- Historic Sites
The 18-hole Hustle
During the golden age of golf, many of the sport’s greatest players never went pro. They couldn’t afford the pay cut.
August/September 2005 | Volume 56, Issue 4
“He had aspects of a being a hustler,” said Besselink of Stanovich, another player who made the rounds in Miami before joining the tour. Stanovich, Besselink said, “made games. He couldn’t shoot 65 or 66, but he’d bet $10,000 and could shoot 69 or 70 every time. He knew how to play for money.”
At the time, prize money in professional tournaments rarely exceeded $5,000, and for all but the top players the label “golf bum” was very real, as many on the circuit were forced either to mooch off one another or rely on the generosity of patrons for places to stay. The golf legend Ken Venturi remembers baby-sitting for his friend and rival Gene Littler while on the road. Many tournament players supplemented their income by hustling on the side. They would arrange money matches in pro-am tourneys that preceded the main event or get bankrolled in games set up by bookies or hustlers like Stanovich.
With $100,000 a round at stake, crowds would gather, and caravans of golf carts trailed the golfers.
Money matches not only helped keep pro players solvent, Venturi says, but also helped them hone their competitive edge. After all, it’s one thing to be putting for a million dollars of someone else’s money, but it’s quite another to be putting with $1,000 of your own on the line. Or, as Trevino is quoted as saying, “Real pressure in golf is playing for $10 when you’ve only got $5 in your pocket.”
If Besselink fell out of contention in a tour event, he might intentionally play badly on Saturday to be among the highest scorers, thus earning him an early start on Sunday. He then started placing bets with bookies who followed the tour. “There would be no wind, no pressure of trying to win, and smooth greens with no spike marks. I’d bet my score against the 10 leaders. I’d shoot 68 and beat nine of ’em and make more money than the winner.”
Besselink says he earned a total of $187,000 in prize money over the course of his more than 10-year career on the tour, but he figures he spent millions gambling in big-money matches—“and I never had to hold a gun to anybody.”
Besselink, now 83, was a golf Wunderkind who never graduated from high school but was recruited by the University of Miami in 1942 to captain its fledgling golf team. Playing in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference finals, he bet $500, all the team’s expense money for the trip, on himself to win. He did, in extra holes. Before joining the pro tour, he earned a living playing money matches.
Back then, he says, he lived “to gamble and to bet, on anything, absolutely anything.” Living in Miami, the tall, blond, blue-eyed, and fair-skinned Besselink was known as “the Viking.” “We used to go over to Normandy Shores Golf Club on Miami Beach and sit around all morning trying to make a game. There’d be all kinds of games, $50 games, $100 games, $500 games, $1,000 games, you name it. You sit around long enough, you’d find what you’d want.”
Was he a golf hustler?
“ Hustler ’s the wrong word,” Besselink growls. “I never had to cheat anybody. My best game was playing hustlers, playing the guys who cheated and tried to take advantage of everybody. I wanted to play either them or multimillionaires. I never tried to beat anybody who didn’t have any money.”
Of course, the essence of the hustle is to make the victim think he’s getting an even break. In Riggs’s case, this meant selling people a situation they really didn’t want but, 9 out of 10 times, ended up buying anyway, only to realize later that they had been had. His advantage in golf was that nobody knew how good he really was. He bragged that by offering long odds or a big handicap, by appealing to “the larceny in everyone’s soul,” he could get a $10 bettor to bet $100, thus immediately putting him under pressure.
Golf matches, someone once said, are not won on the fairways or greens. They are won on the tee, the first tee. “People misunderstand the mentality of a hustler,” Riggs explained. “It doesn’t matter how well you do things, it’s how you negotiate the handicaps.”
Jeanne Carmen was born in Arkansas in 1930 into a family of poor cotton sharecroppers. She ran away at 13, first to St. Louis, then to New York City, where she eventually landed a job as a fashion model. In 1949 she got an assignment to model clothing for Jack Redmond, a local golf pro and shop owner. Carmen, who had never seen a golf course, was modeling different outfits at Redmond’s indoor golf range when he playfully asked her to take a swing at the ball. A lefty, she spun the right-handed club around in her hand and, with the back side of the club face, smacked the ball into the canvas backdrop, knocking it off its support.
“You sure you haven’t played before?” asked Redmond. He then set up the backdrop again. “He had me stand on the other side of the ball and hit right-handed,” Carmen recalls, “which was harder, but I knocked the drape down again.”
Redmond asked her to come in the next day: “I’d like someone to see you.”
The next day Redmond had the golf champion Jimmy Demaret watch as Carmen hit balls.
“They were oohing and aahing,” she says, “and I thought, ‘What’s the big deal?’ I don’t think this is a very difficult thing.”