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|Style and technique are incidental in the games Las Vegas golf hustlers play. (.)|
"We ain't interested in chump change," says a man we'll call Frankie, an early 30-something golf hustler born and raised in Las Vegas. "But if you're jonesing to play for dimes and quarters, then get your ass to the desert and we'll launch it."
The dimes and quarters that southern-born Frankie alludes to are not the stuff of ball-markers, but $1,000 and $2,500 betting units - the sort of wagering denominations often found in Vegas casinos, not as commonly on golf courses. But just as the highest stakes poker and sports-betting action in the world goes down in Las Vegas, so it is with "a good walk spoiled."
Frankie and about 10 or 12 other certified golf bandits with titanium-lined stomachs have been making mid six-figure incomes on the links for years in Las Vegas, without ever turning pro. And though they may not be great golfers in the traditional sense, they are the best in the world at getting into your wallet.
They've studied every aspect of playing for money - from assessing the competition, to establishing the bet, to getting the edge, to raising the level of their play along with the stakes. And as you might guess, every year dozens of cocksure golfers fly into Las Vegas looking for some serious action.
All the visitor has to do to find it is drop into a poker room on the Strip or a local golf shop and mention that he's not averse to a little betting. It won't take long for the bees to find the honey and set up the game.
"Ninety-nine point nine percent of the hotshots who come through here get their lunch handed to them," says Matt Othick, a former standout basketball guard who once played in the Final Four for the Arizona Wildcats. Matt has been playing for big stakes since his early teens.
"Playing golf for your own money is all about pressure, and how you handle it," he says. "And finding a man's choke point. Every sucker's got one, you know."
The Vegas golf hustlers understand that technique and style are incidental in the games they play. "Some of the best money players really flail at it," says Frankie, one of the few gambling golfers who regularly breaks 80. "I've seen better looking swings on a condemned playground.
"But those guys know how to get it in the hole at crunch time and they hardly ever buckle under the heat. It is an absolute requirement for a high-rent hustler to have a ton of short game. Bad putters need not apply."
Hustlers also appreciate that the score you shoot means nothing - it's whether you walk away with the cash. If you shoot 65 and lose money, it's a bad day. An 89 that goes to the bank is a great day at the office.
Othick got an oil-check early in life to determine whether he could take the heat required of a pedigreed money player. "My first real action was when I was 13," he says, "when my dad put me up against Stu Ungar."
Known as The Kid, because he looked like a teenager well into his thirties, Ungar was the legendary three-time World Series of Poker champion who died of a drug overdose some years back. He has been the subject of two books and a movie.
"The bet was two drives each, longest ball wins a grand," Matt says. "We both weighed about 135 pounds. Ungar's longer shot went 230. I smoked him by about 35 yards. Immediately, Stuey asked that I be allowed to enter the money match. Dad okayed it. On the last hole, I had a three-foot putt for five grand and missed it. I remember crying and running off the course. I felt terrible 'cause I'd lost my dad's money. But when Dad caught up to me in the parking lot, he was excited. He said, 'You don't know how good that was. Now he thinks he can beat you.'"
As is often the case in family matters, father indeed knew best.
"Shortly after that I was in a huge game with Stuey at Las Vegas Country Club and I had a three-footer to win 50 grand," Matt recalls. "I felt really calm and I made it. With all the other action, Ungar lost over a hundred thousand on that one hole. He was so shaken up he drove his cart into a deep bunker off the 18th fairway. They had to use a crane to pull it out."
In these five-alarm money games, pressure is something that must be craved, savored and ultimately devoured. Desire for gain has to far outweigh the fear of loss.
The late veteran hustler Puggy Pearson once told me that, "You can't be afraid to lose your entire bankroll. The way you guard against that is betting smart. You need to know you got the stone nuts before you put the peg in the ground."
Pearson's biggest score in 18 holes was $300,000, but he had some six-figure losses along the way. "It's like the stock market," he said. "You just want more ups than downs."
It's not likely the best of the Vegas crew will ever get hustled themselves.
"The first assumption we make is that a new player is two shots a side better than he admits," says Frankie. "And I like to get a guy's confidence up first time we go at it. I have no problem dumping two or three thousand on our maiden voyage because the next time I want the guy to feel confident enough that he'll play me for 10-dime units, with automatic two-downs.
"The couple grand in seed money I blow is just the cost of doing business," he says. "And remember, I know these courses inside out. Every game I play is a home game."
Some hustlers will look beyond the skill and try for every edge - legal or otherwise — they can get. Or as a savvy old-timer once told Matt Othick, "Son, if you ain't cheatin' at least twice a round, you ain't tryin' hard enough."
In these matches, hot golf balls that go illegal distances are sometimes repainted and given a perfect Titleist logo to look legit. Magnetic putters have been employed that can subtly lift a ball marker off the green and move it closer to the hole.
There are even stories about greens-crew workers 200 yards down the fairway in their little motor carts who will casually kick a ball from a good lie into a sand divot, or turn a clear shot into a dead stymie. They can count on a couple Ben Franklins for their efforts.
And heaven help the naïve out-of-towner who leaves his clubs at a local course during a break in a three-day money match. He's liable to discover only too late that the lies and lofts on his irons have shifted a few degrees overnight, so that his trusty 7-iron that used to travel a dependable 155 yards will now go only 140 when he hits it dead solid. Hey, the guys who work in the club room have to make a living too, don't they?
Frankie remembers one time when a beautiful woman in hot pants and a low-cut blouse showed up at a money game. She kept flirting with one of the golfers, actually talking to him in breathy tones during his pre-shot routine.
"He didn't have the guts to shush her 'cause he thought there was even money he might get lucky after the round," Frankie says. "He lost about 30 grand that day. What he didn't know was that the chick got 10 percent of his losses from the hustler, who had her on commission. Damn, he could have rented a dozen Hawaiian Tropic models for the money he pissed away thinking about that broad."
One of the easiest targets in Vegas hustling lore was casino owner Jay Sarno, who was the conceptual genius and builder of both Circus Circus and Caesars Palace. A scratch player and former Atlanta City champion in his younger days, Sarno loved big-money games in his later years, but with failing eyesight and a posse of golfing partners with no conscience, his golfing losses are estimated to have been between $5 and $10 million.
One day a member of his regular foursome - we'll call Johnny - was spied by Sarno's caddie to be moving his ball in the rough. As the story goes, Sarno hollered at him and Johnny vehemently denied the indiscretion. They got in a shouting match, which ended when Johnny offered to take a polygraph test over whether he had cheated.
After he had passed the test with flying colors, Sarno hugged him and said, "I'm so sorry, Johnny. You're my best friend. I'll never question you again."
What Jay Sarno didn't know is that Johnny had paid the polygrapher $5,000 to fake the results.
Othick says he's seen velvet putting strokes get Parkinson's when the action heats up. "I don't believe they've found my choke point yet on four-footers," Matt says. "I made one for 100 grand when I was 17 years old, and that wasn't somebody else's money. I'd have had to rob a bank if I yipped it."
Frankie fleeced an out-of-towner for $35,000 in April, most of it on the infamous 18th hole at Las Vegas Country Club, which has water fronting a shallow green.
"I knew the guy was a pathetic wedge player," he says, "and there's no dodging that third shot because if you belly it over the green you're left with a downhill bunker shot and the ducks on the pond calling for a fair catch.
"On the tee I gave him an Aloha press - doubling everything - and he laid a bowl-a-chili over that [expletive] lob wedge. It looked so good I coulda eaten it."
Gambling legend Billy Walters, who's been known to bet seven figures on a single football game, is just as cold-blooded on the fairways.
"Fearless and treacherous, those words come to mind when I think of Billy in his heyday," says Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, a man often referred to as the father of modern-day, big-money poker games. "Billy didn't want just part of your bankroll on the golf course. He wanted your entire net worth."
Walters, who owns Walters Golf as well as a share of the WorldGolf.com Network, once won more than a million dollars in a three-week period from a well-known actor by giving him a bet that proved irresistible. Billy offered the celebrity 10 shots a side in a match-play bet, and 24 shots in medal play. USGA rules applied.
It was a proposition the actor, who typically shot in the mid-90s, should have won 80 percent of the time, and he knew it. But there was a fatal flaw in the man's psychological makeup that Walters picked up on in their first match, and he was convinced he could exploit it.
"That first day we played a $10,000 Nassau, and I was 2 down after 14 holes and then he fell apart," Billy says, seated in his warmly decorated and sequestered office at Bali Hai Golf Club in Las Vegas, a resort course he built on the south end of the Strip.
"The guy had received too much instruction in the preceding days and weeks, and he hadn't played enough big-money golf to maintain clear thinking when he had to execute the important shots," he says.
"While an experienced golfer can put the fundamentals of his grip and swing on automatic pilot and spend his pre-shot moments measuring the wind and the pin position, and paying attention to where the short side of the green is and where not to leave his ball, this actor was focused on his grip and his ball position and his takeaway. His circuitry was overloaded with information. The man didn't realize it that first day, but there was no way in the world he could beat me. However, the bet looked so good on paper that he kept coming back day after day. He busted out in three weeks, but to his credit he paid off every dime he owed me."
Perhaps the best line we heard from these golfing gamblers came from Texas Dolly Brunson, when he was asked to define pressure:
"The boys on the PGA Tour certainly know about pressure, but it's a different kind of stress," he told me. "The pros are always playing for somebody else's money. See, when Tiger Woods hits a putt for half a million dollars, he don't have to reach into his Armani slacks and come up with five hundred grand if he misses ... we do."
June 3, 2008
An author, professional keynote speaker, celebrity host, and humorist, Jack Sheehan is a 30-year Vegas insider. He is a New York Times best-selling author and screenwriter, with more than 11 books in print, including two with professional golfer Peter Jacobsen, Buried Lies (1993) and Embedded Balls (2005).
The late Jack Stephens fully appreciated the most important things that golf offered him: wonderful recreation, breathtaking scenery, and the most ideal venue on earth to make friends and strengthen friendships. And he always tried to give back to his sport in equal measure, Jack Sheehan writes.
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