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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 2)

Two days earlier, during the third round, South African Mulroy shot his first-ever hole in one. He complemented it with two eagles and six birdies, establishing himself as the most dangerous man in Mesquite. His performances go a long way toward explaining why the dynamic duo has barely lost a single hole and has kept the pressure on its opponents. It's displayed after Gilleon sinks a five-foot putt to win the ninth hole and the Ping/Mulroy team bounces right back to snag the tenth. After the 15th hole, Ping and Mulroy are ahead by four, guaranteeing them the victory and a spot in the final. However, despite what seems like an easy win (Ping and Mulroy combined to shoot 12 under par on the first 15), Ping stunningly (almost cockily) acknowledges, "This has been our worst round of golf all week. But we hammed-and-egged it and managed to get through."

With the much-ballyhooed richest 18 holes in history on the line tomorrow, these young guys with the NFL stars backing them know that they'll be in for a fight. And they seem to fear that their momentum might have been cruelly drained at the worst possible moment. "We've got a bit of work to do today on the driving range," says Mulroy. "If we play tomorrow the way we did today, forget about it."

Meanwhile, still hanging around the 15th green, a victorious Ping hugs his wife, Karen, and says, with no small amount of relief in his voice, "We'll be able to pay off the credit cards"—and then some, as he and Mulroy ham-and-egg their way to a gross payday of at least $675,000. Ping turns away from his wife and says, "I guarantee you, Garth and I have more debt than anyone else around here. We're not making the checks we want [on the golf tours] and endlessly throw out the green to keep playing. Last year, I made $16,000 from golf but had $60,000 in expenses."

While the winners celebrate, Gilleon stands stiffly alongside his golf cart. He stares straight ahead and purses his lips tightly. A couple of reporters press in on him. "It was a good time, a good tournament," he softly says, doing his best to hide his disappointment at not only losing a shot at the championship, but potentially losing a shot at his dream. "I want to do it again next year."

One of the reporters wonders what Gilleon learned about himself through this experience. "Not much," he says, barely moving his lips, choking on the words, seemingly holding back tears. "It just didn't work out the way I hoped it would."

Illustrating the Darwinian brutality of single elimination, the Gilleon/Rhoden team disappears into the tally books while victors Ping and Mulroy eventually make their way to a corner of the Big Stakes media and players tent (located adjacent to the course's clubhouse). Sitting around with a posse of friends and relatives, they sip from cans of Bud, soak in the adulation and psych themselves up for their big day tomorrow.

In an opposite corner sit their $3 million opponents: Hartmann and Mielke, the pair of country club pros from Long Island. Both men are in their 40s and are veterans of various U.S. and British Opens (which, they say, were a lot more nerve-racking than this tournament). Hartmann, who put together the team and raised most of the financing from three of Atlantic Country Club's well-heeled members, explains, "I've been a pro there for 12 years; the members care about me and my wife. This money will not change our backers one way or the other—but my first priority here was to win back their initial outlay. Now, however, we're in a position to do a lot more than that. And people at the club are celebrating, following results on the Internet."

A fourth backer, Andrew Rosen, who's a friend of Hartmann's and the wealthy proprietor of the Manhattan-based Theory fashion house, plans to fly in for the final and watch his guys take a shot at the $3 million. Mulroy and Ping (the son of a sports agent named Doc Ping, who happens to represents Stokes) have brought in their families as well as the two NFL stars who backed them. Less than 24 hours before the golfers will make history by teeing off for the mammoth purse, I can't help but remember what Jeff Friedman told me before the tournament. He said that a major X factor would be how players handle the inevitable pressure of golfing for what will surely be the biggest payday of their lives—his point being that any one of them could focus too intently on the cash at stake and choke.

Now, with the $3 million so clearly in sight, I wonder how Hartmann and Mielke, who is the pro at Mill River Country Club, are keeping those wads of hundreds from clouding their thoughts. "You try not to think about the money, but it's there; and it's impossible to avoid," says Hartmann. "For Mark and I, that money will pay off our mortgages. I'm not planning to go pro again—I hate traveling—but think of how nice it would be to have your house and all your other bills out of the way." In other words, the money's too important to ignore, but it's critical that they do everything in their power to keep it from affecting their decisions on the course.

One day later, by the sixth tee box (which inaugurates an uphill par-5 hole), Hartmann and Mielke have taken baby steps toward winning the whole thing. Following Hartmann's clutch putt on the sand-trap-intensive five, he and his partner are leading by two. But the playing conditions have suddenly worsened. Slate-colored storm clouds hang low in the sky and dry desert winds whip across the course, kicking up dust and making it increasingly difficult to chip with precision.

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