Using money as the measure of size, they played the biggest golf tournament in the world in Las Vegas last week. You could take the purses from a dozen Greater Open Classics and still be barely within range of the amount of cash that 58 guys teed up for in the third Professional Gamblers Invitational at the Sahara Nevada Country Club.
The players bet each other more than $2 million during the three-day tournament. Nobody is quite sure who the winner was. A bookmaker from St. Louis came out well over $100,000 ahead, but he didn't win all his matches. The only one who did was Don Keller, who owns some drive-in cafes around Dallas. Keller is built like a monster squash and carries in his mouth a cigar that looks like an exhaust pipe. He couldn't break 90 if he had the only pencil on the course. But the way the PGI is handicapped, it is heart and luck that count, and Keller bounced his grounders onto enough greens to win the trophy—if there was one. "I think we ought to give Keller a pistol and a ski mask so he doesn't have to come all the way out here to rob people," said Jack Binion, who organized the tournament, made the matches and in his own wagers got "drown-ded," as the gamblers say.
Several of the country's king poker players were in the tournament. In fact Doyle Brunson, who won the World Series of Poker the last two years at Bin-ion's Horseshoe Casino in downtown Las Vegas, not only inspired Jack Binion to start the PGI, but he also was one of its attractions to the other players.
Since early May, when he picked up $340,000 at the poker tournament, Brunson has lost enough money playing golf to pay the electric bill for a medium-sized nation. Nobody is supposed to have as much cash money as Doyle is said to have lost on the golf course in the last 2½ months. Brunson is a very high player who has the reputation of never flinching from a bet on the golf course or at the poker table. He has won millions at poker in games with the other king players and all challengers in Las Vegas, which is where you have to win at poker to be a king player.
August 14, 1977
But Brunson is what he calls "a bona fide golf 'dengerarate.' " He is preparing a book, which he will publish himself, with the title How to Win $1,000,000 Playing Poker. "I may do a sequel called How to Lose $1,000,000 Playing Golf" Doyle said the night before the PGI began. He was eating watermelon in the Sombrero Room at Binion's Horseshoe. The next morning he was to play Butch Holmes, a commodities broker from Houston. The match had been rated even by Jack Binion, whose decision in such matters for the PGI is supreme. Doyle thought he ought to get a stroke.
The entry fee to play in the PGI was $1,900. That was broken into three $600 Nassaus on the three days of the tournament, plus $100 for carts and greens fees. Binion thinks of the $600 Nassaus as just a way to say hello to the person you are matched with. If you're not willing to go for a lot more action than that, you will not be invited to return.
"Action don't mean the same to Doyle as it does to most people," says Pug Pearson, himself a former winner of the poker world series. "I asked Doyle one day if he was going out to sweat some players, and he said, 'Naw, there wasn't enough action.' Doyle had $70,000 bet on the deal."
So when Brunson is losing at golf, there is blood in the water. Some of the sharks who came to Las Vegas for the PGI will stay and play golf with Doyle the rest of the summer. The only reason the gamblers quit playing golf in the fall in Las Vegas is that betting on football requires much time for study.
"My goodness, they go crazy over football," says Louise Brunson, Doyle's wife. Louise is a pretty woman with a quick smile. Like the wives of several other king poker players, Louise is very active in Christian work. She sends Bibles to Taiwan and cassettes of Christian testimony to folks in prison. Before they got married, Doyle promised Louise he would give up gambling. Then Doyle was operated on for a melanoma and given four months to live, at the outside. Louise was working as a pharmacist. She was five months pregnant and prayed Doyle would live long enough to see the baby. Doyle got up and started raising every bet, and the cancer went away.
"The doctors at M. D. Anderson Institute said it was a miracle," Louise says. "Everybody thought Doyle was as good as dead. One day when he came home between hospitals to make out his will, more than 200 people showed up at the house to tell Doyle goodby. But the Lord lifted Doyle out of that bed. I know the Lord has got some kind of a plan for Doyle.
"On holidays like Thanksgiving or Christmas I always cook a big, huge meal because I know Doyle will bring home a bunch of his friends who have no place to go. Last year I was in the kitchen fixing a turkey and country ham with redeye gravy, and Doyle and his friends were in the den watching the football game on TV. I heard Doyle say he had $60,000 bet on the game. Can you imagine that? All I could think of was how many hours I would have had to work in that drugstore to clear $60,000. Doyle lost the bet. His friends lost, too. They were kind of sullen at dinner. That's about the only way I can ever tell if Doyle is winning or losing."
There is no such thing as an obscure golf pro coloring his hair and changing his name and arriving in Las Vegas—or in Fort Worth, or Mobile, or other towns where the king gamblers play golf—to lift Doyle Brunson's bankroll. You check them out. Too much is at stake to let a thief in the game. A couple of weeks ago, Doyle was driving his golf cart down a fairway and reading the bets he had written on a paper place mat from a coffee shop. Doyle added up the numbers and felt an ice machine go off in his chest. It turned out he had bet $276,000 on that particular round of golf. "That is enough money to make you think about what you are doing," Doyle says. "You're not just playing for numbers on a big scoreboard. This is real money out of your pocket if you lose. I'd like to see Jack Nicklaus, sometime, with a six-foot putt that if he misses he's got to go in the clubhouse and peel off $50,000."
"We don't bar golf hustlers from our PGI tournament," Jack Binion says. "Most of the guys in our tournament are golf hustlers, on some scale. But I try to handicap them so if they play their regular game, they've got an even match. Guys I don't know so well, I make some phone calls. Golf handicaps have always been a swindle. Suppose you play to an eight at Olympic in Seattle. That might be a three here. Who knows? But if you know the guys, you'll know Doyle Brunson and Butch Holmes will both shoot 78 to 81 on this course, day in and day out, and they ought to be an even match."
Binion got the idea for the PGI while playing golf in Fort Worth with Doyle. Pug Pearson, Sailor Roberts and other friends who have since persuaded Jack to retire from the game for a while. Bin-ion's last game of golf cost him $11,000. But he thought high-playing golfers around the country should learn about each other. There are guys who shoot 105 but are willing to bet $6,000 per hole if the match is fair. The rules of the PGI allow players who shoot 100 or so to tee up the ball anywhere they please, including sand traps. The 90-shooters can roll the ball around to improve a lie. The 80-shooters are supposed to play it as it is. Stamping down the line of a putt is permitted. You can tote as many clubs as you wish. Doyle Brunson carries four putters. Also, you can use grease.
Johnny Moss, the famous poker player and golf gambler who is now in his early 70s and runs the poker room at the Dunes, recalls using grease from time to time in big games with Titanic Thompson. Brunson says he first learned about grease 12 years ago from a jeweler in Arlington, Texas. Pearson says he learned about it from Doyle. Mostly they use grease in Texas and in Las Vegas. Many a sucker has seen grease used in Florida or California or New York without realizing it.
Any sort of grease will do, although Vaseline is the most popular. What you do is smear grease on the club face before a shot. The grease cuts the spin off the ball. The ball is thus inclined neither to hook nor to slice, and it flies farther. At the PGI you might hear a player wondering whether to hit a dry three-iron or a wet five-iron. Of course the use of grease is against USGA rules. "But you've got to use grease if the other guys are using it," says Dolph Arnold, who is Butch Holmes' partner in the commodities business and something of a king poker player in Houston, which is close to big league.
"Some people say the grease is psychological," says Jack Strauss, a gambler of note. "Well, the people who say that must not have tried it. Grease puts 10 to 20 extra yards on a shot. If you happen to be playing somewhere grease is not familiar, they'll look at you funny if they catch you doing it. I told some people one time I was putting on the grease to keep my clubs from rusting. It hadn't rained there in two years."
The players at the PGI were king gamblers, bookmakers, ranchers, pizza-chain owners, restaurateurs, car dealers, accountants, brokers and whatnot. They shared the love of gambling. Some were better at it than others. They all knew where their choking price was. If prodded, most of them would admit to a suspicion of superiority over the ordinary golf pro. The feeling is that the pros don't play for enough real money to be able to tell how much heart they've got.
One day last week Jack Strauss made a side bet of $600 to $100 that he would beat Red Whitehead of Dallas on at least one hole. Red can play about twice as good as Jack. "I've never paid off on that bet in my life and I've given it to better players than Red," Jack said. He then birdied the first hole, where he'd made a nine the day before, and beat Red's par.
On the opening afternoon of the PGI, Bobby Baldwin from Tulsa hit his drive at the 18th in high grass behind a tree near a fence. Whatever other bets he may have had, Baldwin was losing $9,000 to Brunson and he had pressed. In the opinion of Jack Binion, Baldwin is already a king poker player and is on his way to becoming the premier poker player. Brunson is the premier poker player right now in no-limit games. Baldwin is thin, has curly hair and wears glasses. Brunson calls him Owl.
"How come you call him Owl?" asked Amarillo Slim Preston on the 18th tee. Slim was riding around the course in a cart checking his bets. On one match Slim said he was betting a Cadillac a hole. A $9,500 Cadillac, he said. "Don't he look like an owl to you?" Brunson said. "Naw, an owl is a wise old bird," said Slim.
"I thought I was wise until I got into this can," Baldwin said.
The 18th is a par 5. Doyle was at the front edge of the green in two. Baldwin threshed his ball out from under the tree. He was now in the fairway 190 yards from the green in two. If he lost the hole, he would be out $18,000 to Brunson. The day was lemon-colored. It was 117°, a record for the date in Las Vegas. The carts of the bet sweaters were drawn up around the green, which is guarded by sand traps and water. Baldwin does not have the training to deal with that situation in golf. He pulled out a four-iron and hit the ball five feet from the pin and saved his money with a birdie putt.
"Some guys can roar like a forest fire back in their hometown," Amarillo Slim said, "but out here with real big money up, so much dog comes out in 'em that they could catch every possum in Louisiana. Those would be the guys that grew up scraping and hustling and playing for every cent they had every day."
Slim doesn't play golf. But last year at the PGI he won $5,000 in a footrace with a football player. They raced from Jack Binion's tee shot to the green. Slim also won a bet from Leon Crump, who. Slim says, is the best good golfer in the world for money. Crump bet he could drive a golf ball over the top of the Hilton Hotel. He hit the eighth floor.
Brunson had some bad news in his match on the second day of last week's PGI that made Baldwin's birdie disappear from mind. Sam Simms from Nashville was five under par on the back nine. Simms was matched against Brunson, and the betting had been heavy.
"You might as well go back to Nashville, because that five under par of yours ain't getting you no more action here," Doyle said.
"The only time I'm out of action is when I'm out of money," Simms said. "It's music to a gambler's ears, the sound of suckers crying. Good thing this ain't 50 years ago. I know what you'd have done to me then."
"Damn right." Brunson said.