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The Hustlers

The upcoming contest was a prime example. Hamilton had played with Thompson several times before and knew that Thompson usually shot around ninety-five. In their haggling during the previous weeks, Hamilton complained about his lack of practice time and a sore back and finally persuaded Thompson to accept one stroke per side. As we sat in the clubhouse, Hamilton flashed a conspiratorial grin across the table and confided, "I shot seventy-seven last week."

Las Vegas is more popular than ever today, thanks in part to the recent poker explosion, and as a result the area's seventy golf courses—which collectively host more than two million rounds a year—are jammed with tourists who like to gamble, from average Joes playing $10 Nassaus to big fish like Thompson. Here, playing golf without a bet is like splitting tens at the blackjack table: It's just not done. It's easy to imagine, then, that the city's driving ranges and putting greens are teeming with hustlers like Hamilton licking their chops over tourists like you and me.

But apparently we can rest easy. "There are no more golf hustlers who fleece tourists in big one-day scores. That day and age has passed," insisted Mark Brenneman, general manager and head professional at Shadow Creek.

For one thing, most tourists are small potatoes. Since greens fees routinely top $150 and a round of golf takes four hours on average, a hustler needs to play for fairly high stakes just to make it worth his time, and the pool of visitors gullible enough to play a complete stranger for more than $500 is pretty shallow. Just as important, a hustler likes to know what he needs to shoot before he tees it up. When you come to town, you're an unknown quantity. That's why, Brenneman said, "most of the gambling takes place between people who know one another or know people who know one another."

(In case you're wondering about the legality of betting on golf, it is perfectly legal as long as you report your winnings to the IRS, which Hamilton says he does.)

What happens, I wanted to know, if a high roller is in town with no golf partner?How does he find a game?Brenneman said the guest can simply check with his casino host, whose job is to cater to the client's every whim, and the host can make a few calls to find a local gambler willing to play at the desired stakes.

So in those cases, just as in the match between Thompson and Hamilton, the high roller knows his opponent is a seasoned professional gambler. Which begs the question: Who in his right mind would think he could possibly win? "That's the thing about Nevada," Brenneman said. "One hundred and fifty years ago there were people up in the mountains putting a pick in the ground and saying, 'I know the odds are against me, but maybe, just maybe, I'll hit gold or silver.' They think this might be their lucky day."

The match between Hamilton and Thompson took place on a Monday at TPC Canyons, which cohosts the PGA Tour's annual Las Vegas stop along with Summerlin. Shortly after noon, Hamilton's black Mercedes sedan pulled up at the bag drop and Thompson spilled out of the passenger seat, clad in warm-up pants and flip-flops.

Thompson is a former high school quarterback who made a bundle with an Internet company and recently financed a poker lifestyle magazine called All In. At twenty-seven he is a generation younger than Hamilton, but the two forged a connection at a poker tournament several months earlier and had been gambling together regularly ever since. While Hamilton munched on a fruit plate in the clubhouse, Thompson wandered to the pro shop to rent clubs and shoes and buy a pair of khaki shorts and a flowered Tommy Bahama shirt.

Despite appearances to the contrary, when he returned he insisted he was more than prepared for the match. Normally an enthusiastic connoisseur of the Vegas nightlife, he said he opted to watch a movie in his hotel room the night before and get a good night's sleep.

"We're going to kick it up," he told Hamilton. "I'm going to go all Tin Cup on your ass." He said he wanted to play for $50,000 a hole, significantly more than the mere thousands they had played for before.

Hamilton gladly accepted the terms, but acknowledged, "This is kind of scary. I've never played Kasey when he wasn't hung over and working on no sleep."

(It crossed my mind then that this whole thing might be an act, a gag to make a credulous journalist look foolish. Fifty grand a hole seemed ridiculous on its face. Yet as the day progressed, I became convinced otherwise. Hamilton is a very public high roller; Mason was so clearly unguarded and open about his life as to be thoroughly believable; and as the debt mounted, I could see the pressure build on Thompson. What's more, this match, I found out when talking weeks later to a prominent local journalist, had become the talk of Vegas gambling circles.)


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