What Is a Calcutta in Golf?

Explaining the auction-pool wagering system used at some tournaments

Golf ball with a hundred dollar bill superimposed on it

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The term "Calcutta" (also called a "golf Calcutta," "Calcutta auction" or "Calcutta sweepstakes") describes a type of auction-pool wagering that can be applied to golf and many other sporting events. In golf, a Calcutta is most common at a tournament featuring 4-person teams, but a Calcutta can be held in conjunction with any type of golf tournament.

In simplest terms, a golf Calcutta works like this:

  • Golfers bid, auction style, on the golfer or team they think will win the tournament (typically you're allowed to bid on yourself or your own team, too).
  • Enter your bid on the golfer or team you think will win, and if your bid is the highest, you bought them.
  • All the money raised through the "auction" goes into the pot.
  • At the end of the tournament, those who "won" the team that won the tournament gets a predetermined payout from the auction pool.

The precise rules of a Calcutta auction can vary from place to place; many tournament organizers employ software programs that apply odds and determine win-place-show amounts. Perhaps the simplest and most common Calcutta payout is 70 percent of the pool to the "owner" of the winning tournament team, 30 percent to the "owner" of the second-place tournament team.

When paying out the first three places, the most common payouts are 70-percent to the winner, 20-percent to the runner-up, 10-percent to third place. And in a 5-place payout, the payouts might be divvied up as 50-20-15-10-5. The specifics are up to tournament organizers.

Among other variations is one that allows a golfer to buy back half of himself or his team from the winning bidder. For example, your team is "won" in the auction by Team X; if this rule is in effect, you can pay half of Team X's winning bid back to Team X in order to buy back half a stake in your own team. If your team then wins the tournament, your team and Team X split the Calcutta payout.

Calcuttas as Charity Fundraisers

Calcutta auctions are also encountered by golfers at tournaments as fundraisers for charities. If a golf tournament is being run to raise money for charity, the organizers might include a Calcutta auction to raise additional money.

In such a case, the money bid in the auction might all go to charity, in which case the winner would most likely receive a donated prize as opposed to a payout from the auction pot. Or the auction pot might be split between the winners and the charity, e.g., the winning bidder would get half of the payout with the other half going to charity. As always, the tournament organizers are free to set their own rules and limits for fundraising purposes.

Calcutta Participation Risky for Competitive Amateur Golfers

If you are an amateur golfer who plays tournament golf, or is otherwise highly skilled and wishes to protect your amateur status, think twice before participating in a Calcutta auction. The USGA's policy on gambling states that participating in Calcuttas can put amateur status at risk:

Other forms of gambling or wagering where there is a requirement for players to participate (e.g., compulsory sweepstakes) or that have the potential to involve considerable sums of money (e.g., calcuttas and auction sweepstakes -- where players or teams are sold by auction) may be considered by a Governing Body to be contrary to the purpose of the Rules (Rule 7-2).

If you are concerned about risking your amateur status, seek guidance from the USGA or R&A (easier still, don't participate in a Calcutta!). There are also several Decisions on the Rules of Amateur Status -- specifically Decisions 7-2/2, 7-2/3 and 7-2/4 -- that relate to Calcuttas. You can access those decisions beforehand.