built for wagers. Do you need more evidence than the elaborate handicapping system overseen by the game's governing body? Considering how few of us play in regulation net stroke play tournaments, the handicap can be used for two things - first, measuring yourself and your progress, and second, to create a fair playing field for a match against someone else.
However, the final score on each hole is simple the starting point.
There are so many games within the game of golf. If you were playing tennis, would you bet on aces? Backhand winners? It's just not the same. But get it up and down from the bunker, and you've got a sandy. Hit it closest to the pin on a par three, it's a bob. Card a par without hitting the fairway or green for an Arnie. Make your first putt from further than the flagstick, it's a polie. Three-putt, and you're now the snake.
The possibilities are endless, and there are variations on every game. The most lyrical is Bingo, Bango, Bongo, which awards a point to the first on the green, the closest to the pin, and the first to hole out. It's a great way to keep everyone involved, and sets up all sorts of possibilities for stealing a buck from your playing partners. It's also a good game for the lesser skilled player in the group to gobble up points for being first on the green since he'll likely be the first hitting from the fairway.
Then there are the group wagers, or the type that turn you into teammates, formally or informally. One of my favorite is the traditional skins game - with carryovers of course. There's something fun, clever and exciting about a bet where you're rooting for a guy to miss his first putt (for a win) but then need to pull for him to make one at the next (to halve).
Then there are the games that involve psychological warfare and strategy, like Wolf. In this one, the tag of Wolf rotates from player to player, and on the tee it's up to that hole's Wolf to decide who will be his partner (immediately after a player's drive, and before the next one is hit), or if he'll take on the other three guys himself. This one works best with players of similar ability, and creates some really interesting and lingering decisions. It's like those reality TV shows where they vote someone off the island or name someone the weakest link, but it happens 18 times over.
One of the drawbacks to all these games is that they tend to reward risky play, going for the gusto, as it were. In a 16-man skins game, for example, there's little reason not to go after every pin, because birdies are bound to be the money makers. That's why it doesn't hurt to play a stroke play Nassau every once in a while. It might not have all the bells and whistles, or the jingly name of Bingo Bango Bongo, but it sure will have to concentrating on that four-footer for double bogey on the 15th hole, knowing you're only a stroke ahead on the back, and even overall.
Everyone - from Old Tom Morris supplementing his paycheck, to a couple of high school kids putting for a soda - has grown up with different ways to spice up their rounds of golf. Big rollers are stuff of legend (Michael Jordan comes to mind), but for all the players who care about the action, there are so many more who can see that $5 exchanged in the parking lot as a trophy. And isn't that what sports is all about?