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The Good Life

Gambling on the Greens

Betting on Golf is a Natural Part of the Game, from $1 Skins to $100 Nassaus
| By Jeff Williams | From Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03

The Commissioner arises each morning at 5:30, religiously. He goes to work out, religiously. He goes to his golf club's pro shop at mid-morning to check The Shootout's sign-in sheet, religiously. Around noon he gathers all the names on the sign-in sheet and makes up the teams for the afternoon round, religiously. Seven days a week -- 365 days a year unless the weather intervenes. Every day, The Shootout is off and running at Bay Hill. Religiously. There is something about golf that drives a player, be it hacker or hero, to play the game for something beyond the sheer joy (or frustration) of whacking a ball around a park with holes in the ground. Hackers and heroes love to have something at stake, be it a dollar, a hundred, a thousand. If shepherds in fifteenth-century Scotland invented the game, they may well have done it because they were bored playing cards. Golf is meant for gambling. The Commissioner and his Crew at the Bay Hill Country Club in Orlando, Florida, know that all too well. Every day, these hackers and heroes play for cash and glory. It's likely you might know one of the regulars in The Shootout, a man who's played for cash and glory for five decades -- Arnold Palmer.

"Arnold's here every day he's in town," says the Commissioner of The Shootout, Lee Havre. "Arnold likes his action, you know. He's always got to have something to play for. He plays for the prize money and he always has action on the side. It could be $100 or $5. But he's always got something going."

Golfers always have something going, don't they? What golfer
hasn't staked a buck or two on the merits of his game? How many regular foursomes go off on a weekend morning without choosing teams and setting the price of competition? Will it be a $5 Nassau today, automatic two-down presses? Will it be Skins at $2 a hole with carryovers? Will it be Bingo, Bango, Bongo at a $1 a point?

Every day, a few million players are deciding how much to play for and how much of a handicap advantage they can get away with. It's the nature of the game.

It certainly is the nature of The Shootout, possibility one of the longest standing gambling games in the nation. It's been going on since the early '70s at Bay Hill, which Palmer owns. Havre, a retired auto dealer, has been the Commissioner since the late '80s. He sets the rules, even for Palmer. He determines the amount of the daily bet, puts together the teams of five and decides the number of payoff positions and the amount those teams will be paid. He does it every day, seven days a week, religiously.

This is how The Shootout works: A player has to be a member of The Shootout Club, which costs $400 for a lifetime membership. He must be a fairly good player, carrying a handicap of 15 or less, though exceptions are sometimes made for friends of members wishing to join or the occasional guest. Players must have their names on The Shootout list in the Bay Hill pro shop by noon. Havre makes up teams of five, designating players into A, B, C, D and E categories. Palmer, you might surmise, is an A player, along with any other low handicap player. The late Payne Stewart was an aficionado of The Shootout, and PGA Tour player Scott Hoch sometimes plays. Even Tiger Woods has been an A player in The Shootout.

Players pony up from $40 to $100 each day. No handicaps are used. The best three scores of the five-man team are used on each hole. Five points are awarded for an eagle, three for a birdie, two for a par and one for a bogey. The points are added up at the end of the round and the three highest scoring teams divide the day's pot. Palmer, like many of the players, also has individual and team bets going within his group. It takes a sharp pencil or two to manage the scorecard.

"I've pretty much been having a wager on the game for at least the last 40 years," says Havre. "It just seems like the thing to do. I think it makes you concentrate on it more, puts some excitement into it. A lot of the reason the guys play in The Shootout is to be around each other. But they all like to have a little action going."

Golf gambling raises the psychological ante of the game. It goes beyond posting a better score. It inflates the winner's ego (and wallet) when he takes some green off another man. Gambling extracts a price for mistakes, rewards good play with the feel of bills being pressed into the palm. Who isn't feeling a little cockier when a good round produces a fistful of Hamiltons and a withered look on your opponent? So, what if he's your best friend. He'll get over it. Or he'll get it back.

Tales of golf gambling are legion and legendary. Alvin C. "Titanic" Thompson was the scourge of the continent in the mid-1900s, a good player who built an outsized reputation as a gambler, though more often as a scammer. He once made a substantial bet that he could drive a golf ball 500 yards. Taken up on it, he then led his group of pigeons to a frozen lake and powered a ball across the ice. He never said he would do it on a golf course.

Sam Snead, one of the great professional players of all time, was also a confirmed gambler. In the late '30s, he was invited to play in a huge money match in Havana, Cuba. According to the lore, there was at least $100,000 worth of wagers on a 36-hole match that Snead played, and won, against the pro at the Havana Country Club. He got out of the country as soon as he could, afraid that associates of the dictator Fulgencio Batista, who lost money on the match, might take out their pique on him. As Snead once said: "I tried to quit gambling once, but it was about as much use as kicking a hog barefoot."

One of the most infamous betting matches of all time occurred between Lee Trevino and Ray Floyd, two of professional golf's greatest competitors. The betting match took place in the mid-1960s. Floyd was a newly qualified PGA Tour pro and Trevino was an assistant professional at the Horizon Hills Country Club in El Paso, Texas. Floyd was bold and brash, but had not yet come to glory and had yet to win a Masters, a U.S. Open or a PGA Championship. Trevino hadn't qualified for the PGA Tour yet, but wasn't far off from the first of his six major championships, the 1968 U.S. Open.

Both players had one golf course in common, Tenison Park in Dallas. It was a municipal layout that drew gamblers from all over Texas and much of the United States. Trevino and Floyd did not play each other or meet at Tenison. In 1966, Trevino moved to El Paso to take a job at Horizon Hills. As an assistant pro, he scooped up range balls, cleaned golf carts and collected bags from cars in the parking lot. He also had a fair amount of local gambling action going on, not big money, but enough to make a decent living.

A group of gamblers at Tenison Park, which included Titanic Thompson, arranged for Floyd to play Trevino. When Floyd arrived in the parking lot at Horizon Hills, Trevino met him in a golf cart to take his golf clubs.

"Well, who am I supposed to play?" queried Floyd.

"Me," replied Trevino.

"You? What do you do?"

Floyd was slightly astonished that a combination cart man, range sweeper and shoe-shine boy was his opponent. But not nearly as astonished as he would be once he saw Trevino play. The match was arranged for at least 36 holes, maybe 54. Floyd's backers had bets in the thousands against Trevino's backers. And Floyd had $1,000 of his own money riding. Trevino says he didn't bet any of his personal money. The details vary, depending on which man you talk to, as to the scores they shot. This isn't uncommon among gamblers. They might remember exactly how much money they won (or might choose to inflate it over time), but things like scores, times and sequence of events often are lost in the haze of personal history.

"I'm feeling pretty cocky about playing this guy," recalls Floyd. But then he discovered why he was playing Trevino in the first place. Trevino was a masterful shot maker, cool under pressure, something the world would know in short order. In the first round, Floyd shot a 66 and Trevino beat him by three shots. Floyd wanted to play another nine holes, but Trevino told him he had to put away the carts and straighten up the bag room. So Floyd stayed around until the next day, passing the time by playing cards and dove shooting, then they went out and played for another $1,000. "I shot 65. He shot 63," says Floyd. "My backers didn't want to stick around for another match, but I did. This guy's got $2,000 of my money and I wanted it back."

The next day the backers bets were doubled. It came down to the 18th hole, a par 5. "I had an eagle putt from 18 feet and Lee was just inside me," say Floyd. "I make mine for a 63. His putt doesn't go in, but I still to this day don't know how it didn't. I beat him 63 to 64. We're even. I said adios and got out of town. After playing Lee, I was getting all kinds of offers to play people. But I'll tell you one thing. After that I didn't play anybody I didn't know for big money. I think that's pretty good advice for anyone. I mean, who knew that Lee was going to become the great player he did? But at the time I didn't know him and I had a lot at stake. It was a helluva match."

Yes, a few thousand dollars was a big stake in the 1960s, as it would be today if it were part of the average country club match. Really big stakes matches are rare and the air surrounding them is just as rarefied. Billy Walters knows about this, as he does about most things related to gambling. Gamblers don't come any larger than Walters, and golf gambling definitely is Mr. Walters' Neighborhood.

Walters has been a professional gambler for more than three decades. Not surprisingly, he calls Las Vegas home. He played his first round of golf in 1968 with his brother-in-law on a municipal course in Louisville, Kentucky. And he bet on it, 50 bucks a hole.

"He said, ëAre you sure you want to do this?' " Walters says of his incredulous brother-in-law. "I said I don't like doing anything without something on the line. I guess I lost about $200. But I was hooked. Golf was a great game to bet, something that you could control. You can't control dice or cards. You can control a golf ball, at least when it listens to you."

Jack Binion, the original owner of the Golden Horseshoe Casino, which served as a Mecca in the early days of the Las Vegas Strip, was a golf gambler who founded the Gamblers Golf Tournament. It began in the early 1970s and lasted until early 1990s, and was the venue where Walters really got hooked on golf gambling. "I lived in Louisville but came to Las Vegas several times a year. That event brought to me Las Vegas, big time," says Walters. "Jack would bring in big-time gamblers from all over the world. Jack had so much credibility and that's how the whole thing could come off. He researched all the players, their handicaps, and he made all the matches. Heck, if you were his friend, it might hurt you. He'd bend over backwards to make sure it didn't seem like he was favoring you in a matchup, so he often put his friends up against the toughest players. Everybody knew they could trust him."

Players paid $5,000 to enter the tournament. Binion would match up two players and send them off in foursomes. Sometimes the players would have team bets going against the other twosome, and sometimes there would be individual side bets. It was all hashed out before the players got to the first tee. The minimum bet was a $500 Nassau.

Nassau bets are the most widely used in golf, devised in the early 1900s at the Nassau Country Club on Long Island. The rules are dirt simple, although it can be played for some ethereal sums. The basic Nassau is match play, individual against individual or team against team. A set sum, $500 in the case of the Binion's tournament, is assigned to each of three betting points: the front nine, back nine and the entire 18 holes, for a minimum of $1,500 at stake. But there is an additional betting tool known as "pressing." Pressing can be either automatic or optional. Automatic two-down presses are quite common. When a side is two holes down, an automatic two-down press opens another bet. It's essentially a double-or-nothing proposition. If a team is down two holes after five on the front nine, presses, then wins the remaining four holes on the front nine, say 1-up, it will lose the front nine 1-down but win the press bet 1-up.

In the Gamblers Golf Tournament, the Nassaus, were sometimes large enough to buy a significant chunk of the Bahamas. "That's all we played were Nassaus," says Walters. "None of that Bingo, Bango, Bongo crap or anything. Normally the bets would be $5,000 or $10,000 between you and the guy you were matched up with and then maybe you would have other bets going with the other two guys. But the games could get big if you knew a guy. Knowing a guy is important when you're playing for lots of money. I played $100,000 Nassaus five different times. I once won a million dollars from a guy in a day over 36 holes. Took me a couple of hours to lose it in the casino. When you are playing blackjack at $25,000 a spot, three spots, it can go quick."

A $100,000 Nassau is putting a lot of a player's bank account, and ego, on the line. But players like Walters, even if their bank accounts were showing overdraft, were never underfunded in the ego department. They believed they would win, and belief is the fuel for talent. Without it, the best swings melt into shanks and duck hooks at the thought of losing a $10 bill.

Walters has played at the very top of the golf gambling food chain, but even he has someone to look up to -- Doyle Brunson. "Doyle Brunson is probably the biggest golf gambler there ever was," says Walters. "And he was perfectly legit. He'd play for half a million dollars and he'd sometimes lose and pay right up. Everything was straight up with him. He has a reputation for being on the up and up. That's how you play for big money. It's no different than the reputation of some big Wall Street guy."

Doyle "Dolly" Brunson is the card-playing equivalent of Arnold Palmer. He has won the World Series of Poker twice and was a long-standing regular in Binion's Golf Gamblers Tournament. He was a good golfer, though not an outstanding one. He had been a standout athlete in Texas, both in basketball and on the track. But a leg injury sustained in a summer job at a gypsum plant ended his athletic career, and in essence began his gambling career. His card playing became widely known, though his prowess as a golfer was known to a precious few. Brunson doesn't play golf anymore; his leg is too bad now to support his swing.

His last match, in 1998, was a doozy. Proposed by fellow high-stakes card players Huck Seed and Howard Lederer, it was a Nassau format bet against Brunson and Mike Sexton. Seed and Lederer were the better players, so they agreed to play from the blue tees and let Brunson and Sexton play from the red tees. The stakes: a $168,000 Nassau, bet five ways, which allows for a press on each side. Brunson made a key 35-footer on the 16th hole that rattled Seed and Lederer. Brunson and Sexton would go on to win $336,000. They did this with a moving gallery of about 30 carts, with fellow gamblers betting between themselves on holes, on shots, on anything.

"I guess the thing about me that made me a good gambler was that I wasn't afraid to lose," says Brunson, who still revels in how much he won in his last round of competitive golf. "You have to have action to get action. That has always been my philosophy, in golf or cards. If you go in afraid to lose, then you probably will lose. If you go in like you're going to win, your chances of winning are a lot better. I mean, I lost some, for sure. When I was playing my best, I overmatched myself from time to time. Billy Walters has gotten the best of me over time because he's a better player. But the trouble with players who gamble is that most of them don't want to lose the money and that's all they think about. Myself, Bill Walters -- we just think about playing and winning. If we miss a shot, it isn't because we choked thinking about the money. We missed because we didn't make a good swing or a good putt, that's all."

This steely reserve separates successful gamblers from the rest of us. Money focuses their attention, though they will all say that their attention is on playing the game, not on the money. Trevino was fond of saying that once he started playing for big money on the PGA Tour, he would never think about it. "I'd just think about the trophy they were going to hand me when I won," says Trevino. "See, when you get a trophy, there's a great big check that comes along with it."

Phil Mickelson is one of a few PGA Tour pros who regularly have some action going during practice rounds. The most frequent game is Skins, where a value is set for each hole, often $100. If a hole is tied, the value carries over. If six holes in a row end in ties, the value of the seventh would be $700. Mickelson often likes to play Hammer, which is Skins with a doubling component. One player can hammer another player at any time during a hole, often after an opponent's bad shot. This doubles the value of the hole. If the hammered player does not accept the challenge, he automatically loses the hole.

"The reason we play Hammer or play Skins is because each putt matters," says Mickelson. "It gets us in a frame of mind that each three- or four-footer makes a difference. It gives us a chance to prepare for the pressure that we will feel during the tournament. Hammer allows you to double the betÖIt makes each shot critical."

Gambling on golf is as natural as grass. It's a game that sets up perfectly for all manner of wagers, and the handicapping system allows players of vastly disparate talent to play for a buck or two. At $50 a pop, the boys in The Shootout aren't going to make or lose a fortune. Commissioner Havre, seeing that a player might have had a bad run, tries to set him up with a team more likely to win the next time out. Maybe he'll even put him with Arnold Palmer. Losing with Palmer in your group is not a heavy price to pay.

"When Tiger played, a guy offered $1,000 to play in his group," says Havre. "But I wouldn't let him do it. That's not the way we are here. Arnold always plays with everybody and he's playing even more now that he isn't playing on the tour that much anymore. He loves it and everybody loves playing with him. And he has some action going with everybody."

That's the way it is. Competitive players love the action. They have to have some green riding on the greens. For the Shootout boys, and millions of others, action is a requirement. They exchange a few bills every time they step onto a course. Religiously.


Jeff Williams is a sports writer for Newsday on Long Island.


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