The recent conclusion of the Masters and its “tradition unlike any other” brings to mind another long-standing tradition: Poker players’ fascination with the game of golf.
There’s no shortage of stories of poker pros testing themselves on the golf course, most of which involve those same players testing their gambling instincts as well.
Indeed, the history of poker is dotted with several memorable tales involving poker’s legends on the links.
Moss on the Green
In the great 1975 collection of essays Fast Company, Jon Bradshaw profiles three-time WSOP champion Johnny Moss, telling how in his younger days golf had become “his chief obsession.”
Moss relates to Bradshaw a story of a particular nine-hole match in Dallas that went badly for the poker player, ending in $9,000 loss.
Walking away from the ninth green, Moss’ opponent asked him how much he had left and the Texan responded that he had about $800.
The offer soon followed to bet it all on one more hole -- the 10th -- and despite his wife’s objection Moss agreed to the bet.
A par three, Moss’ foe promptly drove onto the green and within just four feet of the hole. “Virgie, she just looks at me y’know,” says Moss, referring to his wife, “as if to say, see, I told you it would happen.” Undeterred, Moss teed up his ball and drove.
“I hit for the pin,” explained Moss, “and that ball hit the edge of the green, bounced once, maybe twice, and rolled right into the hole.” An ace! And not the poker kind.
From there they agreed to go double-or-nothing on the next hole, which Moss won. They did so again on the next, another win for Moss.
By the time they played the back nine, Moss had won his $9,000 back plus $20,000 more. “And y’know,” said Moss, “Virgie just smiled and never said nothin’.”
Puggy Improving his Lie
Bradshaw also profiles Walter “Puggy” Pearson in Fast Company, another WSOP champion and member of the Poker Hall of Fame who figures prominently in many golf stories.
Probably the most famous -- or infamous -- of those stories is related by Doyle Brunson in his autobiography The Godfather of Poker.
The story involves a game at the Las Vegas Country Club from the 1970s involving the notorious drug-smuggler Jimmy Chagra, a strong golfer named Jimmy Erwin, Pearson, and Brunson.
Chagra wanted to bet $250,000 against each of his three opponents, and since Erwin and Pearson didn’t want to play that high, Brunson staked them.
Brunson explains how the game was match play with “automatic two-down presses,” meaning if anyone fell two holes behind “another $250,000 match would kick in for the remaining holes.” In other words, depending on how things went, each player could be in for as much as $1.25 million apiece by the end of the round.
Brunson knew Chagra wasn’t a strong golfer, and indeed the three of them all beat him the first two holes, meaning new bets were in play starting the third. “I knew we were going to beat him” for the maximum, explains Brunson, which meant “after giving Pug and Jerry their share, I was going to pocket more than a couple million dollars.”
On the third hole, Pearson had hit his ball within 30 feet of the hole while Chagra found himself in a sand trap. Brunson estimates Pearson could two-putt or even three-putt to win the hole.
“There was a little sunspot in front of Pug’s ball,” says Brunson, “and for some strange reason -- it was absolutely no advantage -- he reached down and relocated his ball a few inches around the sunspot.” Chagra’s bodyguard saw what Pearson had done, and alerted Chagra who launched into a profanity-laced tirade.
“He immediately pronounced the game over, jumped in his golf cart, and sped away, my $2 million dollars-plus disappearing with him like dew in the morning grass,” writes Brunson, who goes on to tell how furious he was with Pearson.
He neglects to add the line often appended to the story regarding Pearson and his penchant for angle-shooting, seeking edges, or just plain cheating.
“I’m sorry Doyle,” Pearson is said to have told Texas Dolly. “I couldn’t help myself.”
More Fairway Fables
Like a long, winding course, the stories go on and on.
There’s the one about Jack Straus taking a young Stu Ungar to the golf course to teach him how to play, and before they left the action-loving Ungar had managed to lose a fortune in prop bets to Straus.
“Do you think that anyone in history has ever lost $80,000 the first time he picked up a golf club?” asks Mike Sexton in Peter Alson and Nolan Dalla’s One of a Kind. “He didn’t even make it to the golf course that day!”
Or the one about Titanic Thompson winning a bet by hitting a golf ball 500 yards across a frozen lake, and then Amarillo Slim Preston apparently later pulling a similar ruse to win a bet by hitting one a mile.
Or the one about golf pro Rocco Mediate saying if he had to pick one person in the world to make a putt for $1 million, he’d choose three-time WSOP bracelet winner Dewey Tomko.
Such tales have continued well into the present era.
In November 2009, Golf Magazine featured Phil Hellmuth, Gavin Smith, Layne Flack, and Erick Lindgren in an article titled “The Golf Sharks” reporting on the players’ penchant for high-stakes golf.
And we continue to hear stories of Phil Ivey, Daniel Negreanu, and others from the poker world and their driving, pitching, putting, and, of course, betting.
What Puts Poker and Golf on Par?
Another current poker player who can frequently be found on the golf course is two-time WSOP bracelet winner Tom Schneider. Schneider was one of several poker pros who participated in the World Series of Golf in 2007 and 2008 -- a high-stakes golf tourney that uniquely combined poker rules and strategy with golf.
I recently asked Schneider to explain why so many poker players are attracted to golf. He pointed out a number of parallels that go well beyond the fact that the playing surfaces for both are green.
“One of the things that makes golf so attractive to poker players is that because the game starts and stops a lot, there are lots of opportunities for betting,” Schneider began.
“There are very few sports in which you can bet on every single shot, but you can in golf -- very much like you bet on every turn of a card in poker. So there you’re using skills you’ve acquired at poker to set odds and understand probabilities, potentially on every shot.”
I told Tom that made sense, but why would an amateur golfer like me go out with a top golfer like him and bet?
“Actually, another reason why people like betting on golf is the handicap system,” explained Schneider. “If it is done correctly, the handicap system puts everyone almost on an equal footing. And so you can kind of keep the game somewhat fair and we can gamble on it.”
So golf sets up great as a gambling game. How else do golf and poker compare?
“The other thing about golf that’s attractive to poker players is the thinking that is required,” Schneider explained.
“Golf and poker are so closely aligned in that way. There’s time to think about what has happened and how you’re going to let that last event change your thinking on the next event. In fact, they’re exactly the same.”
I said that reminded me of some of the commentary regarding the Masters -- how the winner, Bubba Watson, had kept his concentration at the end, while Tiger Woods had appeared to lose focus in the later rounds.
“Golf is different from other sports like basketball or football that are more reactive,” said Schneider. “You don’t think as much in those games -- you react or act on instinct.”
In other words, in golf -- like poker -- the rhythm of the game allows us to think about what we’re doing a lot more. And get distracted, too.
“It’s the weirdest thing,” Schneider continued. “You’re about to make a shot and you think ‘I need to take it back more slowly ... or I need to go inside-out ... and all these things go through your head and then all of a sudden right when you swing you go ‘Oh, I think I’ll have spaghetti tonight.’”
Tilting at the Table, or Off the Tee
Exploring that idea further, Schneider added how both golf and poker “challenge you to control your emotions” in similar ways. “Your ability to keep the last hand or last shot from affecting your decisions or your focus on the next play or the next shot is so important,” he said.
Indeed, as Tiger kicking a club after an errant shot at the Masters reminded us, both golf and poker can cause players to tilt.
“There’s one other way golf and poker are similar, too,” added Schneider.
“Virtually everyone I know who plays poker thinks somehow they’re better than everyone else. And everyone who plays golf -- once they’ve set the strokes [with handicaps] -- thinks they can beat the other guy.”
We talked about my own limited golf experience, and I told Schneider how I remembered once hitting the green with a tee shot on a par 3 and being instantly filled with delusions of grandeur. He knew exactly what I was talking about.
“Right, some people overvalue their skills a lot in golf as well as in poker,” said Schneider, adding how there are many who routinely hit beautiful drives on the range who can’t quite figure out how to do it once out on the course.
Like poker, golf is a skill game in which luck is involved, with the money element adding that extra bit of adrenaline that can give even the best players difficulty making the right play at the hole, or with their hole cards.
Thanks to Tom Schneider for the private lesson regarding the many connections between poker and golf.
Martin Harris is a poker writer and player and a part-time professor at UNC-Charlotte who teaches, among other things, a course on poker's role in American history and culture.
In a new bi-weekly column on PokerListings.com, Martin will be exploring the many ways poker and pop culture intersect. Read more work by Martin Harris on his own blog, Hard-Boiled Poker.