Playing for the Big Bucks
For a $50,000 entry fee, a group of starry-eyed golfers teed it up at Wynn Las Vegas for a $2 million prize in the Ultimate Game
Three decades ago, Lee Trevino was asked if he thought about the money when he was playing, in an era when first place was worth $50,000. "Man, I just think about the trophy," said Trevino. "I know if they hand you the trophy, they're going to be giving you a great big check." Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Vijay Singh and other stars of the PGA Tour play for trophies because they know that a great big check will follow, as well as a torrent of cash from endorsements. Riches abound for those players who can make it to the top of the game.
But suppose you are not Woods, Mickelson or Singh, or even a David Toms or a Chris DiMarco or a Chad Campbell. Suppose you are a Ken Jarner, a Tony Finau or a Scott Piercy. Suppose you are completely unknown, with little or no foundation in the game, light years away from the PGA Tour and its Fort KnoxÐlike riches. And suppose you are playing for $2 million.
"I gotta tell you what," says Trevino. "If I was playing for $2 million, I'd be thinking about it."
That's what the inaugural Ultimate Game was all about: two million bucks, and thinking about it, dreaming about it, salivating over it. Created by Steve Bartkowski, the former NFL quarterback, and his partner, Jim Thomas, the Ultimate Game was held in June at Wynn Las Vegas. The competition came down to 12 players grinding it out for that first-place payday. "I wanted to see who had the guts and the skill coming down the stretch," says legendary hotelier Steve Wynn. "I wanted to see how guys who never play for anything like this kind of money handle themselves."
After a gut-wrenching qualifying tournament the week before, the 36-hole final came down to a fight between a journeyman pro from Las Vegas and, of all people, a caddie at the host Wynn Golf Club, who for the first time saw his name on the Wynn Casino's sports book tote board. The journeyman, Scott Piercy, ultimately beat out the caddie, Ken Jarner, for the Ultimate Game's $2 million check. Local boy makes good. Really good.
It wasn't that simple, of course.
It wasn't that some benevolent Las Vegas whale put up the more than $2 million the Ultimate Game ultimately paid out. For unlike the PGA Tour, these players weren't playing for someone else's cash. They were playing for their own. Or more accurately, and acutely, for the $50,000 entry fee paid by each of the 40 players in the qualifying field who were backed by individual sponsors, sponsorship syndicates and, in at least one case, dear old dad.
The Ultimate Game grew out of the Big Stakes Match Play Golf Tournament that Bartkowski and Thomas came up with in 2005, a two-man-team match play event where the entry fee was $100,000 per team. But to get the Ultimate Game on television, they needed to switch to a medal play format. They turned to television golf producer extraordinaire Terry Jastrow, who just happened to be good friends with Steve Wynn. Jastrow got the Ultimate Game on Fox Television and got Wynn to host it at his mega-resort on the Vegas strip. "Watching someone play for their own money has got to be different than watching the pros every week playing for someone else's," says Jastrow. "Especially watching guys that you don't know about, who don't have millions, coming down to the end with $2 million on the line."
Of the 40 entries in the qualifier event, 10 players qualified for the final through match play and two others came out of the losers bracket via medal play. The 10 match play winners earned $100,000 apiece, thus getting back the entry fee plus another 50 grand. The two losers bracket entries got their entry fee returned. The following week, the 12 qualifiers played 36 holes over two days at the Wynn Golf Club, vying for one prize: $2 million.
Among those in the final field were Rick Rhoden, a former All-Star Major League pitcher who has become the king of the celebrity golf tour; Tony Finau, a 17-year-old from Salt Lake City who, along with his 16-year-old brother, turned professional for this event; Ken Jarner, the caddie at the Wynn course; and a host of PGA Tour wannabes such as Kevin Streelman, Erik Compton and the winner, Scott Piercy. Everyone saw dollar signs in their dreams.
"It's hard to keep the money out of your mind," said Jarner. "I mean, I never got to play for anything like this. I don't have the experience of playing under that kind of pressure. But I'd like to think that I've got game and this is a great chance to prove it."
With the clatter and clang of construction at Wynn's newest development, Encore at Wynn, providing a din at the first tee, off went the 12 players in search of a life-changing check.
Ron Faria, a 48-year-old assistant pro from the Atlantic Golf Club in the toney Hamptons area of Long Island, east of New York City, got off to a good start and was leading at 3-under par after the front nine. Faria has thoughts of playing the Champions Tour, not the PGA Tour, and the prospect of an extra million-dollar cushion for that 50-year-old circuit could make a man salivate. "It would certainly make things a lot easier, take off the pressure," said Faria.
Faria's game went south in the 1990s, and his putting was atrocious. A sports psychologist helped him regain faith in himself as a ball striker, and a new putter and putting style—so bizarre you would think he could sell it to Cirque du Soleil—had made him a competitive player in the New York area, well into his 40s. Now here he was atop the leaderboard, but not for long. He three-putted the 10th hole for bogey, then drowned one in the water on the par-3 11th hole for double bogey.
Rick Rhoden was playing in the tournament only because a court date had been postponed in his suit against a cement company whose truck collided with his car in 2002, resulting in injuries that required him to have disks in his neck fused. He looked forward to the pressure of the event, and of all the players, he had spent the most time in the spotlight, as both a pitcher and a celebrity golfer. Trevino, the color commentator hired by Jastrow for the event, liked Rhoden's chances. But not for long. On the par-3 sixth hole he put two shots in the water and made triple bogey. He made two double bogeys and shot a first-round 79, knocking him out of contention. "I wasn't nervous," said Rhoden, "I just couldn't pick the right club for some reason. Maybe that's a lame excuse, but it's true."
Nate Whitson, a kick-around pro from Ojai, California, was playing in the tournament because of a friend of a friend. Jason Pridmore, a world-class motorcycle racer, was a close friend of Whitson's and he also happened to be a friend of Michael Jordan's. Yes, that Michael Jordan. Among his interests, Jordan owns a motorcycle team and through that connection he knows Pridmore. Jordan also conducted basketball camps in Santa Barbara, and Whitson was around to be his golf partner. "I'd probably played a dozen rounds of golf with Michael," said Whitson. "But it was sort of out of the blue when he called one night and said he would sponsor me in this thing. I'm thrilled to be playing, but I've never played for anything like this and to have Michael backing me up, that makes me a little nervous too. But don't get me wrong, this is a great thing and he has done me a tremendous favor."
Whitson's tournament started off on a sour note. Practicing at another course because the Wynn Golf Club doesn't have a full range, he hit a player at the opposite end of the range with a ball, flat clunked him on the head. Whitson never was much of a factor, shooting a pair of 73s.
There was much anticipation about young Tony Finau. He and his brother, Gipper, are tremendous ball strikers. Tony carries only one wood in his bag, a driver. On the first hole, a 406-yard par 4, he flew his tee shot within 20 yards of the green. OK, it was a little downhill, but the sound of clubhead colliding with the ball cancelled out the construction sounds next door. Finau is 6 feet 4 and has a swing arc wider than John Daley's RV. He also has an impressive short game, with a pair of soft hands meant for scoring. The first day he shot 69, one under par. "We know this is a big step for him and his brother," said their father, Gary. "But they want to be pro golfers and this sort of puts them right in the fire to begin with. This is a great learning experience and I'm not sure they could have gotten anything like this in college."
First-round leader Byron Smith, who shot a 67, did play in college, at Pepperdine University, but after two years decided to put away his clubs and pursue a philosophy degree. "I didn't know what would become of me as a golfer and I didn't want to leave college having just played golf and not having anything to show for it," says Smith.
Then, on a family vacation to Canada in 2003, he grabbed some rental clubs, shot something like 8-under par, and the spirit was rekindled. He won a Canadian Tour event in Mexico early in the 2007 season and his father put up the 50 grand for him to play in the Ultimate Game. "I wouldn't be in the game at all if it wasn't for him," says Smith. "If you are going to play this game well, you need someone who has faith in you. This is a pretty big commitment he made."
Right behind Smith after the first round was Jarner, the caddie. Originally from Santa Rosa, California, Jarner had tried to make it on the Nike Tour (now Nationwide Tour) in 1994 by going the Monday-qualifying route. He sold shares in himself at a local golf club, bought a van that he pretty much lived out of, and drove 23,000 miles through 20 states trying to get into tournaments. He got into 17 of them, but didn't make enough money to stay on the tour. He moved to Palm Springs to try to find a sponsor, but had no luck. Eventually he made his way to Las Vegas, having never established himself on any tour, and wound up caddying at Wynn, which isn't the worst gig in the world. "I had played with some guys from Muskogee, Oklahoma, in a tournament sponsored by the Golden Nugget and they found out about this tournament and agreed to sponsor me," says Jarner. "I guess they liked the fact that I had played this course maybe 100 times and had caddied like 300 rounds here."
The local knowledge helped, though the greens were faster and the pins tougher than at any time he had played the course. He still came through with a solid 68 in the first round, good for a second-place tie with Scott Piercy.
Piercy had some experience playing for money. He had been in the Big Stakes Game two years previous and had once played a private game in Las Vegas with a backer for $7,500 a hole. He had to give up a shot a hole to his opponent except on the par 3s. He was down by 20 grand after the front nine but ended up winning $10,000 after shooting a 31 on the back nine at Shadow Creek, Steve Wynn's first great golf creation in the desert. "That was pretty hairy, especially having to give up those strokes," said Piercy. "When you play those games, they are always trying to weigh you down. At least in this game, it's even up. I was a lot more nervous in the match play. Now that I've gotten this far, it's exciting but I wouldn't say it was nerve-racking."
Piercy got a good night's sleep after his opening 68. His wife, Sarah, took their two young sons to a baseball game. The next day, the final day of the Ultimate Game, was their fifth anniversary.
Was it nerves that got to Smith, the first-round leader, at the opening of the final round? He started off with four straight bogeys and fell out of contention.
Jarner found himself the betting favorite in the Wynn sports book on the morning of the final round, going off at 2-1. Piercy, who was his playing partner along with Smith, was the second choice, at 5-2. Despite missing a three-foot birdie putt on the second hole, Jarner had the lead by a stroke after a birdie on the ninth hole. On the par-5 10th he ran in a 20-footer for birdie and a two-shot lead. On the par-3 11th, he stuck his tee shot inside three feet, right behind the hole. Another birdie and a three-shot lead. "This looks like it's going to be his day," said his wife, Agnes, barely containing the thought of a brand new Porsche.
Another birdie followed on the par-5 12th and Piercy failed to make up ground when he missed an eight-foot eagle putt. But Piercy had played long enough to know that he couldn't count himself out when he was striking the ball as well as he was. The putts had to fall, he kept telling himself, and thanks to Jarner, one did.
On the par-4 13th, with its difficult bowl-shaped green, Jarner played a knowing approach that ran to the back of the green to the right of the pin, then horseshoed off the slope and finished 12 feet to the left of the hole. A chance for a fifth straight birdie. Piercy did him one better, though. Playing the same sort of shot, Piercy put his ball four feet inside of Jarner's, on exactly the same line. Jarner missed his putt on the low side. Getting a read from Jarner's putt, Piercy played a little extra break and made his birdie, cutting the lead to two.
Piercy hit another beautiful approach to nine feet on the 14th. Though Piercy missed the birdie putt, Jarner gifted him another shot when he three-putted from 45 feet, his lead now down to one. Then, on the treacherous par-3 15th, surrounded by water, Piercy finally made the putt he was looking for, a 30-footer that never thought about doing anything else except going in. They were tied.
On 16, Piercy dropped another birdie putt to take a one-shot lead. On the very difficult, long par-4 17th, Piercy's approach shot never left the pin. His seven-foot birdie putt was true. Jarner made bogey after coming up short of the green. Piercy had a three-shot lead playing the 18th, and while his approach shot seemed a little too close to the water for comfort, it stayed on the green and he two-putted for a closing 65, and the $2 million check.
Sarah and the boys were at greenside when the winning putt dropped. After she had returned from the baseball game the night before, she had talked with her husband in bed for five minutes. "He was really calm," she said. "I think he knew."
Maybe casino executive Bobby Baldwin didn't know the night before, but he was betting on Piercy all along. He led a syndicate of 13 investors that put up $100,000 to sponsor Piercy and Kevin Streelman, with the players and the syndicate splitting the money 50-50. "We met four years ago and I thought he had tremendous ability," Baldwin says about Piercy, showing considerably more emotion than the winner. "We sponsored him in the Big Stakes Game and we decided to do it in this event until he won it. Didn't take long, did it?"
With some fresh cash in his pocket, Piercy thought that his PGA Tour dream could still come true. He Monday-qualified for the Travelers Championship in Hartford, Connecticut, three weeks later, but missed the cut. One of the perks of winning the Ultimate Game was earning a sponsor exemption to a Nationwide Tour event, but nearly a month after his win, the 28-year-old hadn't seen anything but his check. "It's a little disappointing, but I'm hoping that winning it will mean something more down the line," he says. "I know I can play."
The joke around the Wynn was that if Jarner had won, he would have been sent off to caddie for the first group on Saturday morning. So Agnes didn't get her Porsche and Jarner didn't get to trade in his caddie bib. But with the $50,000 he earned for making the final field, at least there was a party. "Believe me, it was tough back then trying to qualify for the Nike Tour, but I don't think it ever felt like this. I found myself pretty calm that second day. Sure, I'm disappointed I didn't win. But I proved a little something to myself, that I'm good enough."
Jeff Williams is a Cigar Aficionado contributing editor.