Phil Mickelson, Billy Walters and Sports Betting

With Phil Mickelson in heavy trouble for an illegal stock trade he made in 2012, the public learned about what may be even more concerning: the reason for the trade. It is alleged that Mickelson owed famed sports bookie Billy Walters around $1m, presumably from bets he had been placing. Why Walters (or Mickelson) would be placing bets with such public figures is a question in and of itself, but nevertheless, it seems to have happened. Pete Rose Phil Mickelson Billy Walters Gambling

The most logical explanation for the bets between these two is that Walters knew Mickelson wanted to stay out of the spotlight while betting big, something wagering in actual casinos may disallow him from doing. Mickelson, on the other side, knew that Walters was a legitimate book maker, so he could trust that his wagers would be paid. Perhaps Mickelson got a deal paying less in vig via Walters as well. These are questions we will likely never know the answers to, but of which we can make basic assumptions.

With all of this said, the biggest question is more along the lines of Pete Rose than anything else. Rose got in trouble not so much for simply betting on baseball, but because he bet on games in which he was involved. So, what is to prevent Mickelson from betting on himself, or even worse, his opponents? Golf betting may not be as mainstream as other forms of sports betting, but it is most certainly available, especially for major events, and there is money to be made. Walters is known for, and even promotes himself as, someone who can move the lines and odds on his own. If he knew Mickelson had an edge or that he would be playing less than his best, he would have a lot of opportunity to artificially create an edge. For all we know, Walters could have even bullied or blackmailed Mickelson into playing a certain way, though this is likely to be more of a theatrical situation you would see in movies than a real one.

Nevertheless, the PGA has expressed concern over the situation and has stated that they are looking into the matter. Perhaps the biggest issue that will arise going forward is found in the ambiguity of the PGA’s own rule book. Instead of explicitly banning certain bets or even all gambling, the rules state that PGA players should not “associate with or have dealings with persons whose activities, including gambling, might reflect adversely upon the integrity of the game of golf.” Of course, this is incredibly vague and can be interpreted many different ways. Even using the word “might” in the phrasing makes it a very subjective topic to discuss.

Anyone with common sense would peg Billy Walters as “someone whose activities include gambling,” but do they reflect adversely upon the integrity of the game of golf? That is the gray area. It is a safe bet, no pun intended, that the PGA will be revising their rule book in light of this situation to more explicitly outline the what/ifs/and hows when it comes to PGA players and gambling in general.

Another interesting dynamic to this particular incident is found in the nature of golf itself. Unlike baseball (as was the case with Rose), golf is a one person sport. Like tennis, one person could intentionally throw a match one way or the other. Making it believable may be another thing, but one person is certainly capable of pretending to be injured, playing poorly on purpose, or otherwise losing a match to a degree that their top performance would not have produced. Since Mickelson could have easily tanked on purpose, he would be able to bet large amounts on his opponents. This not only means betting on other top tier players to win, but also taking advantage of head to head betting.

In golf, racing, tennis, and other one on one sports, it is common for bettors to wager on who will do better between any two given participants. If it was Mickelson vs. Tiger Woods, for example, Mickelson would wager heavily on Woods to win if he knew that he was going to do all he could to lose the match himself. Golf is somewhat unique in that it allows one person to fix an entire result. In baseball, a pitcher (outside of a manager) will usually have the best chance at “throwing” a game, but even then they will be pulled. The same can be said in basketball. In addition to all of this, it can be assumed that no one ever had suspicions of Mickelson being in debt, let alone to a sports bookie.

Mickelson is unlikely to divulge any more information than is absolutely necessary, so the most likely result is that we will never know the answers to all of these questions. Yes, if Phil Mickelson intentionally lost or played poorly in his golf matches as a product of his relationship with Billy Walters, many bettors will feel cheated. But not only can we not confirm this, it is probably a stretch to begin with. In movies, players, teams, and sports bookies fix games, in reality, it is much less frequent than people think. If it comes out that Mickelson did collude with Walters, however, it will be one more dose of negative light for sports betting and gambling in general, which is never a good thing.