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Gambling on the Greens

Betting on Golf is a Natural Part of the Game, from $1 Skins to $100 Nassaus
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03

The Commissioner arises each morning at 5:30, religiously. He goes to work out, religiously. He goes to his golf club's pro shop at mid-morning to check The Shootout's sign-in sheet, religiously. Around noon he gathers all the names on the sign-in sheet and makes up the teams for the afternoon round, religiously. Seven days a week -- 365 days a year unless the weather intervenes. Every day, The Shootout is off and running at Bay Hill. Religiously. There is something about golf that drives a player, be it hacker or hero, to play the game for something beyond the sheer joy (or frustration) of whacking a ball around a park with holes in the ground. Hackers and heroes love to have something at stake, be it a dollar, a hundred, a thousand. If shepherds in fifteenth-century Scotland invented the game, they may well have done it because they were bored playing cards. Golf is meant for gambling. The Commissioner and his Crew at the Bay Hill Country Club in Orlando, Florida, know that all too well. Every day, these hackers and heroes play for cash and glory. It's likely you might know one of the regulars in The Shootout, a man who's played for cash and glory for five decades -- Arnold Palmer.

"Arnold's here every day he's in town," says the Commissioner of The Shootout, Lee Havre. "Arnold likes his action, you know. He's always got to have something to play for. He plays for the prize money and he always has action on the side. It could be $100 or $5. But he's always got something going."

Golfers always have something going, don't they? What golfer
hasn't staked a buck or two on the merits of his game? How many regular foursomes go off on a weekend morning without choosing teams and setting the price of competition? Will it be a $5 Nassau today, automatic two-down presses? Will it be Skins at $2 a hole with carryovers? Will it be Bingo, Bango, Bongo at a $1 a point?

Every day, a few million players are deciding how much to play for and how much of a handicap advantage they can get away with. It's the nature of the game.

It certainly is the nature of The Shootout, possibility one of the longest standing gambling games in the nation. It's been going on since the early '70s at Bay Hill, which Palmer owns. Havre, a retired auto dealer, has been the Commissioner since the late '80s. He sets the rules, even for Palmer. He determines the amount of the daily bet, puts together the teams of five and decides the number of payoff positions and the amount those teams will be paid. He does it every day, seven days a week, religiously.

This is how The Shootout works: A player has to be a member of The Shootout Club, which costs $400 for a lifetime membership. He must be a fairly good player, carrying a handicap of 15 or less, though exceptions are sometimes made for friends of members wishing to join or the occasional guest. Players must have their names on The Shootout list in the Bay Hill pro shop by noon. Havre makes up teams of five, designating players into A, B, C, D and E categories. Palmer, you might surmise, is an A player, along with any other low handicap player. The late Payne Stewart was an aficionado of The Shootout, and PGA Tour player Scott Hoch sometimes plays. Even Tiger Woods has been an A player in The Shootout.

Players pony up from $40 to $100 each day. No handicaps are used. The best three scores of the five-man team are used on each hole. Five points are awarded for an eagle, three for a birdie, two for a par and one for a bogey. The points are added up at the end of the round and the three highest scoring teams divide the day's pot. Palmer, like many of the players, also has individual and team bets going within his group. It takes a sharp pencil or two to manage the scorecard.

"I've pretty much been having a wager on the game for at least the last 40 years," says Havre. "It just seems like the thing to do. I think it makes you concentrate on it more, puts some excitement into it. A lot of the reason the guys play in The Shootout is to be around each other. But they all like to have a little action going."

Golf gambling raises the psychological ante of the game. It goes beyond posting a better score. It inflates the winner's ego (and wallet) when he takes some green off another man. Gambling extracts a price for mistakes, rewards good play with the feel of bills being pressed into the palm. Who isn't feeling a little cockier when a good round produces a fistful of Hamiltons and a withered look on your opponent? So, what if he's your best friend. He'll get over it. Or he'll get it back.

Tales of golf gambling are legion and legendary. Alvin C. "Titanic" Thompson was the scourge of the continent in the mid-1900s, a good player who built an outsized reputation as a gambler, though more often as a scammer. He once made a substantial bet that he could drive a golf ball 500 yards. Taken up on it, he then led his group of pigeons to a frozen lake and powered a ball across the ice. He never said he would do it on a golf course.

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