Published: April 2009
By Brad Reagan
In high-stakes golf, Vegas-style, the stakes just keep
On a sweltering Friday afternoon in mid- July, Russ
Hamilton sat in the grillroom at the Tournament Players
Club at Summerlin watching that morning's highlights from
the British Open. When I joined him at the table, Tiger
Woods was draining a four-footer for yet another scrambling
par. "That's my kind of golf," Hamilton said approvingly.
"Keep it in the fairway, get up and down." He finished a
bite of his chicken salad sandwich, then added, "I could
get up and down from a pile of cow [manure] if I had to."
It's not clear where Hamilton might have practiced that
shot recently, as the view from the clubhouse revealed
nothing but a vast expanse of upscale suburbia. The Las
Vegas Valley is shaped like a bowl, and the master-planned
community of Summerlin sits on the western rim next to the
Red Rock Canyon National Conservation Area, looking down on
the monstrous casinos that line the bottom of the dish.
When Howard Hughes acquired the 22,500-acre tract (and
named it for his grandmother, whose maiden name was
Summerlin), it was a barren patch of desert a good twelve
miles from the modest gambling halls that comprised the Las
Vegas Strip. In the thirty years since the mad billionaire
died, the city has swelled to fill the Valley and the
development company that bears his name scraped away the
tumbleweeds and replaced them with stucco mansions, emerald
lawns and swimming pools the color of cheap aftershave. The
buttoned-down professionals who live here make for a
convincing illusion that Las Vegas is no different than
Phoenix or any other thriving Sun Belt city.
But, of course, that is untrue. This is a city built on the
lure of easy money, and it seems to harbor a
disproportionate number of real estate speculators,
nightclub promoters and personal-injury lawyers.
Risk-takers, to be sure, but diluted versions of the kind
of man willing to bet thousands on whether he could get up
and down from a pile of cow dung.
Hamilton is a professional gambler, the embodiment of the
ethos that built this improbable desert playground. He's
won millions betting on sports, and he's one of twenty-nine
men to have won the Main Event at the World Series of
Poker. When considering a wager with Hamilton, it's wise to
recall the advice of gambling legend Thomas "Amarillo Slim"
Preston, who liked to tell reporters, "If I tell you a
goose can pull a plow, well, hitch him up."
Two days before we met, Hamilton concluded another
impressive performance in the World Series, finishing
fifty-ninth and earning $145,875. But he was already
thinking ahead to another, potentially more lucrative,
opportunity: a high-stakes golf match against a young Los
Angeles businessman named Kasey Thompson. Despite spending
twelve hours a day the past week playing cards instead of
hitting balls, Hamilton liked his chances.
"Let me put it like this," he said, drawing on a poker
analogy. "I lost one hand when a guy hit a two-outer on
me," meaning Hamilton had a greater than 90 percent chance
of winning before his opponent got one of only two cards in
the deck that could improve his hand. "I think I'm a bigger
favorite in this match than I was in that hand."
At fifty-seven, with a full head of sandy-blond hair,
Hamilton is slightly round in the face and the middle,
though considerably less so since a gastric bypass
operation four years ago helped him drop more than a
hundred pounds. He had already been a serious golfer when
he arrived in Nevada in 1980 from Detroit, where he was
also an oddsmaker and bookie. "The FBI came to my door a
couple of times and wanted me to testify against some
people, so I said, It's time to get out of here."
Viva Las Vegas.
When Hamilton pulled into town, he found that gamblers,
gangsters and casino execs—in those days, the
differences among the three were often
negligible—battled daily on the links for skyscraping
sums. He quickly got his golf game in fighting shape and
became one of the most feared hustlers in town. His success
owes little to steely nerves or even to his enviable short
game. It's due to his skill in "making the
game"—structuring a match so that he is either giving
or getting the strokes he needs to ensure at least a slight
"The thing that makes Russ so good is that he's a great
negotiator, because he doesn't mind not getting the sale,"
Denny Mason, a local businessman and frequent gambling
partner of Hamilton's, told me. "I won't walk off the
course without gambling, but he will. If he doesn't like
the match, he'll just leave."
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
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.)
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
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
"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.
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
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
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
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.
"Where did it go, Kasey?" Hamilton asked. It was not clear
if Hamilton was rubbing salt in the wound or if he actually
didn't see the shot. Either way, Thompson didn't answer. He
hit another, and this one, predictably, was right down the
middle. He slammed his driver back into his bag and slumped
into the passenger side of the cart.
Thompson received a much-needed glimmer of hope when
Hamilton's ball was found nestled behind a newly planted
sapling. He would almost certainly have to punch out,
opening the possibility of bogey or even double.
But Hamilton wanted to make it interesting. Or maybe, in
the absence of any cow manure, he just wanted to prove that
he could hit a difficult shot under pressure. He pulled a
nine-iron from his bag and made a slow- motion practice
swing to make sure he wouldn't hit the tree in front of
him. He was 130 yards out. After little deliberation, he
played a sweeping hook around the tree that landed
precariously between the pin and a greenside pond but came
to rest on the fringe.
"How about that, boys?"
Thompson knew his day was done. He walked over to his ball
in the fairway and picked it up.
Meanwhile, Mason dropped his approach within fifteen feet
and moments later made the putt for a $90,000 birdie and an
even-par back nine.
Thompson had lost $340,000 on one hole and a total of
$703,000 for the day. Walking off the green, he muttered to
no one in particular, "You guys are giving me more strokes
We drove to the clubhouse, where the chipper cart
attendants bounded out to ask us how the round went. "I
lost a house," Thompson said.
"A nice house," Hamilton added.
The attendants chuckled at what seemed to be outrageous
hyperbole. But it surely wasn't. And Thompson would pay up,
a week later, in a combination of cash and casino chips.
(Hamilton is no dummy: Before ever accepting a bet with
Thompson, he conducted his own background check to make
sure he was good for it.) Paying in chips is the way most
high-stakes golf gamblers settle debts in this town. Chips
are liquid, like cash, but much more portable. If you need
to pay someone $300,000, you could either bring a suitcase
full of greenbacks or three gray-colored chips from the
When the scores were added up, Thompson had shot
ninety-two, better than his average. Hamilton finished with
eighty-six, and Mason carded an impressive eighty. He even
took $20,000 from Hamilton.
The two hustlers immediately launched into a justification
of how they haven't played that well in months. Seriously,
they insisted, we're not that good.
THE GOLF GAMBLER'S VEGAS
Looking for a little action on the links in Las Vegas?It's
not hard to find.
"You get the word out that you are looking for a golf game
for money, and it will get around," says Anthony Curtis,
publisher of the Las Vegas Advisor. "There will be somebody
who will get you to somebody."
How do you do it?One way is bring it up in the poker
room—a frequent after-hours haunt for the city's golf
gamblers—of any major casino. Try the Bellagio, which
offers the highest stakes in town. Before long, you'll find
someone willing to play at just about any stakes you can
imagine. Or, if you are a fairly big player at the gaming
tables, ask your casino host to set up a match for you.
But, as always in Vegas, tread carefully.
"He may set up you up with a guy who is going to slay you
and the host gets a piece of it," Curtis says. "That kind
of stuff goes on all the time."
Or maybe you want a different sort of action. Most of the
sports books in town offer wagering on PGA events, with the
Las Vegas Hilton featuring the widest selection. At the
Hilton, just off the Strip, you can bet as little as $5 on
everything from whether Michelle Wie will make the cut to
the winning score at the Masters. The most popular bet
among tourists is to pick a player to win that week's
tournament, even though that is one of the most difficult
to hit. "It's hard, but people like to bet the long odds,"
says Jeff Sherman, who sets the Hilton's golf odds.
The more discriminating locals, on the other hand, tend to
play the "matchups," where they bet on who will finish
higher out of two closely ranked players, say Jim Furyk and
Vijay Singh. In doing so, the bettors look to exploit
patterns in player performance based on putting surfaces,
types of layouts, etc.