Gamblers, Hustlers and Drinkers: A Cautionary Tale

Back in my Monday qualifying days one of my friends told me his story of running into the famous golf hustler, Titanic Thompson, when my friend was a rookie on Tour.

He made the mistake of getting into a bunker-shots betting game, closest to the pin wins. But he took the bet because Thompson made one huge concession: he let my friend give him any lie in the bunker he wanted to, including stepping on the ball. My friend was a pretty good bunker player; what could go wrong? 

He was soon relieved of his money.

Thompson was famous for going from country club to country club looking for hustles to run on unsuspecting members. For example, he would play an 18-hole match with his pigeon and then give him a chance to win his money back in a second round with Thompson playing left-handed. What he neglected to disclose was that he was ambidextrous and naturally left-handed.

My friend told me about one of Thompson’s emblematic proposition bets; I’m pretty sure from Thompson himself.

It involved a club that he’d spent some weeks at, slowly but surely soaking up all the excess cash. It got to the point that the pigeons didn’t want to play him for money anymore. So he started bragging about what a great golf teacher he was.

As the con went on, he pointed to a young farmer driving his tractor in a field next to one of the holes and claimed that he was so good, he could take that farmer off that tractor and teach him enough golf in three weeks to beat the best of them. They couldn’t get to their money fast enough to get their bets down.

But it turned out that Thompson had rented the farm for the three weeks and the young farmer was, in fact, a plant. He was a very accomplished golfer who was in on the scam.

Thompson said to him, “The hook is set. Start practicing. And if you lose, I’ll kill you.”

I was reminded of all of this by an article by Jason Sobel at the Golf Channel, “Eddie Pearce: The fast life and hard times of ‘The Next Nicklaus.’

Sobel is one of the smartest, funniest and best writers at the Golf Channel. His wit comes in handy here, but this is more a cautionary tale than a humorous piece. It’s about a young man who ran with the best of them at his peak, Ben Crenshaw, Lanny Wadkins, Gary Koch and Roger Matbie to name a few. Each had a tale or two about Pearce’s game, what a soaring talent he was and how he let it all fade away.

But his start came as a teenager from his country club gambling. His backer would pay all of his losses and gave him 40% of his winnings. It was very lucrative for Pearce and he was one of the best at it.

What he enjoyed more, however, was not having to practice; he was a natural. So he would live life to the limit at night, show up at the last minute and have fun. But he ultimately found out that it was taking its toll:

“I just kept doing it and doing it and doing it,” Eddie admits. “Finally, it got to the point where it started to affect my game – especially my putting, because of my nerves. I didn’t have a handle on my game enough to fix it, because everything I’d ever done was natural. So I started working with people, then I started thinking more and that was completely my downfall. I had never thought about swing planes before. I just hit the ball. And so the more I thought about stuff, the worse I got.”

I thought this was pertinent, perhaps even the payoff of Sobel’s piece, to our exploration of mastery here and the age-old problem of how to take in information about the golf swing but integrate it in a way that you still play with the freedom of a kid.

This is a grand, sweeping tale that took more time to read than most such stories, but for the stories and the characters, I can’t recommend it enough.

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