The 18-hole Hustle

It was a short putt, about three feet or so, and the stakes were only $5,000—pocket change for a guy like the poker champion John “Professor” Moss, even in 1939 dollars, not that Moss was prone to choking anyway. This was more about bragging rights, because his opponent that day was “Titanic” Thompson, the notorious gambler and proposition artist who, among other things, took $30,000 off the gangster Arnold Rothstein—the man who had bankrolled the fixing of the 1919 World Series—in a marathon poker game in 1928. Thompson had bet Moss he could not shoot 46 or better on a local nine-hole course in Lubbock, Texas, using only a four-iron.

Moss stroked the putt perfectly, dead solid straight at the center of the cup, but just as it reached the lip, it bent off to the side, as if repelled by some invisible force. Normally, Moss would have chalked this up to a fluke, like the ball hitting a pebble, but this was the second straight hole this had happened, so he knew something was up. He sent his man ahead to the next hole, and sure enough, some conniver had raised the cup just enough off the green to deflect the ball. Thus informed, Moss glared at Thompson, who broke into a wide, boyish grin. After some discussion, Thompson confessed to having raised the cups. Even so, Moss magnanimously agreed to finish the round, provided Thompson had the cups stomped back down into place. Moss shot 41 and won the bet.

In the days before television and corporate sponsors; in the days before the players became superstars, surrounded by personal entourages and traveling by private jet; in the days before golf became staid and safe, there was a time when the game had a more ragged edge. It was a time when golf was more sport than profession, a time when the game’s heroes went by the names of Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, and Ben Hogan.

For now, all that remains are the stories. Traded in clubhouses, across card tables, or over post-match beers, the sums grow a little larger, the propositions a little more outrageous with each retelling. Over time the stories have taken on the weight of myth.

As long as there has been golf, there has been gambling. And where there is gambling, there is bound to be hustling. Call it human nature.

In the postwar days of the 1950s, golf underwent a tremendous surge in popularity. Course construction boomed, particularly in the South and West. In places like Miami and Las Vegas, the money seemed to grow on palm trees. Big-stakes matches were common, and at courses like La Gorce in Miami and the Dunes in Las Vegas, movie stars mixed with mobsters. The places became magnets for ringers, hustlers, and con men from around the country. This was the golden age of golf hustling.

As long as there’s been golf, there’s been gambling. And where there is gambling, there will be hustling.

Bobby Riggs, tennis champion, showman, huckster, and ebullient male chauvinist—the instigator behind the famous “battle of the sexes” match against Billie Jean King—was known as a hustler long before he took to the court inside the Houston Astrodome one sweltering September evening in 1973. A compulsive bettor, Riggs once claimed he never played a tennis match in which he didn’t have money riding on the outcome. While his betting antics became the stuff of tennis legend (he claimed to have won $108,000 on a parlay that he would sweep the men’s singles, men’s doubles, and mixed doubles championships during his one and only trip to Wimbledon in 1939), it was in golf, not tennis, that his reputation as a hustler came to full flower.

First taking up the game as a way to kill time between matches on the early pro tennis tours, Riggs discovered what golf was really all about after quitting tennis in 1952 and moving to Florida. When he saw ordinary golfers shooting 85s and 90s and betting all kinds of money, it was like discovering a rich uncle he never knew he had. “How long has this been going on?” he asked himself.

Tagging along with good players, Riggs watched carefully and learned. Through imitation and practice, he was breaking 100 consistently within a year. Not long after that, he was shooting in the 80s. He got his handicap down to 16 and started hanging around courses in Miami—La Gorce Country Club, the Seminole, and the Bayshore public course.

La Gorce, a posh club whose membership included more than 150 millionaires, was known as Hustlers’ Haven. “It was like an open-air poolroom,” Riggs said. “La Gorce was a den of thieves. All the ringers, hustlers and smart guys were there. If you didn’t know what was happening, you wouldn’t see an elephant if it jumped up on the table. But if you didn’t let yourself get outmatched, you won. You’ve got to get into the right match-ups, know your own levels, and the other guy’s.” Soon Riggs was keeping company with people who went by names such as the Stork, Shaggy Ralph, the Dog Man, Charlie the Blade, and Three-Iron Ward—men with deep tans and a nose for action. They traveled the circuit, stalking the clubhouses and driving ranges. Working in concert or alone, they sought easy marks: tourists, businessmen on vacation, and millionaires from Texas—suckers, or “palefaces,” in the parlance of the trade. They wore long-sleeved shirts, gloves on both hands, and big Panama hats. Among themselves they joked about being “too tan.”