Three months ago, casual golf bettors around the world opened up their apps, browser windows, and favorite odds prediction sites and began looking for a familiar name: Tiger Woods. For years that kind of scan was almost second nature, like reading a leaderboard and stopping at his name or opening up the world golf rankings to check that he was still no. 1. But in late November, it had been 10 months since he’d played in a tournament.
As Woods stepped up to the tee at the Hero World Challenge in the Bahamas—his first professional golf tournament since January 2017—his odds to win the Masters were 50-to-1. That number was low considering he was coming off his fourth back surgery in four years and hadn’t won a tournament since 2013, but it was high for Woods. Since the late 1990s, golf betting has skewed in Tiger’s favor, reflecting his dominance and the public admiration for his game. But this number showed that while some were willing to take a chance on him, most gamblers were waiting to see what he could do.
That figure didn’t last the day. In fact, after two birdies and six pars in Tiger’s first eight holes in the Bahamas, Jeff Sherman, the golf oddsmaker at Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook, was forced to halve those odds. The same thing happened in Round 2 -- Tiger came out and made three birdies and an eagle on the front nine, and Sherman had to drop his odds again.
“I knocked him as low as 15-to-1 at that point, just to kind of keep the action slowing down and not let the liabilities add up,” Sherman said. “Some of the guys on the Golf Channel were commenting on the adjustment that I did and … they said ‘15-to-1, that’s a pretty aggressive adjustment.’ But that’s just the type of action that we see on Tiger.”
Woods is known to draw a crowd no matter where he plays. Over 150,000 people showed up to see him at the relatively anonymous Valspar Championship, and more people tuned in to watch his Sunday round on TV than any other golf telecast aside from the Masters since 2015. Woods is also popular on the betting apps. Sherman said that for any other golfer to move the needle in the futures betting market, they’d have to play three to four rounds of exceptional golf. For Woods, all it takes is a few holes.
After his one-stroke loss to Paul Casey last weekend, Woods’s Masters odds—which had to be updated twice during his Friday round—sit just behind Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas at 10-to-1. Obviously that is not an accurate reflection of how likely Tiger is to win the Masters (he has a great history at Augusta, but hasn’t won a major in nearly 10 years). Joe House, cohost of ShackHouse on the Ringer Podcast Network, said that Tiger’s true odds to win lie more in the 70- to 90-to-1 range.
“Tiger at [10-to-1] is, on the face of it, ridiculous to me,” House said. “If you did sort of a risk calculation right now of how much golf has the guy played, what have his results been over … even three years, it’s crazy to suggest that he has a [one-in-10] chance of winning.”
But that figure does demonstrate how much people love to bet on Tiger Woods, especially in major tournaments. Phil Mickelson is a good comparison to Tiger in that way—Sherman says Phil gets moderate week-to-week betting support, but that his odds shoot down for major tournaments because the novice bettor recognizes his name and knows a bit about his history.
Now, that same strategy has been extended to some of the young players who are perceived to play like Tiger. “We’re seeing a trend over the last few years of people trying to be ahead of the young golfers,” Sherman said. “I think it’s everyone believing in the mental strength of these [guys] coming up because of what they’ve seen Tiger bring to the table.”
Sherman said he began to notice the trend toward the tail end of Tiger’s dominance, and that it’s a direct result of Woods’s impact on the game.
Sherman started making odds in 1994 at the Imperial Palace in Las Vegas, and he’s been the golf oddsmaker at Westgate since 2004. The Masters is his biggest event of the year, getting double the wagers of the second most popular tournament, the U.S. Open, and about one-fifth of what Westgate takes in in outright Super Bowl bets.
He says the two strongest variables he looks at when tabulating odds are course form (taking into account a player’s history at a certain course) and current form (how a player has finished in his last 10 tournaments). After that, it’s all about public perception.
“That plays the largest part into all the odds we do,” Sherman said. “How [the public is] going to bet into these odds.”
For the Masters in particular, course form is simple to evaluate. Augusta National carries its own weight, and player history there is more important to oddsmaking than at any other course throughout the year. That’s why Jordan Spieth—with two T-2 finishes and one win in his last four tournaments at Augusta—started out as the favorite when Westgate’s Masters odds opened up in August.
Perception, on the other hand, is much less cut-and-dried. It relies solely on public familiarity and a bettor’s willingness to put money down on a golfer. European players like Alex Noren and Tommy Fleetwood, for example, have been excellent so far this year, but as of Wednesday night were available at 50-to-1 and 30-to-1, respectively, because audiences making bets in Vegas aren’t as familiar with their names and games. This is also a large factor in the driving down of certain players’ odds to prevent future liabilities -- basically, preventing the book from losing money.
The book is able to reduce risk by setting an aggressive price—one that will limit what it has to pay out in the event that the bet hits. But, House says, the book has to perform a balancing act: The price also has to be attractive to bettors.
Perception is where Tiger’s influence is most impactful. Woods turned pro at age 20 and won his first tournament that same year. He won his first Masters at 21 (by 12 strokes), and had six victories and a no. 1 world ranking by the time he turned 22. He was fearless, and ruthless, and singular in his ability to tune out the crowds and not be intimidated. And he was a darling among the betting community, consistently getting “the abundance of wagering support,” according to Sherman. But as he started battling through his long list of injuries, the bettors started looking for the next young player who could shoulder Tiger’s role.
“Over the last 10 or 15 years—and this is somewhat of the Tiger Woods effect … you see these young golfers come up that take an aggressive approach with the mental aspect, and they don’t really fear anything,” Sherman said. “When I was doing this and Tiger was really on the scene in the early 2000s, anyone that was playing in his group was intimidated by him. Now, these young golfers, growing up and learning from Tiger, they’re not intimidated by anything. So you see a lot of wagering support in anticipation of these golfers.”
This happened for Justin Thomas a few years ago, and Jon Rahm over the past year; both golfers grew up watching Tiger and play a similarly aggressive style (and, it should be noted, are also extremely good at the sport). These kinds of players are seeing mountains of betting support early on in their careers, and even now, with Woods back in the fray and moving up the major tournament odds boards, this trend isn’t showing signs of stopping.
Before turning pro in 2012, Patrick Cantlay was one of the most exciting young golfing prospects in the world. He had a laundry list of accomplishments: named best college player in the country as a freshman; recorded a 60 at the Travelers Championship, the lowest-ever round there by an amateur; made the finals of the U.S. Amateur in 2011.
But as a professional, he was struck down by back injuries and personal tragedy, and from 2013 to 2016 he made just 13 starts on tour. But in November, Cantlay won his first PGA Tour title at the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open in Las Vegas. Before the win, Cantlay’s Masters odds were 100-to-1, despite six top-10 finishes and 12 top-25 finishes since the start of 2017. Now he’s down to 60-to-1, and is a player Sherman says fits the mold of the Tiger Effect.
This kind of anticipatory betting is a reflection of the state that golf is in now. We’re in a moment of great parity, when players like Cantlay—and in the past Thomas, Rahm, Spieth, Rickie Fowler, and others—can jump onto the scene and almost immediately drive fan and betting attention. The irrational confidence and assertiveness that those guys play with was molded in Tiger’s image, and it’s helped make most of them fan favorites on tour. But even so, there are some areas of the game where Tiger will always reign supreme, and moving the betting needle is one of them.
“It just takes a few holes of really anything positive from Tiger,” Sherman said. “It doesn’t come close on any other golfer.”