IS IT POSSIBLE that while casing Mesquite, Nev., Merv Griffin took a little too much sun? Surely his judgment was impaired when, in the early '90s, he and his people took a look at this dusty burg near the Utah and Arizona borders and thought, Gold mine! Here, in this desert valley, they would build a casino and resort that would draw high-rollers from such enclaves of affluence as ... as where, exactly? St. George, Utah? Kanab? Page, Ariz.? Perhaps not surprisingly, things didn't work out. Two years after Player's Island opened, Merv's backers unloaded the place at a loss.
Renamed the CasaBlanca, it lives on, catering to a clientele rather less well-heeled than the one Merv envisioned. Last week, a decade too late for Merv--and a fortnight too early, darn the luck, to catch Juice Newton in the CasaBlanca Showroom--a slew of high-rollers descended on Mesquite, each of them determined to get rich quick. With their hard-luck stories and sky-high hopes, they checked in at the inaugural Big Stakes Match Play tournament, held at the CasaBlanca Golf Club, a verdant gem tucked between the Virgin River and Interstate 15. There were 128 of them in all, 64 two-man teams, and as they milled about Player's Pavilion on the eve of the first round, sizing up each other while side-eyeing the models imported by presenting sponsor Sportsbook.com, the air was thick with optimism and avarice. In six days one of these guys would be lining up a putt worth $3 million.
This desert gathering was the result of a eureka moment experienced by Steve Bartkowski in his recliner seven years ago. The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback and some friends were watching a PGA Tour event on the tube. "Somebody was standing over a six- or eight-footer for the win," says Bart, "and one of the guys said, 'Shoot, the worst the guy can do is second place, and he's not even playing with his own money.'"
A seed was planted. How cool would it be, Bartkowski thought, to have a tournament in which golfers anted up to play for huge cash? The format he and partner Jim Thomas decided on was four-ball match play, same as in the Ryder Cup. After toying with the idea of inviting any team that could pony up the--gulp!--$100,000 entry fee, Bartkowski concluded, "The thrill of playing against Greg Norman wouldn't be worth a hundred thousand bucks."
It was decided that no player who had enjoyed fully exempt status on any major tour in the previous three years could join the Big Stakes field. This, Bartkowski decreed, would be a "tournament of the common man"--though welcome, no women signed up--"the guys who can't find a place to play."
The men who made their way to Mesquite spoke of cuts missed and nights spent in their cars on the Tar Heel tour, the Teardrop tour, the Tommie Armour tour, the Transact Mortgage tour, and that's only the T's--a constellation of satellite tours so obscure they make the Hooters tour seem ancient and venerable. All had one thing in common: None had ever played for even a fraction of this kind of money.
While they may have been anonymous--Monday's intergenerational final pitted twentysomethings Garth Mulroy and David Ping against Rick Hartmann, 46, and Mark Mielke, 42, a pair of hard-boiled Long Island club pros--there was nothing common about the shots they made all week. The match-play format tended to encourage balls-out golf. Nor did it hurt that, despite the original vision of the event's founders, only two of the 128 contestants were playing with their own money. That everyone else was backed by a syndicate or a deep-pockets sponsor made the event more, not less, interesting. There were gossipy discussions of whose sugar daddy was giving them a favorable chop of their winnings. (Fifty-fifty was as good as it got; some backers insisted on 80%.) When the discussion turned to sponsorship, Donald Wright's story topped them all.
After playing at Texas Southern, Wright moved to Atlanta, where he became an assistant manager at a Pizza Hut. "But I had a dream," he said. After 21/2 years, he bailed on the Hut. He would try to make a living with his sticks. Since then, Wright has done O.K. haunting various mini-tours. Then, not long ago, a friend called. Michael Jordan was in town. Did Wright want to meet him? As instructed, Wright showed up at the Heritage Golf Club in north Atlanta. Walking through the locker room, he greeted a familiar figure. "What's your name?" Jordan asked him. When Wright told him, Jordan took a step back and smiled. "I've heard of you," he said.
"No, sir, you haven't heard of me," said Wright. "Yes, I have," Jordan replied. "I know who you are." "Oh, dude," Wright said last Thursday, "you don't know how good that felt." He sat at a table outside the Pavilion, facing the mesa across the freeway. He could not stop smiling. On that day at the Heritage Golf Club, he had ridden in Jordan's cart. Walking from the 2nd green to the 3rd tee, Jordan had said to him, "I hear you're playing really well. I'd like to help you."
Just like that, Wright was Nevada-bound. For the first round he and teammate Dave Schreyer drew John Douma and Mikkel Reese, Arizonans in matching striped shirts who had pulled down the highest bid in the Tuesday-night Calcutta. The stripes were one up after 13 holes when Wright got hot, birdieing 14, 16 and 17. With his 40-foot putt on 17 only halfway to the hole, Wright, in his excitement, ran after it, nearly colliding with one of his opponents (a celebration that raised eyebrows when it was replayed on the big screen before that night's blind draw). Schreyer birdied 18, sealing the upset of the day.
Despite the cooling of Wright's putter, Team Jordan won the next day, as well, earning back number 23's investment. (Teams that won three rounds recouped their entry fee. A fourth win meant another $200,000; a win in the semis added $275,000. Monday's final was worth $2.6 million.) Sitting outside the Pavilion that night, Wright pulled a rectangular sheet of paper from his right front pocket. It was a check for $100,000. He handled it gently, like a talisman. "I don't mind telling you, I was on my knees in my room an hour ago," he said. "I had to thank Him for what He's done for me." He meant God, not Jordan.
Not long before, the voice of Sinatra impersonator David Seering had wafted from the Pavilion.... You're ridin' high in April, shot down in May. That's life. Wright's magical ride ended the next day at the hands of John Wilson and Mark Worthington. A few hours later Wright was bound for Light, a club in Vegas, to meet a friend. When Jordan saw him, "he hugged me like a long-lost brother," Wright reported the next day from his suite in the Bellagio. Charles Oakley was there, too. They'd all played a round at Shadow Creek. After dinner, they were off to that night's big middleweight title fight. Wright's loss was a day old, and though he remained disappointed, it was getting harder and harder to feel sorry for him.
With Wright down the road, literally, it was a club pro from Orange Park, Fla., named Jimmy Gilleon who emerged as the tournament's unlikely new darling. When he wasn't crushing tee shots and draining clutch putts, Gilleon was doing his Ben Hogan imitation, chain-smoking mentholated Marlboro Lights. If you saw him wheezing, however, it was because he was knackered from having to carry his teammate, Rick Rhoden. But let's give some credit to the two-time All-Star. He may have been more erratic than his partner, but until the bitter end came, Rhoden showed up when he absolutely had to. And while he may have had the most disconcerting swing in the tournament--a spasmodic, herky-jerky motion--he outlasted all the other ex--pro athletes in the draw. Andy Van Slyke, Billy Joe Tolliver, Dan Quinn and a few other Celebrity tour stalwarts--none made it past the second round. Ham-and-egg specialists Gilleon and Rhoden, on the other hand, won four matches, the last three on the 18th hole. It was almost too much for one of the team's sponsors who had traveled from Georgia to cheer for them.
"I don't know how much more of this my heart can take," said Rod Hanlon after yet another come-from-behind win on Saturday. Hanlon was one of 20 backers--many of them members of Atlanta's ultra-tony Cherokee Town & Country Club--who had kicked in five grand apiece to sponsor Rhoden and Gilleon. "Win or lose," said Dave Sparks, another member of Cherokee Nation, "we're sticking around. I want to see it. I want to see some club pro making $50,000 a year standing over a putt worth $3 million." Exactly. Contrived and gimmicky though it may have been, the golf was riveting. You could not look away. This was not like Tiger or Vijay or Phil having another seven-figure check direct-deposited into their accounts. The dough meant more to men who've never been in a position to earn this much of it--men like Hartmann, who, along with teammate Mielke, salted away a cool $675K following their fifth win, and said, "This is life changing. This is paying off the car, paying off the mortgage." Bartkowski and Thomas are definitely on to something.
As that payoff drew closer, you saw it begin to weigh on the golfers. Everyone seemed tight on the 1st hole of Sunday's semifinals--everyone but the 27-year-old Ping, the son of D.S. Ping, a jujitsu expert and sports agent. When David was looking for a backer, one of his first calls was to Atlanta Falcons offensive tackle Barry Stokes, a family friend who is a client of his father's. "Call Verbs," said Stokes.
Ping phoned Ross Verba, an O-lineman with the Cleveland Browns, another friend who's a client of his father's. After some back and forth, the hogs agreed to kick in $50K apiece. The decision was made easier for them by Ping's selection of a teammate. He chose Mulroy, a 26-year-old South African thought to be one of the most talented players in the draw, a guy with a PGA Tour future. Underdogs on Thursday to Eric Axley and Scott Piercy, Mulroy and Ping instead finished them off on the 15th hole. Ping chipped in here and there, but Mulroy did the heavy lifting.
On the front nine on Sunday, however, Mulroy couldn't find the fairway. It didn't matter. Ping played one of the best sides of his life, eagling the par-5 2nd hole with a downhill, 20-foot putt, then following up with birdies on 3 and 5. His third birdie came on the 8th hole, when he holed out from a greenside bunker. One ponytailed, 308-pound spectator wearing a Falcons visor wasn't surprised in the least. Stokes had flown in from Atlanta the day before. "I got a winning feeling driving over here this morning," he said.
Hartmann and Mielke cruised through the other semi, making short work of Utahans Jim Blair and Steve Schneiter, a.k.a. the Narcs, so nicknamed for the drama that played out during their third-round match against Uly Grisette and Wesley Wall. After complimenting Wall on the length of his drives, Blair inquired as to the length of his driver. Wall cheerfully informed him that it was a 50-inch shaft he'd chopped down an inch. Blair--and seemingly every other golfer in the field--knew that USGA rules prohibit clubs longer than 48 inches. An official was summoned. Wall and Grisette were DQ'd.
The win for Hartmann and Mielke ensured that Monday's Clash for the Cash would also be a contest between hotheaded youth and sage middle age. In truth the entire field lined up on one side of that divide or the other. Here were young guns like Roesch and Gilliam, winner of the 2001 NCAA championship, and Ryan Dillon, who made the cut at the 2003 U.S. Open. Two years ago he and his wife, Shana, traded in their house for a 40-foot RV. A hotel room being a rare treat for them, the Dillons crashed at the CasaBlanca each night, but only after smuggling Callie, their American Eskimo, up four flights of stairs and into their room.
Hartmann and Mielke seemed carefree early in the final round, going 2 up through five holes. It was around then that the winds forecast for Monday came ripping out of the southwest, roiling the mesquite and blowing hats across fairways. Hey, the New Yorkers had said before the match, we play on eastern Long Island. We know from wind. Yet when it kicked up, Mulroy handled it better than his elders. By the 8th hole the youngsters were even. On the par-5 11th, playing into the teeth of this wind, Mulroy hit a driver off the deck on his second shot and birdied the hole. The twentysomethings never looked back, winning 2 up. "I'm up damn near a million bucks here," marveled a tattooed, shaggy behemoth standing in the rough on 18. It was Verba, the Browns tackle. "I'm definitely holding out now."