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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

(continued from page 2)

Yes, a few thousand dollars was a big stake in the 1960s, as it would be today if it were part of the average country club match. Really big stakes matches are rare and the air surrounding them is just as rarefied. Billy Walters knows about this, as he does about most things related to gambling. Gamblers don't come any larger than Walters, and golf gambling definitely is Mr. Walters' Neighborhood.

Walters has been a professional gambler for more than three decades. Not surprisingly, he calls Las Vegas home. He played his first round of golf in 1968 with his brother-in-law on a municipal course in Louisville, Kentucky. And he bet on it, 50 bucks a hole.

"He said, ëAre you sure you want to do this?' " Walters says of his incredulous brother-in-law. "I said I don't like doing anything without something on the line. I guess I lost about $200. But I was hooked. Golf was a great game to bet, something that you could control. You can't control dice or cards. You can control a golf ball, at least when it listens to you."

Jack Binion, the original owner of the Golden Horseshoe Casino, which served as a Mecca in the early days of the Las Vegas Strip, was a golf gambler who founded the Gamblers Golf Tournament. It began in the early 1970s and lasted until early 1990s, and was the venue where Walters really got hooked on golf gambling. "I lived in Louisville but came to Las Vegas several times a year. That event brought to me Las Vegas, big time," says Walters. "Jack would bring in big-time gamblers from all over the world. Jack had so much credibility and that's how the whole thing could come off. He researched all the players, their handicaps, and he made all the matches. Heck, if you were his friend, it might hurt you. He'd bend over backwards to make sure it didn't seem like he was favoring you in a matchup, so he often put his friends up against the toughest players. Everybody knew they could trust him."

Players paid $5,000 to enter the tournament. Binion would match up two players and send them off in foursomes. Sometimes the players would have team bets going against the other twosome, and sometimes there would be individual side bets. It was all hashed out before the players got to the first tee. The minimum bet was a $500 Nassau.

Nassau bets are the most widely used in golf, devised in the early 1900s at the Nassau Country Club on Long Island. The rules are dirt simple, although it can be played for some ethereal sums. The basic Nassau is match play, individual against individual or team against team. A set sum, $500 in the case of the Binion's tournament, is assigned to each of three betting points: the front nine, back nine and the entire 18 holes, for a minimum of $1,500 at stake. But there is an additional betting tool known as "pressing." Pressing can be either automatic or optional. Automatic two-down presses are quite common. When a side is two holes down, an automatic two-down press opens another bet. It's essentially a double-or-nothing proposition. If a team is down two holes after five on the front nine, presses, then wins the remaining four holes on the front nine, say 1-up, it will lose the front nine 1-down but win the press bet 1-up.

In the Gamblers Golf Tournament, the Nassaus, were sometimes large enough to buy a significant chunk of the Bahamas. "That's all we played were Nassaus," says Walters. "None of that Bingo, Bango, Bongo crap or anything. Normally the bets would be $5,000 or $10,000 between you and the guy you were matched up with and then maybe you would have other bets going with the other two guys. But the games could get big if you knew a guy. Knowing a guy is important when you're playing for lots of money. I played $100,000 Nassaus five different times. I once won a million dollars from a guy in a day over 36 holes. Took me a couple of hours to lose it in the casino. When you are playing blackjack at $25,000 a spot, three spots, it can go quick."

A $100,000 Nassau is putting a lot of a player's bank account, and ego, on the line. But players like Walters, even if their bank accounts were showing overdraft, were never underfunded in the ego department. They believed they would win, and belief is the fuel for talent. Without it, the best swings melt into shanks and duck hooks at the thought of losing a $10 bill.

Walters has played at the very top of the golf gambling food chain, but even he has someone to look up to -- Doyle Brunson. "Doyle Brunson is probably the biggest golf gambler there ever was," says Walters. "And he was perfectly legit. He'd play for half a million dollars and he'd sometimes lose and pay right up. Everything was straight up with him. He has a reputation for being on the up and up. That's how you play for big money. It's no different than the reputation of some big Wall Street guy."

Doyle "Dolly" Brunson is the card-playing equivalent of Arnold Palmer. He has won the World Series of Poker twice and was a long-standing regular in Binion's Golf Gamblers Tournament. He was a good golfer, though not an outstanding one. He had been a standout athlete in Texas, both in basketball and on the track. But a leg injury sustained in a summer job at a gypsum plant ended his athletic career, and in essence began his gambling career. His card playing became widely known, though his prowess as a golfer was known to a precious few. Brunson doesn't play golf anymore; his leg is too bad now to support his swing.

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