In high-stakes golf, Vegas-style, the stakes just keep getting higher
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 advantage.
"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 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.)
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.
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.
"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 next time."
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 Bellagio.
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.