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The Hustlers

But on number twelve, a short par three over a canyon, Hamilton gave Thompson a window of opportunity. He caught a nine-iron heavy and his tee ball plunged into the gorge. Rising to the occasion, Thompson stuck a wedge to twenty feet and was well positioned to pull even for the match.

Under the course rules, Hamilton was allowed to hit his third shot from a drop area next to the green. The pin placement, though, made it an almost impossible up-and-down: It was twenty yards out, and there was about eight feet of green running sharply downhill away from him. Hamilton pulled a club called the Spin Doctor. With its thick, raised grooves, it's not exactly USGA approved, but it's his secret weapon. He lofted his chip gingerly to the fringe and the ball paused briefly after landing, then trickled down the hill, somehow stopping four feet from the hole. He sank the bogey putt to remain one up on Thompson—who three-putted—in the match.

"I'll lay you $10,000 you can't get it that close again in four tries," Thompson said, clearly disgusted.

Hamilton shrugged and ambled over to the drop area. He took his stance and picked the ball crisply off the turf, this time carrying it almost all the way to the hole. The ball landed on the downslope and by all the laws of physics should have bounded well past the pin. Instead, it hopped forward once and abruptly stopped two feet from the cup.

"Let's go to the next hole, boys," Hamilton said. Thompson shook his head silently.

It's hard to gauge what Hamilton would shoot if his goal were the lowest possible score rather than the most money extracted from his opponent. On the next hole, he and Mason wound up side by side in the fairway 140 yards out. As Hamilton stood over his ball, Mason proposed a side bet: "Closest to the hole for $10,000?"

"Ten thousand?" Hamilton repeated, still motionless over the ball.

When Mason confirmed, Hamilton headed back to the cart for a club change: He pulled a seven-iron, which would get him all the way to the hole, rather than the eight-iron that would get him only to the front fringe. He flew it just over the pin and it came to a rest fifteen feet away, a nice shot but not quite good enough to win the bet, as Mason stuck his approach to ten feet.

After draining the putt, Mason was one-under on the back nine, not too shabby for a guy who claimed he hadn't played in four months and shifted to vodka cranberries at the turn. He was now up more than $50,000 on Thompson and noticing signs that his opponent might be cracking.

"The great thing about golf as a gambling game is that it makes you see that everyone has a breaking point," Mason said. "You get a guy to play a little higher than he is comfortable with, and he will choke."

Thompson dropped two more holes to Hamilton on the back nine and entered the final three down $150,000. He pressed to $100,000 per hole and lost number seventeen when he lipped out a five-footer that would have tied Hamilton's par. His shoulders sagged and he looked skyward for the answer to how he had offended the golf gods.

We drove to eighteen, where Hamilton calculated the status of the bets: Thompson was down $250,000 to Hamilton and $103,000 to Mason. The young Angeleno took the news with a grim nod. He pulled his driver and strode to the tee, then turned to Hamilton and said, "You and I, double or nothing."

I thought back to something that Mason had told me earlier, when we were discussing Thompson's entry into the high-stakes circles. Mason genuinely liked Thompson and admired his willingness to gamble, but he had noticed a fatal flaw. "Kasey's problem is that he doesn't understand one of the key rules of gambling," Mason said. "You press your bets when you are winning, not when you are losing."

Hamilton gave Thompson a chance to reconsider. "For the whole thing?Two hundred and fifty thousand?"

Thompson nodded. "Let's see what you got."

The final hole at TPC Canyons is a 447-yard downhill par four with a gaping canyon down the length of the left side. Hamilton went first and laced a drive down the right side that bounced just into the rough.

Mason was next to hit. "What about us, Kase?" he asked. "I'll do this one for $30,000 straight up but we have to do double for pars, triple for birdies."

Despite the groove Mason was in, Thompson agreed. Mason then effortlessly played a gentle hook down the center of the fairway.

Thompson stuck his tee in the ground and stepped back to take a practice swing, his sunburned face etched with concentration. A small fortune was riding on these next few strokes. He pulled the club back and uncorked a ferocious swing, looking up quickly to follow the ball's trajectory. Too quickly. The ball hit off the heel of the club and trickled to the left, into the canyon.

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