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Gamble on golf? Beware of police visit

TARPON SPRINGS — Like most Saturdays, the group of golfers gathered at the Tarpon Springs Golf Course for its weekly league.

And like most Saturdays, at this course and courses around the country, the round involved a few side wagers.

Until Feb. 8.

As the group of golfers walked to the clubhouse that morning, it was greeted by general manager Chuck Winship.

No more betting in league play, said Winship, revealing he was under investigation by Tarpon Springs police.

"Originally," Winship said, "I thought it was joke." Then he learned the case has been forwarded to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney's Office.

Winship told members that morning that if they wanted to play a regular round of golf, fine. But if they wanted to put up the usual $20, to be divided afterward based on how they play, they would have to go elsewhere.

The prospect of law enforcement overseeing the pervasive and somewhat perfunctory routine of golf wagers seemed peculiar, if not pointless, a pair of legal experts said.

"On the Richter scale of crime, this has got to be in the minus," said Bob Dekle, a professor at the University of Florida Levin College of Law. "I don't see a prosecutor being wildly enthusiastic about prosecuting the case unless there are thousands and thousands of dollars being bet."

Tarpon Springs police spokesman Capt. Jeffrey Young said his officers were investigating the potential violation of two state statutes: keeping a gambling house and game promotion in connection with the sale of consumer products or services.

Although a suspect could violate either statute without profiting from the gambling, Dekle still believed a prosecutor would be reluctant to present the case to jury, at least given the information police have provided thus far.

Winship estimates that about 14 leagues play at the course weekly. The Saturday morning league averages between 30 and 40 players per week. The formats vary, but essentially golfers pay the normal green fees and cart fees, then put in extra money to be divided at the end of the round.

Golfers might get a portion of the pot for lowest round, closest to the pin or lowest score on a hole.

"Every golf course in this country does it, and why they singled out this golf course I'll never know," said group member Ray Hamil, 78.

"You call any course you want (about gambling leagues) and they will all tell you the same thing, and if they don't, I'll buy you the biggest steak in the state."

Jeff Hollis, director of golf at Mangrove Bay Golf Course in St. Petersburg, said his course hosts summer leagues and several groups during the winter.

"I'm sure people at every course in America play for a Coke or whatever," Hollis said. "What we do is provide the tee times; what they do after that is up to them."

The investigation was sparked, Winship said, by a letter written to the Tarpon Springs police by a former employee, Ron Moxom.

The letter apparently pointed out the gambling going on at the course. A public records request by the Tampa Bay Times for the letter was denied because the case is still under investigation.

"It is an ongoing criminal investigation at this point," Young said. "I don't expect it to be a long, drawn-out thing. I know it was started by a letter we received."

Moxom could not be reached for comment.

For two weeks after Winship's announcement, the course hosted no league activity.

But the leagues since have been given permission to resume under certain stipulations.

In a letter sent to Winship on Feb. 21 by Tarpon Springs City Manager Mark LeCouris, Winship was told he could continue hosting leagues under two conditions:

For one, no golf course employees or volunteers can participate in league administration or operation.

Second, "For all participants, per state statutes, entry fees cannot specifically make up the prizes or purses contested for."

That means prizes or purses must be predetermined before play, and not by how much money ends up in the pot.

"We've found a way to play,'' Winship said.

The legal experts were also perplexed about why an investigation remained necessary if, in fact, the gambling has stopped.

"Why carry this thing on?" said Bruce Jacob, Stetson University College of Law professor. "It seems silly to keep it going if they've agreed to change."

As for what happened in early February, Winship, 64, is still under investigation.

"Every day that goes by without hearing anything gets more nerve-racking," Winship said. "It's just dangling over my head. It's driving me crazy."

Times staff writer John Woodrow Cox contributed to this report.

Gamble on golf? Beware of police visit 03/05/14 [Last modified: Wednesday, March 5, 2014 10:26pm]
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