After receiving a letter, reportedly from a disgruntled employee, that league players at the Florida municipal course were each putting $20 into a pot that would be divided among those shooting low rounds or winning other competitions, local police looked into possible violations of statutes that prohibit the “operation of a gambling house” and the “promotion of games in connection with the sale of a product or service.” After the investigation was forwarded to the Florida State’s Attorney Office, the club’s Course Manager/Director of Golf told league players they would have to stop the practice and retained an attorney to protect himself personally against possible felony charges.
Tarpon Springs Golf Course, a municipal course in Tarpon Springs, Fla., is under investigation by local police and the Florida State Attorney’s office for potential violation of two state statutes that prohibit gambling-related practices. The investigation began after the police received word of side wagers being made by weekly league players who regularly use the course on Florida’s Gulf Coast.
The Tampa Bay Times reported that Chuck Winship, Tarpon Springs’ Golf Course Manager/Director of Golf, told league players at the property in February that they could no longer bet on league play, after Winship learned that the police investigation centered on the league players’ regular practice of each putting $20 into a pot before their rounds. The money collected by the players, who separately paid greens and carts fees to the course, was then being divided among those shooting the lowest rounds or winning other competitions involving scores or distance from the pin on selected holes.
“Originally,” Winship told the Times, “I thought it was a joke.” But after learning that the Tarpon Springs police had forwarded the case to the Pinellas-Pasco State Attorney’s Office, citing potential violations of two statutes—keeping a gambling house, and game promotion in connection with the sale of consumer products or services—Winship felt he not only had to tell players in the league to stop the practice, but that he also had to retain an attorney to protect himself against a possible felony charge.
So the participants of what Winship estimated to be about 14 leagues that play at the course weekly (with the Saturday morning league averaging between 30 and 40 players per week) are now being told that they can play a regular round of golf, but that no side wagering or collection of any kind of pots or purses can be made.
Capt. Jeffrey Young, a spokeman for the Tarpon Springs police, confirmed to the Times that officers from his force began the investigation after receiving a letter about the practice at the course. Winship told the Times that the letter was sent to the city by a disgruntled employee, Ron Moxom, and the city then turned it over to police. The Times filed a freedom-of-information request to obtain the letter, but the request was denied because the case is still under investigation.
“It is an ongoing criminal investigation at this point,” Young told the Times. “I don’t expect it to be a long, drawn-out thing. I know it was started by a letter we received.”
The Times tried to contact Moxom, the former course employee, but reported that he could not be reached for comment.
For two weeks after Winship’s announcement to players in February, the Times reported, Tarpon Springs GC hosted no league activity. But the leagues at the course have since been given permission to resume play under stipulations laid out to Winship in a letter sent to him on February 21 by Tarpon Springs’ City Manager, Mark LeCouris.
League play would be permissible, LeCouris’ letter said, only if 1) no golf course employees or volunteers participated in league administration or operation, and 2) “for all participants, per state statutes, entry fees cannot specifically make up the prizes or purses contested for.”
That means, the Times explained, that prizes or purses must be predetermined before play, and not by how much money ends up in the pot.
Under those conditions, Winship told the Times, “we’ve found a way to [resume league play].” But he, and the course, are still under investigation for the practices that were reportedly held at Tarpon Springs previously.
“Every day that goes by without hearing anything gets more nerve-racking,” Winship, 64, told the Times in early March. “It’s just dangling over my head. It’s driving me crazy.”
The fact that the investigation is continuing even after the practice was stopped also puzzled legal experts contacted by the Times.
“Why carry this thing on?” said Bruce Jacob, a professor at the Stetson University College of Law. “It seems silly to keep it going if they’ve agreed to change.”
The Times report also included a comment from Bob Dekle, a University of Florida law professor, who said that “On the Richter scale of crime, this has got to be [on] the minus [side].”
“I don’t see a prosecutor being wildly enthusiastic about prosecuting the case unless there are thousands and thousands of dollars being bet,” Dekle added.
The Times also quoted Ray Hamil, a 78-year-old participant in league play at Tarpon Springs. “Every golf course in this country does it, and why they singled out this golf course I’ll never know,” Hamil said.
“You call any course you want [about the practice] and they will all tell you the same thing—and if they don’t, I’ll buy you the biggest steak in the state,” Hamil added.
The Times did call Jeff Hollis, Director of Golf at Mangrove Bay Golf Course in St. Petersburg, Fla. Hollis 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.”
As the Times report went viral—with Golf Digest, Fox News, The New York Times news service and many other media outlets picking it up, often including references to how “Caddyshack” immortalized the common practices of side bets on the golf course—Winship quickly found himself to be in a sympathetic, and global, spotlight.
“The leagues are something every club in America has,” Winship told Golf Digest, in expressing his bewilderment over how everything had unfolded.
Golf Digest’s report included a quote from Robert Hambrick, a former prosecuting attorney in Pinellas County, Fla. who is now in private practice in Clearwater, Fla.
Collecting money for a pot as was done at Tarpon Springs GC, “technically could be [a violation], and that’s the trouble with how the Florida gambling laws are written,” Hambrick told Golf Digest about the situation. “Unless there are specific exceptions, gambling is unlawful. There are exceptions for bingo, poker, bowling; I guess they’ll have to amend it and put one in for golf.
“But for the Tarpon Springs Police Department to make any type of argument that [Tarpon Springs GC] is a ‘gambling house’ is patently absurd,” Hambrick added.