It has been nearly 40 years since I received a national magazine assignment to cover a golf tournament at the Dunes’ Emerald Green course.
If you are wondering where that track is located, you could find its remnants in the bowels of Bellagio, which sits on the same plot of land that hosted the event known as the Professional Gamblers Invitational, or the PGI.
The PGI bore no relation to the PGA, one of the four major golf championships for the guys who can really play the game. This local event was hosted in the 1970s by Jack Binion and Doyle “Texas Dolly” Brunson, two fellows who knew which of their gambling cronies would pucker up with all the cash on the line, and who could keep their pulse at 60 over a three-footer for 50 large.
I was a freelance writer who knew something about golf, having played the game competitively since I was nine, but what I knew about gambling you could comfortably fit into the head-cover of an old 3-wood.
The amounts of money on the line in the PGI were roughly equivalent to what they were playing for on the PGA Tour back then, with one huge exception. If Jack Nicklaus, who was dominating professional golf then, choked on a four-foot putt, he didn’t have to reach into his snuggy Sans-a-Belts and fork over the cash. It just meant that he would win less money from Honda or Chrysler or whichever company was putting up the prize money.
But if Texas Dolly got the yips in a high-stakes match in the PGI, the money he lost came out of the Brunson family cookie jar, and that jar had better be deep and wide.
I was intrigued with many of the golfers I met that day. I liked the way they talked, the way they needled one another, and the way they shrugged it off if they took a whipping. They had their own lexicon, casually using terms like “stone nuts” (a sure bet), and “railbirds” (guys betting from the gallery) and “finding the choke point.”
These characters didn’t adhere to the USGA rules of golf. Forget the current rule against anchoring the putter handle against your chest; I saw one guy sink a 10-footer for 25 G’s lying on his belly and using the grip end of his putter like a pool cue.
The golfers were instructed before play started to compete aggressively and honestly, but one sharpie from Tennessee took me aside and said, “If you don’t cheat at least twice a round in this event, you aren’t trying hard enough.”
In the field that day were guys who’ve become legends in and around Las Vegas over the last several decades. There was Bobby “The Owl” Baldwin, who won the World Series of Poker at age 28 and went on to a distinguished career as a gaming CEO.
There was Chip Reese, thought by many to be the best card player of his generation. There was the iconic Amarillo Slim, who told me, “Some of these boys roar like a forest fire in their hometown for pocket change, but put a big pile of cash in front of them and so much dog comes out the possums go into hiding.”
And there was Billy Walters, who would become the most successful sports bettor of all time until a dyspeptic jury convicted him of insider stock trading two years ago.
There was also a smattering of what the guys called “talent” lurking around the clubhouse at the Dunes, looking to relieve the boys of their discretionary income.
“True talent,” Puggy Pearson told me that day, “is not defined by the ability to hit a 3-iron out of a tight lie to a tucked flagstick. True talent is a strawberry blonde in a halter top, hot pants, stiletto heels, and a twinkle in her eye.”
The #MeToo movement would have had a blast cruising the grounds of the Dunes back then with a hidden tape recorder.
Although the days of these six-figure money games were thought to be long past, I heard from an insider recently that there’s a new generation of golfing gamblers that like to stoke the furnace. It is said that poker studs like Daniel Negreanu and Phil Ivey have become golf junkies and will fire it up for whatever your stock portfolio can handle.
For some twisted reason, that news warms my heart.