One of Golf's Biggest Money-Winners Has Never Appeared on the Pro Circuit
From the Print Edition:
Danny DeVito, Winter 96
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The Chairman was about a 4-handicap. The Hustler was scratch. "I liked my chances," Leon says, strolling to the 18th tee box.
The first nine they played, Leon beat the oilman out of $120,000. The next nine, The Chairman pressed his bets and lost $240,000. To Leon's delight, his opponent suggested they play again the next morning, double or nothing. "Funny thing about that match, I hadn't really played all that well the first day. Shot like a seventy-three," Leon recalls. "So even though I was playing for a quarter-million the next day, I wasn't too concerned. I knew I could only play better."
He did, posting a 69 on a course he had seen only twice before. The Chairman wrote Leon a check for $480,000. "That was about my best day on the golf course," Leon says, striping his drive down the middle of the fairway. "Made about thirty-five hundred per shot."
Leon's record against what he calls "very good players" is stellar. Against the players we watch on television every weekend, he claims he's "hardly ever lost." Indeed, professional golfers, Leon reveals, are usually his favorite opponents. "I'm much more fearful of a seasoned gambler than a touring pro," Leon says, lining up an 8-iron approach shot. "There's a huge difference, I mean a world of difference, playing for some sponsor's prize money and playing for money that you have to reach into your own back pocket for." Most professionals, whose skill level is admittedly far greater than even the best amateurs, will tend to wilt under what Leon calls "real heat."
"Without exception, the pros underestimate me and overestimate themselves. And when there comes a point in the match where they realize they might just have to pay off a real big number, well, they change. Gambling to them is a hundred-dollar Nassau. A really big match, a huge match, would be something like 5,000. For me, I don't even really start paying attention until 50,000 or so."
Among the name-brand professionals whom Leon admires, the ones he believes can play for their own money are Raymond Floyd and Lee Trevino. "So can Jim Colbert," he says, lacing his iron to within 10 feet of the pin. "But most of them...." He shrugs dismissively.
"I'll tell you a story," he says.
Several years ago, Leon played a very talented gentleman in a two-day golf match. So talented was this nice gentleman that he agreed to give Leon two strokes per side. The nice gentleman ended up owing Leon $18,000. He paid the hustler promptly half in cash, half in check. Leon never cashed the check. Instead, he framed it.
Leon likes telling this story not because of the money involved. It's one of his favorites because the nice gentleman he beat is one of the few men walking the planet to have won both the U.S. Open and the Masters. "Every time I see this guy on television," Leon says, "I think to myself what a nice gentleman he is."
Lately Leon has been devoting more time to a portfolio of business interests than to the golf course. The Senior Tour, he says, would be a challenge, a "great chase," but, in addition to the constant travel, there's not enough money in it to keep him interested. "But I plan to enter a few tournaments anyway," Leon says. "Just to compete and meet some nice people. That's all I want out of golf these days. Before, it was all about money. Now I realize anyone who plays and enjoys golf and enjoys the people he's with is a big winner, no matter what he does or doesn't accomplish."
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