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Quality leaderboard adds up to ‘carnage’

Whether you won or lost money on Phil Mickelson at Muirfield, few punters would begrudge this most popular golfer finally adding his name to the Open Championship’s roll of honour.

Let’s face it, there was a time when many of us thought that Phil was something of a clown on the golf course – spraying the ball all over the place, loping about with his funny splayfooted walk, throwing away tournaments he should have won, and emitting all sorts of platitudes which went down well in the States but grated on British ears.

But even the hardest hearts have warmed to him over the years as he has dealt so lovingly with his wife’s illness and maintained a philosophical approach to life – all the while happily signing autographs. Just like Seve, Mickelson turns every round of golf into a roller-coaster of an adventure, with Houdini-like escape shots par for the course. And in the post-round analysis he is as eloquent a speaker as the game has ever known.

Five majors mean, beyond doubt, that Mickelson, at 43, has joined the all-time greats – and in so doing at Muirfield he cost the bookmakers a bundle (his victory the previous week at Castle Stuart sparking a tremendous gamble from 28-1 to 18-1). Few of us expected to witness this at a demanding Muirfield, with its high, punishing rough and hard bounces which demanded a level of patience not previously associated with old Phil. How wrong we were!

“Carnage” – that’s the word that tends to get used when things go pear-shaped for the bookmakers, and in this instance it is entirely appropriate. Serious damage was done. Ladbrokes, for example, laid one client a £22,000 bet at 20-1 and claimed a $2m loss in a week when they paid out $7m. “It wasn’t as bad as Hoylake in 2006, where Tiger cost us £5m,” said golf compiler Brad Barry, “but it was bad enough and easily our worst result. But you only have to look at the places to realise it wasn’t just Phil who was costing us.

With name players like Adam Scott, Woods, Lee Westwood and Ian Poulter in the frame – as well as Henrik Stenson, who had nearly won the Scottish Open the previous weekend and commanded late support – each-way backers had a field day.

“Fortunately, we won a bit on Westwood inrunning, simply because I couldn’t have a player with his flaky last-round record at odds-on, even with a two-stroke lead going in to the last round. So we went out on a limb and fielded against Lee. Sadly, he once again proved us right.”

It’s such a punters’ market these days and the competition for the pound in your pocket so strong that two firms, BetVictor and Betfred, were offering eight places to each-way backers, several others gave seven, Ladbrokes were among those offering six, and only Coral stood their ground at five.

It was all a far cry from the pre-Paddy Power days when bookies had to have their arms twisted to offer even five places, most of them clinging on to the old four, claiming it was “impossible” to make a profit if they improved their terms.

To compensate for having the worst place terms, Coral were top price about many more players than anybody else as deliberate policy. While firms offering seven and eight places had to pare down their quotes to allow for the addition payout, Coral were generally the ones to go to for ‘win-only’ punters.

For example, while those eight-place bookies offered only 150-1, they went 300-1 about the dazzling new Japanese star Hideki Matsuyama, who would have been third but for a harsh slow-play penalty in round three – and might even have won.

So now punters have the choice. If it’s a player you think is only going to finish in the top seven or eight but has relatively little chance of winning, you go to BetVictor or Betfred; and if you fancy a short-priced player, you are now usually better off with Coral. Tiger was at his biggest price for years, Ladbrokes even going 12-1 to steal some late business, but after looking the most likely winner at the 36-hole stage, the weekend once again underscored just how lacking he is in positivity these days, at least on the big occasions. (Or is it that the quality of the opposition has improved?)

A week after the Open, the big talking point in the betting world was the chaos caused by Hunter Mahan pulling out of the Canadian Open in mid-tournament when leading by two shots to fly back to his wife in Dallas as soon he got the message she had gone into labour.

Once a player has played his first shot in round one, technically, if he withdraws anytime after that, all bets placed on him are losers. But given they would all look bad guys in such a lovey-dovey scenario if they kept the money, all bar Coral decided they would void Mahan bets and return stakes.

Bookmakers are not obliged to make such gestures as they cost money. Unlike withdrawn racehorses, there is no Rule 4 they can fall back on to reduce the odds on the other runners. All the other golfers behind Mahan in the market were at far bigger odds than they should have been but most layers agreed that the special circumstances required a degree of compassion.

And, let's face it, the returned money was only lent. It would come back into the layers’ satchels soon enough.

Coral may have looked like the black sheep in calling all Mahan bets as losers but were acting entirely within their rules and as spokesman Simon Clare said: “Some punters have benefited and others have lost out. These things do happen in golf.”

And whereas many have cause to be grateful, there was no room for manoeuvre for punters wagering on the betting exchanges like Betfair and Betdaq. They knew exactly where they stood straight away: backers lost, layers started celebrating early.

As one Betfair backer groaned: “Sickening stuff. You’d think his wife would be more proud of her man winning on the PGA Tour than standing like a clown at the birth.”

No doubt that punter was delighted to learn that Mahan arrived home in good time to see his first child, Zoe Olivia, born at 3.26 on the Sunday morning. And surely he would have echoed (not!) Hunter’s thanks to his sponsors and fans “who appreciate what’s important in life.”

Which leaves me to reconsider the prices available on players to make Paul McGinley’s Ryder Cup side next year at Gleneagles. As I recommended at the start of the year, Matteo Manassero and Paul Casey have won big tournaments and those investments at 2-1 and 5-1 respectively now look excellent value. Less so are the 9-2 for Paul Lawrie and the 13-8 for Thorbjorn Olesen. Both are having problems, the young Dane missing five cuts out of six before the WGC Bridgestone with plenty of ugly 78s and 79s out of context with the brilliant display he put up when sixth at the Masters in April.

Maybe the pressure of making the 2014 squad is getting to him, so I am replacing Olesen with another Scandinavian, Henrik Stenson, at 5-4 because it’s hard to imagine the Open runner-up not lining up now that he has got his game back. Manassero is down to 11-10 from the original 2-1 at which we backed him but it’s probably worth pressing up on the young Italian who would surely make an ideal foursomes and fourball partner. Watch this space.

August 2013

Reproduced with kind permission of Golf International Magazine


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