The British Open generates about half of the $600 mil. the U.K. bets on golf each year.
Ed Gabel / Joe Zeff Designs
Friday, July 13, 2012

A year ago, as gale-force gusts battered Royal St. George's, site of the 2011 British Open, a down-and-out caddie named Keith Carney hunkered in his flat on the outskirts of London and waited for a windfall to blow his way. Only weeks earlier, Carney, a looper at Sunningdale Golf Club, near his home, had carried 18 holes for Darren Clarke, as he does whenever Clarke swings through town. Their casual round, marked by birdies and jokey banter, firmed up two of Carney's core convictions: (1) "Darren is a great bloke," and (2) "his game is built for links golf," his low, boring shots more than compensating for his frequent struggles around the greens.

On his way home that evening, driven by a hunch and a personal allegiance, Carney stopped by his local betting shop and dropped £10 on Clarke (£5 to win the Open, and another £5 to finish in the top five), at long-shot odds of 150 to 1. When championship Sunday came, Clarke found himself in the final pairing, and Carney found himself in his living room, nibbling his nails in front of the TV. Phil Mickelson charged. So did Dustin Johnson. But the stronger the wind blew, the more Carney liked his chances.

By the time Clarke lifted the Claret Jug, Carney was lifting pints at his corner pub, the start of a two-week celebratory bender. "Believe me," he says. "I was happy for Darren. But I needed that win a lot more than he bloody did."

As feel-good stories go, it was hard to beat St. George's: a first-time major triumph for an aging icon, with fringe benefits for his part-time caddie. But refreshing twists aside, the results of the Open were really nothing new. Though Carney's haul was nice, and Clarke's $1.45 million paycheck would have covered both men's bar tabs, neither matched the profits of the week's biggest winners.

The bookies had cleaned up again.

Their take-somewhere between £6 million and £10 million, according to two leading British bookmakers-was par for the Open in a part of the world where sports betting is legal, and golf and gambling go together like bumps and runs. The urge to make things interesting, as old as the ancient game itself, finds expression in Great Britain as a mainstream compulsion, never more so than when the Open rolls around. Gamblers in the U.K. stake about £400 million, or nearly $650 million, on golf each year, according to Brad Barry, chief golf odds compiler at the bookmaker Ladbrokes. Of that, half is bet on the Open. That's 200 times what Las Vegas takes on the event, and five times the amount wagered on the Masters in the U.K.

Gambling is for entertainment only. Or so goes the claim. But to visit a U.K. betting shop, where wagering diversions range from televised darts and snooker to computer-generated greyhound races, is to marvel at what passes for amusement. In any urban center, the shops are everywhere, in hardscrabble neighborhoods and high-rent districts, cheek-to-jowl with banks and butcher shops, squeezed beside pizzerias and pubs. Almost none belong to old-school numbers runners; most independent shops have been gobbled up by such corporate outfits as William Hill, whose 2,300-plus outposts make it the largest brick-and-mortar operator in the U.K. -- only slightly larger than Ladbrokes and Coral, two of the other so-called "Big Three." Dominant for decades, this prominent trio finds itself today in a crowded market, competing with a small host of deep-pocketed contenders.

As numerous as they are, betting shops account for less than a quarter of all golf betting in the U.K. The bulk of the action transpires online, through websites operated by large corporations. Be it the Masters or the Malaysian Open, punting on events -- which, in the old days, came to an end once the first tee ball was struck -- now carries on until the final putt drops. Head-to-head match-ups, round-by-round scoring -- odds are available in near-boundless permutations.

In recent years, the biggest growth has come from interactive betting, or "in-running betting," as it's known in the U.K., which operates as a live market, allowing gamblers to buy or sell a player online at any moment, the odds shifting with every tugged tee ball and yipped putt. There's always the risk of acquiring a junk bond (keyword search: Jean Van de Velde, Carnoustie, '99). On the flip side, snatching up Ben Curtis in 2003 was like getting in early on Apple stock.

More than any major, the Open, with its quirky bounces and bursts of brutal weather, has made a famous habit of defying expectations. In 2004, Todd Hamilton entered the event at 250 to 1; Curtis had been a 300-to-1 shot the year before. As a general rule, the bigger the shock, the better for the bookies, because marquee players attract more public money (see sidebar). Also good for profits: a fan-favorite who repeatedly falls short. "Colin Montgomerie has been good for golf," says Rupert Adams, a public relations executive at William Hill. "But he's been absolutely great for us."

Each bookmaker works hard to set itself apart by claiming to offer the most generous odds or by cultivating personalities that lend their business a human face. They include such polished players as Victor Chandler, overlord of the betting site BetVictor, who is known in gambling circles as the "the gentleman's bookie" for his polite deportment and his personalized touches (dressed in a tailored suit, he pays off some of his biggest bets in person); and Paddy Power, a fourth-generation Irish bookie whose eponymous business has a growing presence in the U.K., aided by its edgy ad campaigns. One of Paddy Power's recent adverts depicted Jesus at the Last Supper, at a table piled high with poker chips. Another showed a pair of elderly ladies hustling to cross the street before an oncoming truck, with odds listed next to each of the women.

If the ads ruffled feathers, well, that was the point. "Our brand is all about having fun," Power says. "If you come to our shops with £100, we want you to go home with £90 in your pocket, instead of going home with nothing. Sure, we want to make money. But if you feel like you've gotten some entertainment value, there's a better chance that you'll be back."


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