The psychology of golf betting

June 26, 2022 06:34 PM
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The chatter has been heard in the gambling community for the past few years: It’s only a matter of time before golf starts dominating the summer betting action. 

After some recent high-profile events and big payouts, perhaps the future for golf betting is now. It's just as much a topic for discussion among bettors as baseball, basketball and hockey at this point in the season. 

With the popularity of golf on the rise, we wanted to analyze whether the mindset bettors have for handicapping this individual sport is different from how they think about team sports. 

The best way to find out is by talking to a group of experienced golf bettors about their methods and psyche. 

The voices here are two of VSiN’s top golf handicappers, Wes Reynolds and Matt Youmans, New Jersey-based Brett Hoffman (@BrettHoffmanjr) and noted professional DJS (@BettorDJS) from Vancouver. 

From the start 

The most common variables these bettors first study when handicapping golf are recent play, course history, performance on correlated courses and individual statistics.

Regardless of how bettors handicap golf, Reynolds says people who bet on the sport have the same motivation and mentality as they do for “stick and ball ones,” as he puts it.

“Of course we are driven by the money when we bet,” Reynolds said. “But a big part of betting is also our ego. We want to make a bet and be right about it. We want our initial view of a team or in the case of golf, a player, to be right.” 

Youmans tries to get it right through a combination of statistical analysis and situational handicapping. 

“I bet numbers and teams,” Youmans said on the common ideology of betting numbers but not teams. “Even if there is apparent value in a number, I’m not taking it unless I believe in the team, or golfer in this situation.” 

Hoffman employs a similar thought process on a weekly basis.

“Like with team sports, I also bet numbers, meaning I’m identifying mispriced golfers in my opinion who can win and come at a good price,” Hoffman said. “I also do a lot of odds shopping to find the best number or odds on the golfers I’m eyeing that weekend.”

Hoffman is so invested in odds shopping, he made a business out of it with GatorWagers.com. 

When bettors talk about numbers while handicapping a basketball game, or a similar sport, they’re usually referencing the money line and point spread for a head-to-head matchup. For golf bettors, the numbers they talk about the most are the ones on the futures board that start and end each week. 

Futures are the spark that can turn any bettor into an avid golf bettor.

“In the past few years especially, I’ve hit several futures from the 30-1 to 70-1 range and that's what attracts me to golf betting,” said Youmans.” You can make that bet and cash it five days later.

“A guy will make a Super Bowl futures bet at 25-1 and talk about it for six months. College basketball and golf are the only sports that really interest me a lot in terms of futures because you can find realistic value in long shots.”

DJS was also drawn to golf for the same reason.

“The outright odds for golf are great compared to sports like the NFL for example. To get similar odds or edges in the futures market there, your money would be tied up for months with more intangibles, where golf we get those markets every week.”

Golf bettors don’t just see numbers as odds, they also see them as days. 

“Look at golf betting compared to major tennis events like the French Open or Wimbledon,” Reynolds said. “Those take like two weeks. There’s a lot less time for golf.  You can move on quicker to the next tournament.”  

Time as a variable even drives some of Reynolds’ decision-making. Rather than play single-round matchups, which is like wagering on a football game, Reynolds chooses to bet tournament matchups since the four rounds allow his selection more opportunities to rebound from a mishap. 

Playing favorites 

DJS never runs to the window to bet favorites, though occasionally he will when his work indicates there’s value. He won’t dismiss a player because he is listed as the favorite. 

Reynolds often approaches golf favorites the same way he does when betting another individual sport.

“Golf betting is a lot like betting the horses: you try to beat the favorite. I don’t want to take a horse that is a two-fifths favorite to win.”

However, Reynolds adds, “I never want to say never when it comes to betting favorites.”

That attitude worked out for him at last year’s U.S. Open at Torrey Pines when he felt Jon Rahm, even with the lowest odds on the board at 11-1, was too good to pass up. 

The Youmans ROI strategy is often to eliminate the favorite from the start. 

“I rarely bet the top two or three favorites in a golf tournament because those players don't win often enough for there to be value in the 10-1 to 15-1 range,” Youmans said. “I'm always looking to beat the favorite and start looking for players to bet at 20-1 and higher.”

That seems to be an important psychological line of demarcation we discovered from these discussions. When golf bettors begin looking for winners, the eyes usually go right to those players at 20-1 and higher.  

DJS feels a golfer listed at 20-1 is similar to the odds a decent NFL team gets to win the Super Bowl. 

Whenever marquee names such as Rahm, Rory Mcllory or Justin Thomas fall down into that unfamiliar 20-1 range prior to the start of a tournament, it piques Reynolds’ interest. 

Betting the favorites when they are not the favorites is a Hoffman move as well. He often waits until the tournament starts, hoping some of the shorter shots get off to a slow start so their odds will increase. 

Thomas’ recent Sunday rise up the leaderboard at the PGA Championship is an example of what can happen. J.T. was the third favorite entering the PGA but was available in the 100-1 range during the final round. 

Every golf bettor we talked to made reference to Thomas' dramatic victory at Southern Hills. Expect the 2022 PGA Championship to be mentioned around sportsbooks for decades in the same regard as Leicester City at 5,000-1 winning the Premier League in 2016.    

Friend or foe

Have you ever heard a bettor say, I will never bet on Ohio State again? If you did, it was likely a visceral reaction that will soon go away. 

That kind of comment is much more common for golf bettors. 

Youmans can be flexible when it comes to backing teams he finds less than desirable to pull for. But when betting golf, he refuses to make a Faustian bargain. 

“I will bet on teams I dislike or teams I hate in college basketball like Duke, but never bet on golfers who annoy me the most, so in that way I look at golf betting differently,” Youmans said. “Duke had a few players I liked last season, and there were spots where I had no problem betting on the Blue Devils, but I absolutely cannot bet on and root for individual golfers like Patrick Reed and Sergio Garcia. That's like selling your soul.”

Hoffman says he sees it often, bettors putting golfers on the “the infamous blacklist.” Corey Conners has taken up residency there in his mind.

It's possible preconceived notions that impact betting behavior are more frequent when wagering on golf. 

According to Reynolds it is "scar tissue,” and it is prevalent among golf bettors. 

DJS tries to avoid forming personal opinions on golfers. Nonetheless, he includes the “implosion factor” in his analysis. 

“I personally prefer to back guys to win that not only have wins under their belt but also guys who have a good temperament, stay cool-headed under duress. Guys like Cam Smith, Sam Burns,” DJS said. “While I typically avoid club throwers like [Tyrell] Hatton and Rahm, although he has become less triggered recently.”

Back to that hypothetical conversation among bettors we overhear. 

If that disgruntled bettor says something like, “I will never bet on Ohio State again,” those feelings might change the following week if the Buckeyes are catching 5.5 points. For the bettor who says, “he (pick a golfer) is dead to me,” that disdain will likely last a lot longer. 

There are certain players Reynolds is not overly fond of from both a personal and playing perspective, but nobody makes his no-fly list. Favorites or long shots, he has the same ideology: he never wants to say never regarding a possible bet. 

The bettor-golfer relationship can become so strong it brings negative EV in play. In the form of bettors constantly wagering on their preferred players. 

“I’m somewhat guilty of riding the same few golfers each weekend,” Hoffman said. “Meaning for a three- or four-week stretch, I’ll continue to bet on the same few guys outright.”

Hoffman has become partial to Hideki Matsuyama and Sungjae Im of late. 

DJS equates this thinking with a person at a casino who keeps feeding the same slot machine because it’s due. 

“I start each year identifying two or three players I believe are going to win and try to play them until they cash,” Youmans said. “Scottie Scheffler was my top target going into 2022 and he cashed on Super Bowl weekend in Phoenix.”

“After Scheffler's win, I stopped betting him because his odds value was decreasing and he didn’t figure to win that often. Well, he did win often, so I should have stuck with him.”

Youmans also consistently plays Joaquin Niemann and Will Zalatoris.

“I cashed with Niemann at Riviera and I've lost twice with Zalatoris in a playoff at around 40-1 each time. I'm losing value on Willy Z now in the 30-1 range but feel like I have to keep playing him until he wins because his prices are still decent and I'll hopefully get ahead of my investment when he finally wins.”

This sounds like a case of what Reynolds calls “premature tipulation.” 

This disorder comes when a bettor gets a good feeling on a player and wagers on him to win, then the player comes through the following week, or the week after that. Or, even worse for the gambling psyche, when a bettor waits to back a golfer for a future tournament but the win comes a week early.

When to end an unhealthy relationship can be an agonizing decision for golf bettors. 

“You can’t bet the same golfer every week or every start,” Reynolds said.”That’s not going to be a successful strategy.” 

He tries to cap his weekly winner tickets to about six to eight players by looking for options in different tiers. Reynolds typically finds a couple of players in the 20-1 to 30-1 range, one or two in the 50-1, maybe a couple in the next group higher and then a triple-digit bomb or two.

Hoffman lives on the conservative side of town and tries not to exceed three golfers to win in any one tournament. 

DJS on average plays three to five golfers to win preflop but will sometimes go up more than three times that amount on each-way bets.

He adds an important note that some golf bettors need to be reminded of.

“One thing to watch out for is that if you bet three guys at 30-1, say $100 each, you’re actually risking $300 to win $3,000 so you’re effectively only getting 10-1.”

FOMO, it’s real

“If you like or follow a player and have an idea of his strengths and weaknesses, you need to apply those to fade him when needed,” Hoffman said. 

Not always as simple as it sounds for some golf bettors.

The quasi bonds bettors form with players is evident. That in turn creates another golf betting phenomenon: FOMO.  

Fearing the possibility of not holding a ticket when a go-to player wins is very real. Youmans said he would be furious with himself if Zalatoris wins and he didn’t back him at any price, let alone a big one.

“There’s giant FOMO existing in golf betting where the bettor would feel gutted if they missed their favorite player's winning weekend,” Hoffman said. “You almost feel forced to ride it out.”

The pragmatic Youmans isn’t ready to say FOMO is unique to golf betting until he delves a little deeper.

“It's probably different but I might have to sit down with Dr. Phil and talk that one out. I feel like golfers get hot for a four- or six-week stretch and then you can back off or forget about a player for a while. But that might not be a lot different from some basketball or football teams in four- or six-game stretches.”

Do as a I say, not as I do 

For golf bettors, they are often wagering on someone playing the same game they do. Albeit with a lot less strokes, hot dogs and Miller Lites at the turn.

When a golf bettor is an active golfer, it can help form some of their opinions. 

“I'm not a great golfer but can get in a good groove sometimes and know there are specific courses where I will almost always shoot a low score and other courses where I will stink,” Youmans said.” So I believe that's also true with the pros, which is the “horse for the course” theory. Some courses fit your eye and game and others absolutely do not. I watch the tournaments every week and try to scout the players who appear to be in a groove. I do think playing the game helps my handicapping.”

Sure, a lot of bettors also played basketball, but a vast majority of them never could dunk and nobody confuses weekend pickup games with the NBA. There's an egalitarian feature of golf that keeps people in the game, and bettors often call on their own course work when handicapping.  

While he plays a lot less than Youmans, Reynolds feels even weekend hackers can use their experience on the course to help with their betting. That can come through just basic interest in the game, as well as understanding how the difficulties of certain courses may impact performance. 

As much as he enjoys playing, Hoffman finds one mental aspect of betting on golf the most satisfying. 

“Every weekend is a major for the golf bettor. The purses don’t change for us. The 33-1 pays the same at the Valero Open as it does for the Masters.”

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