Commentary

Brits love to bet on anything and everything, but especially the Open

Originally Published: July 14, 2008
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

SOUTHPORT, England -- Jimmy Finch looks the part. A tam-o'-shanter covers his head, an argyle sweater helps keep the biting wind at bay, his eyes suggest a man on a mission.

He has just emerged from William Hill's place of business, which is not a department store or a travel agency. It is a betting shop, and they are as prevalent in Southport as Starbucks is in Seattle.

[+] EnlargeLee Trevino
Hulton Archive/Getty ImagesLee Trevino, who won the 1971 U.S. Open at Royal Birkdale, also won the next year. During his triumph in '72, he and his friends bet on the "Merry Mex" to win. After the victory at Muirfield, the local bookmaker brought a suitcase of cash to pay them.

Finch is about to head across the street to Betfred, a competing establishment. Then he'll walk two blocks up this road just off Lord Street, the main thoroughfare, to Ladbrokes, one of a half-dozen betting parlors within a few blocks of each other in this town just off the Irish Sea.

It is a few days before the Open Championship is set to begin about three miles away at Royal Birkdale. Finch is doing his own kind of shopping. He is comparing prices. He is looking for the best odds on the Open.

And at the moment, he is none too impressed.

"There's no value," he bemoans. "You've got 10-1 for the favorites, and that is not very good. I think it needs to be at least 14 or 16 [to 1]. There are so many players locked so tight. Anyone can win. When it's bunched up like this, it's good for the bookies."

Finch is referring to the fact that, without Tiger Woods in the field, nobody quite knows what is going to happen at Royal Birkdale. For now, Sergio Garcia is the betting favorite at 10-1, followed by Ernie Els at 12-1.

Although most of the patrons in these establishments are there to place wagers on horses or dogs, the Open will take center stage this week across the United Kingdom, where sports betting is perfectly legal and thriving. Ladbrokes, a national chain, has some 2,200 locations.

According to Robin Hutchison, a spokesman for the London-based company, the Open is the biggest sporting event of the summer. Last year, he estimated, some 30 million pounds (about $60 million in U.S. dollars) were bet on the tournament won by Padraig Harrington at Carnoustie. That total is more than the amount bet on Wimbledon and on just about any sport outside of soccer or a Grand National horse competition.

We gamble billions of dollars in this country and the internal revenue service doesn't get a dime. Instead, they spend millions of dollars trying to catch these people. I don't see anything wrong with it. And I bet more players are doing it than will admit.

--Lee Trevino

"Gambling is pretty big over here," said Gail Cantrell, a Southport native who has worked at one of the local Ladbrokes for 20 years. "There is a lot to bet on, a lot of different sports, and golf becomes a big deal, especially the week of the Open.

"It didn't used to be that way, though. It used to be more closed and secret. All men. No women. Now it's open -- women, young people, from 18 upward. It's become more of a social thing. In the past, there was more of a stigma attached to it. Now it's more accepted. It's more enjoyable, more casual."

Competitors have been known to seek out the local betting shops to place a wager on themselves, none bigger than two-time Open champion Lee Trevino. For years, a story floated about that Trevino won more money betting on himself to win than he did for first prize.

Not exactly true, but a good tale nonetheless. It relates to his 1972 victory at Muirfield, where he held off Jack Nicklaus a year after the Merry Mex got his first Open win, at Royal Troon.

"I made a small amount of money betting on myself," Trevino said in a recent interview. "But here's what happened. I had six couples with me; we all went over from El Paso on the same plane. We ended up renting this house, an old castle that belonged to an antique dealer. We leased it from him and took all the bedrooms. We had this butler named Nicholas, and I remember telling the media that I promised him a lesson. Well, all the headlines the next day said that I promised Nicholas a lesson. But it was spelled different. They thought I meant Jack [Nicklaus].

"In any case, when we got there, my odds were like 14-1. I bet 100 pounds. But all the other guys bet a lot of money. I didn't play very well the first round, and my odds went up. So we bet again. And I ended up winning. That night, I invited a bunch of people over to that castle -- including the media -- and everybody was whooping it up. Then about midnight, the local bookmaker comes over with a suitcase full of pounds and paid everybody off. Those guys that came with me made more than I won."

[Gambling] used to be more closed and secret. All men. No women. Now it's open -- women, young people, from 18 upward. It's become more of a social thing. In the past, there was more of a stigma attached to it. Now it's more accepted. It's more enjoyable, more casual.

--Gail Cantrell, a native of Southport, England

The winnings for each of Trevino's victories were about 5,500 pounds. That amount paled in comparison, according to Trevino, to what his friends earned from winning their bets.

Trevino said he bet 100 pounds on Tom Watson in 1975 and gave the winning ticket to his caddie as a Christmas present. And then he lamented the inability to do the same at home -- unless he goes to Las Vegas.

"We gamble billions of dollars in this country, and the Internal Revenue Service doesn't get a dime," Trevino said. "Instead, they spend millions of dollars trying to catch these people. I don't see anything wrong with it. And I bet more players are doing it than will admit."

Any admission from a current player is unlikely because although gambling is legal in the U.K., it is against PGA Tour policy. According to the player handbook, a player "shall not have any financial interest, either direct or indirect, in the performance or winnings of another player in any event co-sponsored, coordinated, approved or otherwise sanctioned by the PGA Tour."

The PGA Tour had a policy prohibiting gambling back in the 1970s, but the British Open was not a sanctioned tour event. PGA Tour executive vice president Ty Votaw addressed the issue Wednesday and said it would be impossible to determine whether officials were even aware of the situation at the time beyond media reports. He considered the matter closed.

It was not until 1995 that the British Open became an official PGA Tour win and was included in the official money list. In 2002, the tour retroactively credited British Open winners with PGA Tour victories.

And let's face it, with the money these guys play for today -- the winner of the Open Championship will receive about $1.5 million -- would you mess around gambling for a few hundred pounds?

"We play for plenty of money," said Brandt Snedeker. "That's our own form of gambling every week."

Here, it is part of the culture, part of the way of life. Some people just like to have a little something riding on the outcome of various endeavors.

Bookmakers will give odds on such things as who will be voted off the television show "Big Brother." Soccer and horse racing are huge draws.

The European Tour even used to have its own "official bookmaker," Victor Chandler. The arrangement ended in 2003, but the European Tour still has various agencies on site at select tournaments. That is not the case at the Open, where the Royal & Ancient, which runs the event, chooses not to have betting establishments on the premises.

No matter, you don't have to go far to find one near Royal Birkdale. There are easily a dozen shops within a 15-minute ride of the course. And most of the betting chains allow online gambling.

"Over here, people are always chasing the next pound," said Douglas Proctor, a writer for the Sunday Post in Glasgow, Scotland. "They'll literally bet on flies going up a wall. You think I'm joking, but I'm serious. You never see a poor bookie in this part of the world."

As one bookie said, "You can bet on just about anything you can think [of], and plenty that you can't."

Picking players to win is a pretty standard bet, and without Woods in the field, the bookies feel better about their chances, as they expect the betting to be spread around. You can hedge your bets by betting a player "each-way," which means you get one-fourth of the odds if he finishes among the top five.

Then there are the more interesting prop bets, which you sometimes have to ask about. You might be able to pick the top American finisher or the top British finisher. You can get odds on players' beating the others in their threesome in the first two rounds, or their playing partner on the weekend. There are even odds for players' making or missing the cut.

"It is just an interest of ours," Finch said. "But you try to make a profit, don't you? It's for fun, too. As long as you bet to your limit and don't get yourself in debt, it's all fun."

And with that, Finch was off in search of a better bargain, playing the game within the game.

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com