The Library

Gambling Golfers
By Dale Concannon

Golf and gambling have often gone hand-in-hand. There can be few golfers that haven't wagered a few dollars or the odd Top-Flite golf ball on the outcome of a match. But what about the player who bet one hundred pounds that he could play a round of golf dressed in a suit of armour, or another who bet he could beat Harry Vardon using a javelin. High stakes, unusual bets and golf bandits are now part of golfing folklore, but at least this item will make you think again when a stranger walks up to you on the first tee and asks: "What are we playing for today...?

Betting on golf matches has probably gone on as long as the game itself. The urge to bet that you can play a hole in less strokes than your partner has proved irresistible to all of us at one time or another. However, back in 1870, the records of the Royal and Ancient golf Club of St. Andrews tells of one infamous wager where Sir David Moncreiffe bet his life against that of John Whyte-Melville. . The eventual winner was to present a new Silver golf club to the members while the loser... Today, the R&A records omit to tell us who actually won the match. But they do show that thirteen years after the match was played, John Whyte-Melville gave a speech where he expressed his deep regret at the death of Sir David Moncreiffe - and perhaps more importantly, "the causes that led to it.."

Playing for your life might seem a little extreme, but this example of a bet wagered in the early days of Scottish golf, is certainly not exceptional. Shortly before the advent of the recognised golf professional in the mid 19th century, fortunes were regularly won and lost. Like Sir David Moncreiffe, the finest golfers of the time were invariably aristocratic gentlemen. Indeed, the membership rolls of the Society of St. Andrews Golfers and the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, are invariably taken from only the highest strata of Scottish society. Looking back at these times, it would seem that in many cases golf came a very poor second to the card-playing and general excess that was typical of the age.

In 1766, the Honourable Company went so far as to ban the amount one golfer could win off another in a day's play.. The reason for this restriction being that far too many duels were being fought between members to settle their disputes. Unfortunately, this ruling did not allow for the ingenuity of these golfing gamblers who soon found a way around it. With the limit set on how much you could win in "one-day's play" matches started being played over three holes at night with the caddies holding a lantern to show the way.. Taking a more practical attitude, the Society of St. Andrews Golfers, realising that no one would play golf if they tried to ban on-course gambling, finally lost patience in 1822 - some of the members had used the club committee book in which to record their bets!

As the years went by and these notorious gamblers became too old to wager on themselves, they looked to the new breed of golf professionals to wager on. Challenge matches became increasingly popular in the mid-19th century onwards with huge sums riding on the outcome of individual or fourball games. Using golf links like St. Andrews, Musselburgh and Leith, challenge matches were constantly being arranged between 'family' pairs like the Morrises, Parks, and the Dunns. Well supported at each venue, gentleman golfers would bet on the result, often with more money wagered on each match than any of the professionals could heave earned in a lifetime.

Unlike today, the large galleries watching these matches were not adverse to a little skullduggery. At Musselburgh in 1855, a match between Willie Park and Tom Morris was disrupted by Park's supporters when it seemed the match was going against their man. With his ball being constantly interfered with, Morris retired to Mrs. Foreman's pub while the police tried to achieve some order. With a riot looking the likely outcome, Park angrily told Morris that unless he continued on with the match he would claim the 500 prize money.. Morris declined and Park played on, and after taking the money was extremely fortunate to escape with his life.

Just over a half a century later, the gambling spirit of the golfer was little changed. In 1907, the great amateur John Ball, Jr. bet he could go round Hoylake in a dense sea fog scoring under 90, inside three hours and without losing a ball! Stepping out in front of a large crowd, Ball using a black painted guttie, went round in 81 in just over two hours and won his bet..

By coincidence, Royal Liverpool was also the venue for one of the strangest wagers ever seen on a golf course. In a match played off level, between a scratch player and a six-handicapper, the latter had the right to shout "Boo!!" three times during the game.. Played for a few hundred pounds, the six-handicap golfer saved up his 'advantage' until the 13th hole where he used up his first 'Boo!' The Scratch player was so distressed waiting for the next two shouts that he subsequently lost his nerve and the match.

As if to prove the famous P. T. Barnum saying about "there being one sucker born every minute," a bet was offered to the members of Royston Golf Club by J. Farrar in 1914. He wagered that he could go round this London course in less than 100 strokes wearing full army kit issue. An army officer and well-used to wearing the heavy gear, he offered odds of 10-1 and took a small fortune in bets. Two hours later he had managed to win his bet. He then offered a challenge to some local golf professionals who all failed to break 100 and he took even more money..

Perhaps Mr. Farrar would have got better odds if he had offered to play in the same outfit as Harry Dearth a few years later. A leading opera singer at the time, he played an inter-club match wearing a full suit of armour - For those of you curious about the result, he lost 2&1.. Another famous golfing gambler around the same time was renowned golf professional, Ben Sayers of North Berwick.. He took the money off an American visitor to the Royal Burgess Golf Club in Edinburgh when the man doubted Sayers claim that he could play every hole in 4! (including par-5-s and par-3's) Sayers duly went out the following day and in a round of incredible consistency, took 72 strokes and his doubter's money.

Apart from wagers based purely on golfing skill, some famous players have received extra-ordinary challenges from competitors in other sports. In the past, large sums have been wagered on golfers versus archers, golfers against fly-fishermen and possibly most curious of all, a match involving the great Harry Vardon against a champion javelin thrower. Perhaps golfers are crazy after all..

On the same theme, a famous golf course in the south of England was the home to yet another curious wager. This time between a scratch player and high handicap golfer, the bet was that the scratch man was required to drink a large whiskey and soda on every tee starting at the first. Playing off level, they both made it to the 16th tee, where the scratch player collapsed in a drunken heap and forfeited the match - a game he was leading one-up at the time.

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