The 18-hole Hustle

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Riggs called himself the best money player of all time. His biggest coup came in 1953. The match was played over the course of a week at the Greenbrier Country Club in White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia, then Sam Snead’s home course. The participants included Riggs; Dan Topping, owner of the New York Yankees; Jose Dorelis, called “the Count” because he wore a monocle; and Ray Ryan, an eccentric oil tycoon and real estate developer from Evansville, Indiana, who was reputed to have mob connections. Ryan was a mediocre golfer who loved to bet high.

Riggs was at the Greenbrier after a Calcutta pool (see sidebar on page 64). He had not played well and decided to stay over at the hotel to practice when Ryan showed up.

 

Riggs gave him a stroke a hole, two on the par fives, and sometimes two on the par fours. “I started out playing for what I could afford to lose,” Riggs said. “Now Ryan, he thought he could win. He thought he had a license to steal, a real bargain, but that week he went completely crazy and shot above his game.” Ryan’s usual 100 blew up to around 135.

“He was hitting the ball sideways he was so bad,” Riggs recalled. “He was pressing bets with both hands, and by the time he got to the eighteenth tee the first day he was deep in the hole. I’ll never forget. He pressed again on that hole and by three-putting he lost $100,000 right there. Boy, they were big times. At the end of that week he owed something like $500,000. Now, you bleed a lot of rich guys and you oughta hear ’em squawk, like they’d been stabbed for chrissakes. But not Ryan. The next day he asked us boys to stop by his suite. We arrived and he was sitting behind a card table with a suitcase full of thousand-dollar bills. We lined up and he paid us off without flinching. With a smile. He was a great high roller. None better. All he said was: ‘Boys, If I win tomorrow, I want to get paid in the same way.’” In a postscript to the story, Riggs said he lost all the $180,000 he claimed to have won in a gin game against Ryan the next week in New York.

But the stakes did not necessarily have to be high. Sam Snead recalled a day when Dutch Harrison, a former top golfer who had a reputation as a bit of a hustler, lost a $5 bet to a player he thought was an easy mark.

“Dutch, this is really an honor,” said the man. “I’m going to frame this bill.”

Harrison grabbed it back and said, “In that case, I’ll write you a check.”

When they did happen, the big-money matches could become spectacles. With as much as $100,000 a round at stake, crowds gathered to watch the action, and as the players made their way from hole to hole, caravans of golf carts trailed them: club members, golf fans, fellow hustlers, and the merely curious. The noise, the crowds, and the commotion drew the ire of many other club members.

In addition to making bets with the other players, the players would often have a halfdozen other wagers going with bookmakers who followed the group around the course. “These guys would try to distract me when I was about to make a shot,” Riggs recalled. “Just as I leaned over the ball, they’d crash two golf carts together. They’d move around me on the tee or the green to disturb me. But I knew what they were up to and I never let them bother me.”

Among Riggs’s regular partners was Martin Stanovich, better known as the Fat Man. Weighing in at 230 pounds, Stanovich owned one of the most preposterous swings in golf. Feet planted apart, head hung low, he had a ridiculously short backswing, and lunged at the ball like a man trying to kill a cockroach with a crowbar. But he almost always hit the ball a little farther and a little more accurately than anyone else.

A legend in golfing circles, Stanovich belonged to at least a half-dozen country clubs around the nation. Playing year-round, he spent four months in Florida, four months in Pittsburgh, four months in Chicago, and four months in San Francisco. Given stakes as high as $100,000 a round, he once estimated he earned $11 million from golf but figured he gave back $6 million to the ponies.

“I’ve played Riggs and beat him four times,” Stanovich once told a reporter. “Trouble is, he won’t play for real money unless I give him half the golf course.”

Stanovich was an equal opportunity gamesman, taking on pros, hustlers, and “nice people who just love to lose money.” But being an amateur, he demanded three strokes from any pro as a matter of policy. “Then I don’t have to work so hard,” he said. A scratch golfer, against everyday opponents the Fat Man allowed a 12-stroke handicap but wound up taking their money anyway, clucking sympathetically and offering tips to improve their game during the round.

Stanovich made a lot of friends and gained a lot of admiration from players on the tour, among them Lee Trevino, Ken Venturi, and Al Besselink. Venturi recalled Stanovich’s bank-rolling him in money matches in San Francisco before he joined the pro tour. “He was a great competitor. I mean, the bets were so huge,” said Venturi, who would earn a cut of the winnings from Stanovich. “I mean, [Stanovich] could have really put the monkey on my shoulder if he told me how much people had bet on me,” Venturi said. “But he never said a word and, to tell the truth, I didn’t want to know.”