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Making Green on the Greens

Local author chronicles the history of betting in golf.

Despite its outlandish premise and outrageous characters, the 1980 comedy classic "Caddyshack" accurately portrayed a lot about the game of golf — the raunchy jokes, the silly superstitions and, of course, the unequaled fashion sense.

At the core of its threadbare plot was a historic tradition amongst golfers of every level of experience, from Danny Noonan to Judge Smails: gambling.

"Actually, golfers don’t gamble. They call it ‘betting,’" said Michael Bohn, author of the new book "Money Golf: 600 Years of Bettin’ on Birdies" (Potomac Books 2007). "Seriously, Phil Mickelson says in the book that gambling is going to Las Vegas and putting money on a roulette wheel. When you play golf, you bet — it’s part of the competition."

Bohn, who lives in Alexandria and plays to a 10 handicap at Mount Vernon Country Club, explains in "Money Golf" how betting has been a vibrant part of the game since its invention. "Even before it migrated to Scotland, these players in these precursor games bet amongst themselves," he said.

Betting has continued through the centuries, from kings and queens to Tiger and Annika. Bohn has collected stories and anecdotes from hundreds of golfers about infamous wagers in history, the game’s greatest bettors and the most popular ways golfers put money down during their 18 holes. "It’s the coin of the realm. Everybody wants to hear a Tiger story — about how he won a bet against Michael Jordan — and I got them," he said.

The book is teeming with tales about little-known golf hustlers and some of the game’s greatest legends.

"[Arnold] Palmer’s the most aggressive bettor on the face of the Earth, but he’s such a genial and good guy and he always pays his bets," said Bohn. "[Jack] Nicklaus is a more conservative bettor because he’s a more conservative player. He rarely gambles on shots."

The author said a book that collects all of these stories, along with a complete history and overview of golf betting, is an unprecedented undertaking.

"This fills an unfilled niche in golf writing. Everybody knows about golf betting but nobody ever writes about it," said Bohn.

BOHN IS A career naval intelligence officer, a Vietnam veteran who directed the White House Situation Room under President Reagan. After retirement from the Navy in 1988, Mr. Bohn joined Booz Allen & Hamilton and managed multi-million dollar contracts with the federal government for five years.

His previous two books are "Nerve Center: Inside the White House Situation Room" (2003) and "The Achille Lauro Hijacking" (2005). Now concentrating on writing full-time, including freelance sports writing for the Gazette Packet, Bohn said "Money Golf" was born out of consideration of other American sports and their relationships with betting.

In other words: Why are golfers allowed to bet but Pete Rose can be banned for life after wagering on baseball?

Both the United States Golf Association and the Royal & Ancient Golf Club officially sanction wagering between players. So why do most American sports prohibit it?

"I talked to a lot of golf historians and they pretty much all have agreed that the American sports that worry about betting the most — baseball with Pete Rose, football, basketball — they’re all American-bred sports. They all came to pass in the latter part of the 19th century, when the biggest anti-gambling movements were afoot. Whereas golf grew up in the U.K., where they bet on anything and felt it was perfectly proper," said Bohn. "When the game migrated to the U.S. in 1888, betting came with it, because they imported Scottish golf pros to teach it. It’s been part of the game since it came here."

A 2006 Golf Digest on-line poll cited by Bohn claims that 93 percent of respondents said they bet at least some of the time when they play golf; 86 percent claimed they played either better or the same when they had a wager on the game.

It’s the same story for the pros, who Bohn said need some action on their matches in order to get the competitive juices flowing.

"They all play these little money games on Tuesdays and Wednesdays during the practice rounds. That’s just what pros do. You can’t get a professional golfer to play a casual round of golf without a bet. It’s ingrained in them," he said.

It’s also ingrained in the sport itself. Bohn said that there are golf clubs around America that design their course for betting purposes: building the eighth, ninth, 17th and 18th holes so that they can be played multiple ways to handle double-or-nothing wagers.

"There are a bunch of courses around the country that have 19 holes, with the 19th holes just used for settling bets," he said.

TODAY, PROFESSIONAL golfers are very discreet about wagers during big tournaments — quite a change from as late as the 1960s, when bookies would follow the tour and golfers would wager on tournaments with them. There was a time when a golfer winning a bet might have made the front page of daily newspapers, such as when a golfer in the 1965 San Diego Open made a bet that he could break the course record, and the results made the front page of the San Diego Union sports page the next day.

"It’s changed because TV wants it that way, and the PGA knows they have the squeakiest, cleanest group of professional athletes on the face of the Earth. They are all well-scrubbed folks," said Bohn.

Yet Bohn said that golfers who do wager on the game are not seeking to tarnish it or corrupt it.

"They’re not in it to make money…although I do have stories of people who have made millions on the golf course."

Anybody we know?

"Michael Jordan lost $1,250,000 after a series of golf matches in the early ‘90s. That’s chump change for Jordan, but these guys kept going double-or-nothing."

Al Czervik from "Caddyshack" would have been proud.