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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

Former NFL quarterback Steve Bartkowski has just finished a round of golf at the posh Waialae Country Club in Oahu, Hawaii. He's unwinding with a cool drink and paying off a few bets. Glancing up at the TV screen, he sees a PGA match in which one of the pros appears pressured to sink a six-foot putt. A pal of Bartkowski's, watching the action unfold, says, "That's not pressure. If he finishes second, who cares? His money isn't on the line. Pressure is when you have to sink a six-footer to win a $100 Nassau, and it's your $100."

That gets Bartkowski thinking about how cool it would be to have a golf event in which a lot of cash would hang in the balance, and sinking that six-footer (or not) would have real consequences. The idea gestates for several years, a few zeroes are added to the $100, and by 2005 Bartkowski has put together a handful of investors and organizers to run the richest tournament in golf history. Big Stakes Match Play is born.

The idea is simple: 128 teams of two golfers each put up $100,000 and play a four-ball match-play single-elimination tournament (each team counts its best score per hole, and the players compete on holes rather than strokes as in the Ryder Cup). Whichever team wins the majority of 18 holes goes on to the next stage of the event, while the loser is eliminated. Eventually, the last two surviving teams compete for a grand prize of $3 million.

Sounds sweet, but in the end, only 64 teams pony up the $100,000 entry fee (in almost every case it's put up by a sponsor) to play in the May tournament. Nevertheless, Bartkowski and his group keep the first-place prize at $3 million and cut corners on the runner-up awards—doling out a total of $6.4 million, including consolation prizes. The first-prize figure for this six-day event is suitably large enough that it draws several high-rolling team sponsors, including NBA legend Michael Jordan, football pros Barry Stokes and Ross Verba, and professional gambler/former World Series of Poker champ Russ Hamilton, who is representing the online poker site (which put up the $100,000 for its team). Not content to angle for a mere $3 million, Hamilton blows into the dusty Nevada town of Mesquite (where the tournament is being held) with a Bellagio shopping bag full of banded Benjamins. "There's $100,000 in the bag," he says flatly. "But if we use that up, I'll bring more. No problem. As long as we can get the best of it, we'll put down lots of money."

Carrying the bag of dough is Hamilton's right-hand man, Jeff Friedman. Slender, curly-haired and slightly wired, Friedman is a world-class golf gambler in his own right. Hamilton charged him with scouring the country to find the best possible twosomes to compete in the event and bring home the millions. A man with deep connections in the 18-hole world, Friedman was initially told to find the four best golfers possible. He did and reported as much to Hamilton. "Now," Hamilton told him, "narrow it down to the top two. I never did want four golfers. I just wanted you to have some options."

Friedman wound up recruiting John Douma and Mikkel Reese, a pair of blond-haired, meaty-faced mini-tour pros from Arizona (they look so much alike, and play so similarly, that opponents take to calling them The Clones). Conforming to Big Stakes rules, Douma and Reese have not been classified as PGA A-3 players for the last three years, are at least 25 years of age, and do not have fully exempt status on any of several major tours. The guys know each other as competitors on the sub-PGA Gateway Tour and clearly respect each other's game.

Hamilton's convinced that he's got the best horses in this particular race, and others agree. One night before the opening tee-off, at the Calcutta (in which bettors bid on the teams they think will win the tournament), Hamilton's guys go for $4,500, more than any other twosome. He views that as a good sign, which is underscored when Friedman tries to spread around some of the banded hundreds and finds no takers. With a shrug that doesn't quite hide his disappointment, Friedman stashes the money in a lockbox at the hotel and figures that nobody wants to bet against a favorite.

The next morning, Hamilton heads to Los Angeles, tending to some gaming business of his own, and Friedman is in charge of overseeing the team and making bets. Once again, he has no takers. Considering the split—25 percent for him, 25 percent for each of the golfers and 25 percent for Hamilton/UltimateBet—he says, "It's a lot of money. Even if you're Russ Hamilton."

That said, Friedman's not sure how well his golfers will handle the pressure of playing for more money than they have ever seen in their lives. On the one hand, he believes that they should be a little more on edge than they appear as they get set for the first tee at the CasaBlanca Golf Club in Mesquite. A par-72 course, CasaBlanca is nationally ranked and outfitted with cascading waterfalls, arroyos and a number of newly installed sand bunkers. On the other hand, Friedman kind of contradicts himself when he tells them to enjoy themselves, stay loose and play their game.

Several holes in, while watching Reese and Douma struggle to stay even, as one of their opponents seems preternaturally incapable of missing 30-foot putts, Friedman reaches a disturbing conclusion: "Either I severely underestimated the field or we've gotten extremely unlucky with the team we've been picked to go up against."

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