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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 2)

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.

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