Last week in Las Vegas an odd group of golfers from places like Coon Rapids, Minn. and Granite Shoals, Texas got together and competed in the only kind of tournament that makes sense to the man who originated it, Doyle (Texas Dolly) Brunson, probably the world's best poker player and a lover of high-stakes golf. 'A man has to play for his own cash or it don't mean nothin'," says Brunson, who has been known to play golf for so much money it would make Jack Nicklaus swoon.
The tournament was called the Doyle (Texas Dolly) Brunson World Match Play Championship, and it was held at The Dunes Hotel and Country Club, a patch of emerald surrounded by palms and oleander bushes just off the Vegas Strip. A total of 32 almost unknown pros put up $5,000 apiece and played "knockout" for four days to see who would walk away with the $50,000 first prize, which is almost as much as Tom Watson takes home to K.C. for winning one of the biggies on the tour.
The field could've been twice as big, but in the last days, when late entries came pouring in, Brunson didn't have time to see which entry checks would bounce and which would clear the bank. And he could've had a bunch of name players from the PGA tour if it hadn't been for Tour Commissioner Deane Beman. A couple of months before Dolly's event, a letter from Beman's office went out to all members. It read:
November 24, 1980
"To: PGA TOUR Members
"From: Deane Beman
"An advertisement recently appeared about Dolly's 1980 World Match play championship scheduled for Nov. 11 through 16, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The ad describes 'Texas Dolly' as being '2-time world champion of poker' and author of 'How I Made a Million Dollars Playing Poker.' Some PGA Tour members may have been approached about participating in this event.
"All PGA Tour members are reminded of their obligations as members under Article VI, Section B3 of the tournament regulations as follows:
" 'A player shall not do any of the following:
" '3. Associate with or have dealings with persons whose activities, including gambling, might reflect adversely upon the integrity of the game of golf.'
"In view of the above-referenced advertisement, it is my belief that participation in this event by PGA Tour members might reflect adversely upon the integrity of the game of golf and participation in this event would violate the tournament regulations."
And that took care of that.
Brunson, who hails from Sweetwater, Texas, was asked if he felt that his activities reflected adversely upon the integrity of the game.
"Only when I hit it out of bounds," he said. "I got just one question about Beman's letter: Why do a bunch of grown men stand for it?"
No player was seeded in Dolly's tournament. A blind draw was used because, for one thing, nobody connected with running the event, including Don Cherry, the former touring pro, crooner and now special-events director at The Dunes, had any idea whom to seed, most of the entries being assistant pros or gypsies from the mini-tour.
Because the tournament gallery would be made up largely of Brunson's friends—gentlemen with names like Billy, Puggy, Buddy and Jamie, people who'd like to get some friendly action on the proceedings—Dolly decided he'd better give some thought to who these golfers were. Two entrants were known to devotees of agate type. They were Monte Kaser and Jim Masserio, both of whom had once played the big tour. Kaser is now a dealer at the Landmark Hotel in Vegas and so, it was thought, might have an edge in "local knowledge" on The Dunes course. But so would Bruce Ashworth, now from Lake Havasu, Ariz. He'd once been the pro at The Dunes.
"I believe I like Monte Kaser and Bruce Ashworth better than them other folks," Brunson said to his friend Billy Baxter.
"Which of them two you like best?" said Baxter.
"I believe I like Monte Kaser, since I've heard of him," Brunson said.
"O.K., I'll take Bruce," Baxter said.
Kaser promptly lost in the first round, as did Masserio. So much for known players. "I never won at nothin' but poker," said Brunson.
On the other hand, Ashworth, a stylish player despite a cross-handed putting stroke, kept winning. He defeated Bobby Cornett of Irving, Texas and Frank Reynolds of Lake Placid, Fla. and Mark Wiebe of Escondido, Calif., a tall, long-hitting blond who wants to go on the big tour. Then Ashworth beat Jim Wilkinson of Winter Park, Fla., another big hitter whose jeans kept slipping down his hips, and was in the finals.
At the same time, an unknown among unknowns was making it to the finals from the other bracket. Twenty-one-year-old Rick Pearson of Daytona, Fla. was playing in his first pro tournament, if one didn't count a shot at the PGA Qualifying School, which he failed. Pearson was a fine hitter with a Florida cockiness about him. "Christmas is over, I ain't foolin'," he'd say to an opponent after failing to make an easy birdie putt.
Pearson reached the finals by firing three- and four-under-par rounds at folks named Lynn Landgren from Salt Lake City, Pete Brumfield from Roswell, N. Mex., James Blair from Ogden, Utah and Dave Lundstrum from Houston, another strong young player who intends to make it through the qualifying school someday and join the blond look-alikes on the tour.
The final was set: Ashworth, the cross-hander with local knowledge, against Pearson, the Florida hot dog who clearly looked to be the stronger, better player. The night before the deciding round Brunson was dining in a seafood restaurant with some friends when Baxter found him. Baxter had in mind promoting a little more action with Brunson—but at the right odds.
"I make that Pearson kid a dollar 40," said Baxter, who already had Ashworth in the big bet with Dolly on who would win the tournament.
"Not at that price," Brunson said.
"I can get a dollar 30 anywhere in town," Baxter said.
"I think you ought to bet," said Brunson, dipping into the stewed tomatoes and zucchini. "I ain't givin' no dollar 30."
" 'Dolly Brunson don't want to make a bet'—is that what I'm gonna hear around town?" said Baxter, adding that he was double-parked outside.
"If that's what it sounds like," said Brunson.
Starting off in the finals with $20,000 at stake—that being the difference between the $50,000 first prize and the $30,000 second prize—Pearson, the favorite, didn't play like one. After nine holes, he was 3-down to Ashworth, who shot a steady par 36.
Many of the spectators who had been touring the course in a fleet of golf carts came into the clubhouse from the 9th green to get something to drink and assess the situation.
"I make the kid 4 to 1 now," said a squat little man in a sweater. Just then, word came over a walkie-talkie that Ashworth had conceded the 10th hole. He was only 2-up.
"What'd you say?" Brunson asked the man in the sweater.
"I said I make the kid 3½ to 1."
Brunson got back into his golf cart and headed out on the course, arriving at the 13th as Pearson holed out for a par. Ashworth bogeyed the hole to narrow the gap to one-up. Then, after sinking a 12-foot birdie putt on the 14th while Ashworth was making par, Pearson drew even.
"I've got mixed emotions," Brunson said, revealing that he'd got some money down on Pearson after all. "I bet even on the kid, but it's better for the tournament if Bruce wins. More people know him."
"Uh-huh," Cherry said. "Your emotions are mixed all the way to your cash."
Ashworth and Pearson went through 18 dead even. On the first extra hole of sudden death, the par-four No. 1, both players drove in the fairway, and both reached the green with short irons. Ashworth was closer to the pin, about 20 feet out. Pearson was a difficult 40 feet away. The squat little man in the sweater addressed Brunson again, "I got the kid 4 to 1."
"Last clown laughs the hardest," said Dolly.
Pearson two-putted for his par. Ashworth then cross-handed the 20-footer into the cup for a winning birdie. Several people ran onto the green and shook his hand. Others jumped up and down and hugged each other.
"Well," Texas Dolly said, pointing the golf cart toward the clubhouse, "you can stick a fork in me. I'm done."