Where every shot counts: Watching the first round of the Masters at a Las Vegas sportsbook

April 6, 2018

LAS VEGAS — No one wins the Masters on Thursday, but plenty of bets are lost.

Take my buddy, Matt, a Sergio Garcia fan who told me a few weeks back that he’d wagered $2,000 on the Spaniard to beat Paul Casey over four rounds at Augusta.

Matt is something of a gambling shark.

But even sharks get bitten.

The first round was in mid-throes when my cell phone rang. Matt calling. Garcia had just gifted more objects to the water than a Greek sailor trying to appease Poseidon, making a very wet 13 on the 15th hole.

Where Matt was calling from, he didn’t say. But it sounded like a dark place. Turned out he’d also shorted Tony Finau after Finau turned his ankle — and everyone else’s stomach — during Wednesday’s Par 3 Contest.

“Can you believe that (expletive)?” Matt said.  “I’m cursed this week.”

“It’s bad luck to be superstitious,” I said.

Matt wasn’t amused.

Truth is, it’s usually just bad luck to gamble. Not that that stops people. As if I needed a reminder, all I had to do was look around. 

While Matt was wallowing in his misfortune, I was sitting in the sports book at the Mirage Resort & Casino in Las Vegas, watching the Masters in the midst of patrons with more than a casual interest in the tournament. What happens in Vegas may stay in Vegas, but what takes place at Augusta gets beamed across the country onto giant screens up and down the Strip.

The hunt for the green jacket is, by a wide margin, the biggest golf gambling event of the year. 

Just as seasoned Masters-watchers learn to distinguish between birdie and eagle roars, seasoned sports book bettors can gauge financial gain or loss by the intensity of cheers and groans.

Actually, it doesn’t take much seasoning at all.

Earlier that morning, I’d heard a celebratory whoop when Tiger Woods pulled his tee shot on the first hole into the trees, followed several minutes later by a cry of despair when Woods recovered for a par.

The source of both sounds was a burly man in a white visor who declined to give his name but who was willing to concede that he’d bet a healthy sum on Tiger to card an opening bogey.

Flashing a grim smile, he tore up his losing ticket and shuffled off to get a beer.

Occasional shouts aside, the atmosphere was relatively quiet, like a springtime day in Georgia but with staler air. As it does at Augusta, the electricity of the Masters picks up in a sport book as the week wears on.

How some people stay calm can be hard to figure.

Camped out a few seats from me was a relaxed middle-age man in a golf cap and shirt who said he had $12,000 riding on the Masters, spread across the board in a series of bets. Because he also was a church-going man, he said he might be better to withhold his name, just in case word got back to his congregation. 

There are no atheists in foxholes, and fairly few in sports books. Among the things the man told me he’d be praying for come Sunday was a victory for Tiger, whom he’d picked up a few weeks ago at 33 to 1. 

“Given how far his odds have fallen, I love that value,” he said.

Another of his plays was a proposition wager on Charley Hoffman to finish Thursday as the first-round leader. For a good part of the day, that one looked like a winner. It would have paid off nicely. But even when its promise faded, and Hoffman dropped into a tie for fourth, the man’s mood appeared unchanged. He said that he had faith his other wagers would come in. 

Belief in a higher power can be comforting. So can betting only what you can stand to lose. In that sense, Libby Zagar had the right idea. A gregarious marketing executive from Chicago, she’d winged in from the Midwest with her father on an annual Vegas getaway that just happened to fall this year during Masters week. Though she wasn’t a golfer, she said she loved watching the game. She found it soothing. Plus, she said, “Rory McIlroy is cute.”

Dustin Johnson wasn’t bad either. (“As much as some guys like Paulina Gretzky, that’s kinda how I feel about DJ.”)

But when it came to gambling, she set aside her feelings, ignoring her heart and going with her head.

And so she’d decided: the green jacket would go to Jordan Spieth.

“I’ll bet something small,” she said. “If I lose, no big deal. And if I win, I win.”

I wished her luck.

But I only sort of meant it. In my wallet was a $25 ticket on Patrick Reed.