Mason joined them in the clubhouse minutes before their tee time and tried to interest Hamilton in a side match. Mason moaned that he had stayed up until 4 a.m. partying and had not played in close to four months. But it's hard to sandbag a sandbagger, and Hamilton refused to go for the bait. He offered to play Mason straight up.
"That's crazy," Mason muttered after reluctantly agreeing to a $5,000 Nassau. "Russ used to give me a stroke a side when I was playing twice a week."
On the first tee, Hamilton extracted an industrial-size tube of Vaseline from his bag and squirted a healthy dose on the fender above the left wheel of his cart. When applied to the club face, the Vaseline—known among hustlers as "grease"—eliminates spin and makes it close to impossible to hit troublesome hooks and slices. Hamilton has been playing with grease so long now that he refuses to play without it. Among most golf gamblers, there is a widely accepted set of rules: You putt everything out and you play everything down. Other than that, anything goes. You can carry twenty-six clubs if you want, including some you built in your garage, and you can most certainly use grease.
On every fourth or fifth tee box, Hamilton dipped his index finger in the grease on his cart and smeared it across the face of his driver. Thompson never applied any Vaseline to his club. I asked him on the first tee how long he'd been gambling on golf, and he replied, loud enough to make sure Hamilton and Mason could hear: "Just a couple of months, since I met these two hustlers." Then he turned to negotiate a bet with Mason, agreeing to play for a relatively paltry $2,000 per hole.
Thompson striped his opening drive 275 yards down the middle of the fairway. Hamilton followed with a serviceable shot, though his ball landed well short of Thompson's, and Mason met his own low expectations with a liner into the left rough. With that, we were off, Hamilton and Thompson in one cart and Mason and I in another.
Mason, 47, moved to Las Vegas in 1983 from Arkansas and owns a furniture store along with several other local businesses. Tall and jovial, he proudly indulges in the many vices Vegas has to offer. "Most people come out here and party and don't sleep for three days. I've been doing it for twenty-three years," he said. He marks his ball with a $5,000 chip from the Bellagio. He told me he recently beat the founder of a discount grocery chain out of several hundred thousand on the course.
"So many people are egotistical about their game," he said. "They'd like you to believe they have a lower handicap than they actually have. [Russ and I] will tell you we're a little higher. There's a good life lesson there—it pays to be humble."
Mason walked across the fairway to his wayward drive and I pulled up next to Hamilton as he hit his approach to the first green. He made solid contact but the ball landed short and just hopped on the fringe. It was an average shot at best, I thought, but he seemed disproportionately pleased.
"You don't want to be sticking pins," he explained, after making sure Thompson was out of earshot. "You just want to bump it up there and then chip and putt. It makes them think you're not that good."
Hamilton, though, failed to make par and tied Thompson with a bogey. Both took a slight lead over Mason, who skulled his approach and made double. As if on cue, the beverage cart rumbled to a stop next to the green and Mason ordered two screwdrivers, despite not having finished the beer he brought out from the clubhouse.
After the third hole, with no movement either way in the bet between them, Mason tried to entice Thompson to up it to $10,000 a hole.
"I'm out here drinking and you're out here like some hack enjoying his Sunday afternoon stroll," he said.
Thompson agreed to the bet but Mason continued to complain that he was the only one drinking. "Okay, I'll have a beer. How about that?" Thompson said.
"It's a start," Mason answered. Moments later, as we pulled away from the tee, he added, sotto voce: "We'll be playing for $50,000 a hole before it's over."
The rest of the front nine was largely uneventful, with Thompson holding his own for the most part. At the turn, Hamilton was up only one hole—$50,000. He rested in the shade of a tree and assured me that he had his man right where he wanted him. "I'm not even trying," Hamilton said. "All the money is made on the back nine."
It was now past 2 p.m. and the temperature reached a broiling 112 degrees. We were the only visible life forms on the course, save for the occasional bunny rabbit darting out from the underbrush to get a quick snack of lush fairway. The banter largely ceased, due as much to the heat as to the escalating tension. Mason dunked a towel in a cooler of ice water and draped it over his face while Thompson drew on the latest in an innumerable string of Marlboro Lights, his face slowly turning tomato red. Hamilton alone seemed unfazed by the heat.