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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

(continued from page 1)

"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."

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