U.S. Regulators Split On Allowing Wagers On Saudi LIV Golf

liv golf henrik stenson

There was a men’s professional golf event held over the weekend in New Jersey featuring 11 participants who had won a total of 21 of the “majors” — the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open, and PGA Championship — during impressive careers.

The PGA Tour held its own weekend event, the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, that also had 11 major winners, but only Jason Day, Adam Scott, and perhaps Zach Johnson would qualify as household names among them. The field compared to a lesser extent with the likes of Phil Mickelson, Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka, and Patrick Reed.

The latter were among golfers playing in the Saudi Arabia-backed LIV Tour event held at Trump National Bedminster Golf Club in northern New Jersey. Despite their arguably superior status, however, legal LIV betting was off-limits to gamblers in the Garden State, New York and Pennsylvania, and in many other states.

Rocket Mortgage Classic betting was universally permitted in U.S. states that offer legal sports betting. DraftKings reported that for the weekend’s LIV Tour event, meanwhile, it was able to offer wagers in Connecticut, New Hampshire, Illinois, Oregon, Wyoming, Arizona, and Ontario.

Henrik Stenson of Sweden, the 2016 British Open winner, captured the LIV event, claiming a $4 million top prize in the process. American Tony Finau cashed a more modest $1.5 million for handily winning a relatively forgettable PGA Tour event.

So how could state regulators be so split on whether to take bets on the LIV Golf?

The case for accepting LIV golf bets

Mickelson and Koepka each have won more majors than anyone who was in the Rocket Mortgage Classic field. Mickelson played in a group with Stenson and Louis Oosthuizen — each of whom have been named “Champion Golfer of the Year” for winning a British Open.

And while one of the knocks on the controversial LIV Tour field is that the players are “over the hill,” the fact is that the LIV stars have had more recent success than major winners from the Rocket Mortgage field such as Zach Johnson, Geoff Ogilvy, or Lucas Glover.

It’s also a bit challenging to criticize the LIV golfers for being money-hungry mercenaries — and then claiming that they don’t care about winning a $4 million prize. Stenson “only” collected $1.5 million for winning “The Open Championship” at Royal Troon in 2016, for example. LIV is where the big money is.

All 48 players at the Bedminster course on Sunday collected at least $120,000 — a figure exceeded by only 19 of the 156 players at the Rocket Mortgage Classic.  LIV Tour runners-up Dustin Johnson and Matthew Wolff each cashed $1.81 million, well beyond what Finau gained for winning the PGA Tour event.

If the love of money and quality of field are indications, how can LIV golf be denied as an option for sports bettors?

The case against accepting LIV golf bets

All of that said, Mickelson, Koepka, and Dustin Johnson each have been reported to have been lured to “the dark side” with guaranteed checks of $100 million or more. And at least a dozen of the 48 LIV players are said to have been guaranteed millions of their own.

Johnson played well, but Mickelson finished 35th (settling for $135,000). Reed placed fifth while Koepka was 11th in a field with no more than two dozen total recognizable names to even the most diehard pro golf fan.

Are they all really even trying, given the enormous money they collect just for showing up? About half of the Rocket Mortgage field missed the 36-hole cut and went home with zero prize money. LIV golfers played only 54 holes, and there was no cut. The guaranteed money may spoil the level of competitiveness for many players.

Another concern is that LIV golf doesn’t have cameras that are nearly ubiquitous across the course, a potential red flag for regulators who want integrity ensured.

And a legitimate question exists as to whether legal sportsbooks truly wanted to wade in to a controversial event held only about 50 miles from where the 9/11 attacks were centered. The LIV Tour is bankrolled with countless millions put up by leaders of a country that was home to 15 of the 19 hijackers on Sept. 11, 2001.

The New Jersey Division of Gaming Enforcement was fairly tight-lipped about its lack of approval of betting, telling NJ Online Gambling, “Pursuant to our regulations, DGE has neither approved nor denied wagering on LIV Golf, as DGE has not received the required information to fully consider.”

So did any sportsbook in New Jersey make a full-fledged effort to be able to offer LIV golf betting? Several books did not respond to queries about their own level of interest, or lack thereof.

A bird’s-eye view of LIV golf at Bedminster

I attended Friday’s opening round at the Trump National course, where the grounds pass cost $75, though reports had the secondary markets dropping the price to as low as $1 due to tepid ticket sales.

The key takeaway was that after decades of following their golf favorite Mickelson all over the New York and New Jersey area, thousands such fans were determined not to miss out on this lone chance in 2022.

As LIV Tour czar Greg Norman accurately pointed out to the New York Post last week, the PGA Tour’s decision not to hold an event in the greater New York City area this year is “insane.”

“We wanted to make sure that we brought our product to this market, and New York City is obviously the home of the CEOs and the institutional money,” Norman said. “So, it was logical that we get here sooner than later.”

(Side note: A cheeseburger and a bottled water cost just $10.50 before tax, considerably less than one would pay at a PGA Tour event, but the burgers and hot dogs were pre-packaged and of poor quality.)

One of the offbeat rules of LIV golf is that all players begin play at the same time (1:15 p.m. on Friday) in a “shotgun start,” with the players starting on all but two tee boxes across the 18-hole course. Most of the 16 threesomes drew galleries in the single digits. Each group, meanwhile, was accompanied by one or two law enforcement escorts in the event of a protest on the course.

The Phil factor

It was no coincidence that Mickelson, Stenson, and Oosthuizen were granted the 16th tee as a starting point. The par 3 — basically a tee box, a pond, and a green out in the distance — is ideally located adjacent to the clubhouse, where members could get an elevated look at the tee shots.

And this was the group that drew by far the largest gallery (runners-up being the Johnson/Koepka/Carlos Ortiz group on the 17th tee, just ahead of Mickelson’s trio).

There were numerous protests in the Bedminster area throughout the week, as family members and friends of 9/11 victims denounced the event given the influence of Saudi money. One 9/11 group even paid for a commercial airing on ESPN in the region just before the start of Wednesday’s highly rated Mets-Yankees showdown, with the ad denouncing as “disgusting” the decision to hold a LIV tournament in the area.

But the mood was almost entirely different on the grounds, as those who elected to visit did so to watch some famous golfers — OK, mainly Mickelson — ply their craft.

There was one off-key note, however. As Mickelson was about to launch his opening tee shot, a fan shouted, “Do it for the Saudi royal family!”

The gallery quickly denounced the outburst, with a fan near the heckler offering a New York/New Jersey-style “Shut the f*ck up!” in response.

“One more time, and I’m going to escort you out,” said a security official.

Oddly, the heckler — part of a comedy group called The Good Liars — feigned remorse to several people in my vicinity, then acted incredulous when they replied, in various fashions, that they recognized his insincerity for what it was.

It was just another part of an odd day — and odd weekend — at Trump National Bedminster.

Photo: John Jones/USA TODAY

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