'It was nonstop': Betting on the 2019 Masters

Will Gray
·8 min read

When Tiger Woods sank the winning putt at last year's Masters, cheers echoed through the tall Georgia pines that line Augusta National Golf Club. The occasion was so momentous that the ground may have even shook across the Savannah River in South Carolina, and millions of fans across the country and around the world remember exactly where they were when Woods threw his arms up in triumph.

But the mood in the back rooms of various sportsbooks was decidedly different as Woods capped his improbable comeback from the brink of retirement and captured his first major in 11 years. There, officials were focused on crunching numbers - and the spreadsheet was bathed in red. A Woods win at the Masters meant books had to pay out, handsomely.

"Relatively speaking, that's the largest that I've ever been involved with losing on any tournament," said Jeff Sherman, vice president of risk management and head golf oddsmaker at Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook.

"Our biggest loss ever, but a great day for golf," added Nick Bogdanovich, director of trading for William Hill U.S.

When it comes to Masters odds and Tiger Woods, there are two factors to keep in mind. First, odds are posted and available to bet for a long period of time. While oddsmakers put up futures for typical PGA Tour events a few days in advance, Masters odds are on the board for months. When a pandemic isn't overhauling the golf calendar, prices for the Masters are usually posted shortly after the final major the previous year - a way to bridge the gap between seasons and navigate winter, one futures ticket at a time.

And as for Woods, the notion of a "fair" price largely went out the window more than 20 years ago. Oddsmakers attempt to hang numbers on players not to predict outcomes, but instead to draw balanced action. With casual fans typically lining up to bet Woods regardless of price, books could bank on attracting a steady flow of action and had little incentive to offer odds that more closely aligned with his actual chances to win.

But ahead of last year's Masters, the attention Woods received from bettors increased even by his lofty standards. He had come close to a major breakthrough the year prior, finishing T-6 at The Open and second at the PGA Championship. He had finished T-30 or better in each of his first four starts of 2019 before making it to the quarterfinals of the WGC-Dell Technologies Match Play in March, his final Masters tune-up. The steady results sent bettors to the window in droves. As a result, Woods' pre-tournament odds began to tumble after reaching in the neighborhood of +2500 depending on the shop.

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

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"I just remember when we were taking money on him at 25, 20, 16. All those numbers," Sherman said. "It was just nonstop, because he had actually shown some positive signs coming in."

According to Sherman, bettors didn't even need to see a full tournament result before rushing to bet Woods. Even a small flash of success, like the brief stretch of holes he compiled at the 18-man Hero World Challenge in December 2018, was enough to generate bets on a Masters that was still months away.

"If he goes out there, and you see that he's 3 under through four holes, that commands betting interest," he said. "With other golfers, if Jordan Spieth is a few under to start the day, you don't see people running to the window saying, 'I need to bet Spieth for next week.' But with Tiger, whether he's playing good or bad, if he has that small glimpse of starting a tournament out well, immediately the wagering app starts lighting up with Tiger bets."

By the time the tournament began, Woods teed off at +1200 at the Westgate and Sherman knew he had a significant liability to sweat. It's one thing to stare at a hefty potential loss on a +50000 longshot thanks to a few $10 tickets. It's another matter entirely to be sitting beneath an avalanche of bets on a four-time tournament champ who was rounding into form.

It was a similar story for oddsmakers at PointsBet Sportsbook, where Woods closed pre-tournament at +1400.

"We took more bets on Tiger to win outright than any other golfer," said Pat Eichner, director of communications for PointsBet. "He was a popular choice prior to play starting, but interest particularly heated up ahead of Round 3."

Woods entered the weekend last year at 6 under, in a tie for sixth but only one shot behind a quintet of co-leaders. He had followed an opening 70 with a more promising 68, and he appeared in a strong position among a stacked leaderboard that included three former world No. 1s and the current Open champ among the leaders.

PointsBet listed Woods at +700 after 36 holes, while Westgate had him at +600. Those odds were cut in half again after he shot a third-round 67 to get into Sunday's final group and within two shots of leader Francesco Molinari. Heading into the final round, Woods was +350 at PointsBet and +300 at Westgate.

The rest of the tale doesn't need re-telling. By the time Woods slipped into his fifth green jacket, risk managers at books around the world were left to lick their wounds and tabulate their losses. At Westgate, that number ended up in the six-figure range, with most of the winners cashed as pre-tournament futures as opposed to mid-tournament adds. They included multiple $10,000 wagers, where bettors would have walked away with upwards of $200,000 depending on price.

Even favorites for this week's event like Bryson DeChambeau and Rory McIlroy have created only a fraction of the liability that Woods commanded (and cashed) last year.

"We were in a position where it was relative to other ones that we've lost, but then they kept betting him at +1600, +1400, all the way down," Sherman said. "It caused us to close at +1200, which is lower than we thought it should've been with the type of field that it was."

Of course, the big winners at Sherman's shop were dwarfed by the main culprit who drained Bogdanovich's cash reserves at William Hill. James Adducci, 39, grabbed headlines with his eye-popping wager on Woods, having thrown down $85,000 early in the week at the SLS Casino in Las Vegas on Woods to win at +1400. The wager turned into a $1.19 million profit, meaning Adducci made more during Masters week than Dustin Johnson, Brooks Koepka or Xander Schauffele did for finishing second behind Woods ($858,667 apiece).

Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods

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The big wager was the big reason for a record-setting loss at William Hill, marking the largest-ever individual payout on a futures wager in the operator's U.S. history. Not long after, word of the wager got back to Woods himself.

"F---ing great bet," Woods said the following month. "Dumbass on the Grand Slam part, though."

That was a reference to Adducci's attempt to double down, placing $100,000 in May 2019 on Woods to sweep the remaining three majors that year at +10000. He promptly missed the cut at the PGA Championship at Bethpage. Adducci also put another $45,000 on Phil Mickelson earlier this year to win the U.S. Open at +7500, again with William Hill, which quickly turned into confetti.

But those misfires only put a dent into his big win from last year's Masters, one that accompanied Woods' breakthrough on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National. It was a transcendent result, and it begs a simple question: with Woods now set to defend his title at a Masters unlike any other, could sportsbooks be in for a repeat result?

It's unlikely. Woods' recent form has dried up, as the 44-year-old has finished no better than T-37 in six starts since the Tour returned to competition in June. His odds at Westgate, which opened at +1600 in March when the tournament was officially rescheduled, have ballooned to +4000 heading into tournament week. He's slightly cheaper (+2500) at PointsBet, but his position is a far cry from where he stood ahead of last year's event.

Unable to attract much action even as the number on Woods has drifted, Sherman admits to being in unfamiliar territory: heading into tournament week, he's positioned to actually turn a profit if Woods wins again.

That's in part due to Woods' recent struggles, but also partially attributed to a recent change in the golf betting landscape. Westgate has seen a four-fold increase in its handle for regular Tour events since June, but not all of that money is coming from casual fans. With seasons of other sports significantly disrupted by the pandemic, informed bettors have begun to focus more time and effort on handicapping the golf market, which has provided largely uninterrupted action since early summer.

"You have more educated people, new people in the market who are following and supporting top golfers in the market and not necessarily jumping on Tiger just to have a Tiger ticket," Sherman said. "And that's what we used to see before - no matter who people would bet, they would always include a Tiger ticket along with that."

Whether Woods can pull off an even bigger shock this week, in an unprecedented autumnal Masters, remains to be seen. But even if his 15th major title turns out to be his last, it won't be one that bettors - or oddsmakers - soon forget.