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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 3)

His last match, in 1998, was a doozy. Proposed by fellow high-stakes card players Huck Seed and Howard Lederer, it was a Nassau format bet against Brunson and Mike Sexton. Seed and Lederer were the better players, so they agreed to play from the blue tees and let Brunson and Sexton play from the red tees. The stakes: a $168,000 Nassau, bet five ways, which allows for a press on each side. Brunson made a key 35-footer on the 16th hole that rattled Seed and Lederer. Brunson and Sexton would go on to win $336,000. They did this with a moving gallery of about 30 carts, with fellow gamblers betting between themselves on holes, on shots, on anything.

"I guess the thing about me that made me a good gambler was that I wasn't afraid to lose," says Brunson, who still revels in how much he won in his last round of competitive golf. "You have to have action to get action. That has always been my philosophy, in golf or cards. If you go in afraid to lose, then you probably will lose. If you go in like you're going to win, your chances of winning are a lot better. I mean, I lost some, for sure. When I was playing my best, I overmatched myself from time to time. Billy Walters has gotten the best of me over time because he's a better player. But the trouble with players who gamble is that most of them don't want to lose the money and that's all they think about. Myself, Bill Walters -- we just think about playing and winning. If we miss a shot, it isn't because we choked thinking about the money. We missed because we didn't make a good swing or a good putt, that's all."

This steely reserve separates successful gamblers from the rest of us. Money focuses their attention, though they will all say that their attention is on playing the game, not on the money. Trevino was fond of saying that once he started playing for big money on the PGA Tour, he would never think about it. "I'd just think about the trophy they were going to hand me when I won," says Trevino. "See, when you get a trophy, there's a great big check that comes along with it."

Phil Mickelson is one of a few PGA Tour pros who regularly have some action going during practice rounds. The most frequent game is Skins, where a value is set for each hole, often $100. If a hole is tied, the value carries over. If six holes in a row end in ties, the value of the seventh would be $700. Mickelson often likes to play Hammer, which is Skins with a doubling component. One player can hammer another player at any time during a hole, often after an opponent's bad shot. This doubles the value of the hole. If the hammered player does not accept the challenge, he automatically loses the hole.

"The reason we play Hammer or play Skins is because each putt matters," says Mickelson. "It gets us in a frame of mind that each three- or four-footer makes a difference. It gives us a chance to prepare for the pressure that we will feel during the tournament. Hammer allows you to double the betÖIt makes each shot critical."

Gambling on golf is as natural as grass. It's a game that sets up perfectly for all manner of wagers, and the handicapping system allows players of vastly disparate talent to play for a buck or two. At $50 a pop, the boys in The Shootout aren't going to make or lose a fortune. Commissioner Havre, seeing that a player might have had a bad run, tries to set him up with a team more likely to win the next time out. Maybe he'll even put him with Arnold Palmer. Losing with Palmer in your group is not a heavy price to pay.

"When Tiger played, a guy offered $1,000 to play in his group," says Havre. "But I wouldn't let him do it. That's not the way we are here. Arnold always plays with everybody and he's playing even more now that he isn't playing on the tour that much anymore. He loves it and everybody loves playing with him. And he has some action going with everybody."

That's the way it is. Competitive players love the action. They have to have some green riding on the greens. For the Shootout boys, and millions of others, action is a requirement. They exchange a few bills every time they step onto a course. Religiously.


Jeff Williams is a sports writer for Newsday on Long Island.

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