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High-Stakes Golf

A dusty Nevada town provides the setting for the world's richest golf tournament
Michael Kaplan
From the Print Edition:
Emeril Lagasse, Sept/Oct 2005

(continued from page 1)

Maybe it turns out to be a little bit of both. While the UltimateBet team shoots a stunning 10 below par—in a round highlighted by impressively precise short games—the killer score is not enough to win. The duo is eliminated in heartbreaking fashion on the final hole.

The next afternoon, I see Jeff Friedman walking around the CasaBlanca Hotel lobby and carrying a leather bag across his shoulder. He does not look the least bit disturbed by the loss; he is, after all, a lifelong gambler and has had stranger things happen. "This is Russ's money," he says, patting the bag. "I've just got to get the [UltimateBet-logoed] golf bags back from the guys and I head to Vegas, so I can return everything. Nobody here wants to gamble, so there's nothing left for me to do." Asked if he's surprised at the dearth of action, Friedman shrugs and acknowledges that it turned out to be a blessing. "Otherwise we'd be out another $100,000."

The dynamos who beat the UltimateBet team happen to be backed by Michael Jordan. No surprise, then, that he'd put his money on a couple of winners. The team's stronger player, the guy who can't miss a long putt, is Donald Wright (who birdied three of the final five holes against Team UltimateBet). A lanky, mini-tour golf pro from Georgia, he takes an awfully long time to set up for every shot, but then mitigates the maddening process by seeming to do the impossible on the course. "I hooked up with Michael through a golfing friend," says Wright, after rolling home a string of miraculous putts to win round two of the Big Stakes event and insure that Jordan will recoup his $100,000 investment (all 16 teams that make it to day three get paid 100K). "Michael played a couple holes with me and decided I'd be the guy to go with."

Good choice until Wright and his teammate, Dave Schreyer, go up against California's John Wilson and Washington state's Mark Worthington, who manage to snag the third-round match on the final hole. But Wright shrugs it off. He's happy to have won back Jordan's investment. On the night he gets knocked out, Wright is spotted sliding into a car with a bevy of sexy women from event sponsor They're all heading to Las Vegas, where they will meet with Jordan and attend a boxing match. For a guy who just lost his shot at seven figures, Wright looks pretty darn happy.

Clearly, it's not a bad consolation prize, but nothing like the dream that's being clung to by team sponsors and players who remain in the running for the $3 million. Besides Wilson and Worthington, the contenders who have survived to day five include Rick Hartmann and Mark Mielke, a pair of country club pros from Long Island who raised their $100,000 via a quartet of wealthy backers; Garth Mulroy and David Ping, two second-tier pros from Arizona, who secured funding from NFL stars Stokes and Verba; and former Major League Baseball pitcher Rick Rhoden and Florida-based club pro Jimmy Gilleon, who are being financed by a syndicate of 20 Atlanta-area country club members. While the lanky and highly competitive Rhoden, who won more than 150 games during his Major League career, would surely be happy to win the money, it won't have the potential to change his life the way it would for Gilleon.

Until recently, Gilleon had been knocking around pro golf's mini-tour circuit, hoping for a shot with the PGA. When that seemed increasingly unlikely (due to encroaching middle age and an injury that kept him from earning money on the Tour), he took a job at a Florida country club, but always harbored what-could've-been dreams. Now, if he were to win the Big Stakes event, a couple things would happen: his confidence would soar and, more importantly, he'd have the wherewithal to mount another run at the PGA if he wanted to, thanks to his share of nearly $750,000 that he'd rake in from the tournament. After the fourth round of golf, during which he and Rhoden managed to scratch and claw their way to victory (and a cumulative total of $400,000 in prize money), Gilleon's trying to focus on the golf game he needs to play the next day.

Out by the CasaBlanca Hotel pool, Big Stakes is throwing a Mexican dinner (complete with mariachi musicians—other nights featured a Sinatra impersonator and a piano player singing Billy Joel's greatest hits), and Gilleon explains that the stakes are particularly gargantuan for him. "It meant leaving something behind to give up on the Tour," admits the bearded, compactly built Gilleon. "When you play golf for a living, you're chasing a dream. I enjoyed it, but I lost sight of what I was trying to do. It went from going after a dream to trying to make a living. I think about it now and realize that going back out there would be tough." Then, chain-smoking like crazy, he gives the possibility a moment of thought, flashing perhaps on what his share of the $3 million would mean. He ominously adds, "But stranger things have been known to happen."

He has one more round of golf to win to put himself in the final. Lose it, and he will walk away with his share of $300,000 (after the investing syndicate has been paid back its $100,000 off the top). More than chump change, but probably not the kind of money that could put him back on the second-tier pro circuit, where the costs are high and the revenue low. But he's a real contender for the grand prize. Beyond Gilleon's own game, one element in his favor is the presence of Rhoden, who's won 49 out of the 150 celebrity golf tournaments he's competed in. As one knowledgeable spectator puts it, when asked to handicap the remaining twosomes, "I like Rhoden and Jimmy. Jimmy can obviously golf, and Rhoden, well, he knows how to win stuff."

In a tournament that has attracted a smattering of retired professional athletes—former NFL quarterback Billy Joe Tolliver among them—Rhoden is the single remaining ex-pro. He carries himself with a stolid, nonemotional demeanor, sucking it up when he misses the green and advising Gilleon to do the same, so as not to give the competition anything to feel good about. This advice comes in handy on the fifth (and penultimate) day, when Gilleon and Rhoden are playing a do-or-die match against Garth Mulroy and David Ping, the two twenty-something pros from Arizona.

By the eighth hole Rhoden and Gilleon are behind by three, and Rhoden is doing all that he can to keep from ramming a golf club into the ground. Considering that Gilleon previously commented on how every Big Stakes match has been a war for him and his partner, it is no surprise that this one, which pits them against the wunderkinds of the tournament, promises to be a battle royal. For several years Ping and Mulroy struggled on the mini-tour circuit, but here in Mesquite, they appear to have come into their own.

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