The 18-hole Hustle

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Many of these hustlers were terrific golfers and might have played professionally, but they found the money from hustling easier and more plentiful. At the time a top pro might earn $30,000 a year, a sum a first-rate hustler could make in a week. Asked if he would ever turn pro, Titanic Thompson replied, “I could not afford the cut in pay.”

Born Alvin Clarence Thomas, Titanic Thompson once won $1,000 on a bet that he could drive a golf ball 500 yards. He did, teeing up on the edge of a frozen lake. (Decades later the poker champion Amarillo Slim won $38,000 on a variation of the bet, claiming he could hit a golf ball a mile. He found a bigger lake.)

A relative latecomer to golf, Thompson took up the game when he was nearly 30, in 1921. Already a crack shot, a champion bowler, a good pool player, and an expert at dice and cards, particularly poker, he learned quickly. In 1934 a group of Dallas businessmen put up $3,000 to host a match between Thompson and a young Byron Nelson. By then Thompson had become famous in the golfing community, and people came from hundreds of miles to witness the match. Nelson spotted Thompson 3 strokes, and lost, shooting 68 to Thompson’s 70. Tommy Bolt, the 1958 U.S. Open champion, once said of Thompson’s golfing ability: “He could have been the greatest.”

Trophies, however, never interested Thompson. His rewards needed to be financial ones, and he left nothing to chance. One of his favorite ploys was to play a rich oilman right-handed. After collecting his winnings, Thompson would offer to give his opponent a chance to win it all back, for double or nothing, by playing left-handed. Unknown to the mark, however, Thompson was a natural lefty. He also liked to take promising young golfers under his wing, teaming up with them to relieve the unsuspecting. Among those to apprentice under Thompson was the former touring pro Lee Elder. In 1965 Thompson bankrolled Ray Floyd in a money match against an unknown kid out of Dallas named Lee Trevino. Trevino won, putting Thompson out $9,000.

Hustlers, like all craftsmen, were individualists, each developing a routine or gimmick. Charlie the Blade used only one club, a four-iron, but could do as much with it as most scratch golfers could with all 14 clubs. The Stork played every shot standing on his right foot with his left stuck up behind him. The Whiskey Drinker would swig from a flask he carried in his golf bag, growing more congenial and unsteady on his feet with every swing. By the time he reached the ninth hole, he tipsily demanded that all bets be doubled, after which his demeanor and game miraculously straightened out. Few suspected that the amber liquid in the bottle was tea.

Riggs was always calm about the “big bet,” he said: “Pressure makes me produce. Kills most guys.”

Like all craftsmen, hustlers had their own hierarchy. The top tier viewed men like the Whiskey Drinker with disdain, considering them nothing more than cheap tricksters. The best were artists, men who turned the common hustle into an elegantly constructed con. La Verne Moore, alias John Montague, first appeared around 1930. A crack golfer and master of trick shots, he once challenged a sucker by boasting that he could pick off a sparrow sitting on a telephone wire with a ball hit by a mid-iron. He did. Another time he bet that he could blast a completely buried ball out of a sand trap and onto the green with a wedge. He did that too. He’d crack the window in his motel room six inches and chip balls through the opening over and over without breaking the glass. Legend has it he challenged Bing Crosby for high stakes and took him for a wad of cash, playing with nothing more than a rake, a hoe, and a baseball bat, while Crosby was allowed to use all his clubs.

From such tutors, Riggs said, “I learned all the angles, I mean all the angles.” Earning what was called a “traveling handicap,” Riggs legitimately acquired his handicap from the back tees at a very difficult course, but played his money matches from the middle tees, giving him the “fair advantage” he deemed necessary.

While everybody would be leery of taking on the Wimbledon champion in tennis, nobody was afraid to bet on golf against the funny little man with the squeaky voice and jaunty walk. Though an average golfer compared with the other sharpies, Riggs was a superior competitor, becoming positively inspired when playing for high stakes.

“I always rise to the occasion for that big bet,” Riggs said. “Pressure makes me produce. Kills most guys. Mortifies ’em. I love a contest, a game, a challenge. To be a winner, you’ve got to be an appraiser. You’ve got to be able to play at your best under pressure. And more money creates more pressure. Money is the finest fuel in the world. You see, if you’re betting all the time, everything is just another bet. You don’t even think about the money after you’ve made the arrangements. You’re used to it. And you’re usually playing with people who have more money than you do. Now that’s an advantage, because they’re thinking about the money and they play six strokes worse than they usually do. I play better under pressure.”