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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
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Richard Branson, Sept/Oct 2007

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.

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