Words by Caleb Hannan, photos curated by Chris Reynolds
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Ladies and gentlemen, please bow your heads. Decorum suggests that you act grim and serious at a funeral. And while we’re going to try to avoid both “grim” and “serious” in the following few pages, we should at least make a show of both at the beginning. We’ve come together today to grieve. But the person we mourn isn’t real in the sense that they’re blood and flesh. They’re real in a more important way: If we shut our eyes and imagine, we can see them in our heads. In fact, let’s do that right now.
What comes to mind when I say the words “golf hustler?” What do you see? Tall or short? Thin or fat? Nattily dressed or sloppy? Man or woman? Tell you what: It doesn’t really matter. Because the person you’re imagining has likely passed. Sure, if you look long and hard enough you can still find one or two. They’re not totally extinct, but severely endangered. You might have even had your own run-in with one. Mine dressed smartly and hung out on the practice green of a course with fairways as hard as tarmacs. I bet each and every one wears a Bluetooth earpiece, almost as if they’d coordinated their look beforehand.
No, golf hustlers haven’t been completely wiped off the face of the Earth. Like all endangered species, they’ve merely found themselves living in a newer, more fraught world, with fewer natural defenses, more predators and lower odds of survival. That bit about odds is ironic, given their trade, but we won’t harp on that, because when it comes to the rise and fall of the golf hustler, irony abounds. In fact, if we had to point to the one thing that ultimately doomed the golf hustler, it’s the biggest irony of them all: They were killed by money, the thing they were hunting all along.
But before we throw dirt on the casket, let’s at least do a proper eulogy. That’s the part of the funeral where you actually get to inject some fun into what is an otherwise somber day. We’re talking about two men today. Both were self-made. Both were, at least for a bit, fabulously wealthy. And both, for a time, embodied the spirit of golf during the era in which they lived, albeit in two very different ways.
First comes the godfather of all golf hustlers. His given name was Alvin Clarence Thomas, born in 1892 in a log cabin on a dirt road in the nothing town of Monett, Missouri. By his 16th year he’d acquired the name that would outlive him: Titanic Thompson.
Myth abounds when it comes to Titanic. Which is fitting, given that his life is essentially a series of folk songs strung together. The original myth involves his name; it was said that he’d survived the crash of the famous ocean liner by sneaking into a lifeboat dressed as a woman. Fortunately, in 2011, former Sports Illustrated writer Kevin Cook took the time to separate fact from fiction and write the biography of one of golf’s most colorful characters, Titanic Thompson:The Man Who Bet on Everything.
As Cook discovered, Titanic’s nickname didn’t come from an experience in the chilly waters of the Atlantic Ocean, but instead in the smoky dark of a Joplin pool hall. After the teenaged Titanic hustled everyone inside, he saw a sign offering $200 to the first person who could leap over the hall owner’s largest table. Young Titanic left and returned with a ratty old mattress, which gave him a soft landing when he successfully flipped over the table. When an awed customer asked the pool hall owner for the boy’s name, his response created a legend. “Ought to be, ‘Titanic,’” Cook quotes him as saying, “because he sinks everybody.”
“Tall and thin with a bland mask of a face, he had close-set eyes that looked a little dead, at least until he offered you a bet,” writes Cook. Titanic killed his first man when he was still a teenager in Arkansas. He had just won a barge named The Rambler off its owner when he was confronted by a “bull-necked drunk” who threatened to kill him and rape his girlfriend. Titanic bludgeoned the drunk unconscious with a hammer, then tossed his body into the St. Francis River. It was his first murder in self-defense; eventually there would be four more. In a nice piece of symmetry, that total, five, matched Titanic’s number of marriages, each one to a girl who had yet to reach voting age.
A functional illiterate, Titanic learned how to make subtle marks on a deck of cards while other kids were in school. He played poker, rolled dice, shot pool, bet he could throw peanuts over three-story buildings and did everything possible to get a leg up on other men who loved games of chance. He kept a $10,000 bankroll in his pocket at a time when most men were making less than $500 a year and met his second wife when she tried to pick that roll out of his pocket in the middle of a Pittsburgh street.
It takes 70 pages into Cook’s book and 27 years into Titanic’s life, however, for the man who would become the most famous of all golf hustlers to actually pick up a club. According to the legend, his first swing came left-handed at a range outside of Tulsa, Oklahoma, and the ball cleared 300 yards. It would seem like just another myth if the rest of Titanic’s life in golf weren’t so spectacular. “I went purely crazy over golf,” Cook quotes Titanic as saying. His itinerant life in hotel rooms had given him ample time to while away rainy afternoons tossing a full deck of cards, one at a time, into a hat. He then channeled that same zeal for practice into golf. “He used his niblick,” writes Cook, “to chip balls off the rug in his room until he could chip nine out of ten into a water glass.”
After conning $500 from Al Capone in Chicago, Titanic thought it wise to move again and found himself in San Francisco, the first city he’d ever lived in that had an accessible public golf course. “For the next twenty years I had a club in my hands nearly every day,” he said. He practiced behind a tall set of oaks so few could see his true skill, and “knowing that golf pros were tanned, he wore long-sleeved shirts and stayed in the shade ‘so I’d look pale like a beginner.’” Short-game guru Dave Pelz likes to say that if he had to teach a student golf from scratch, he’d start them at the hole and work backward. In that way, Titanic was the perfect golf scholar. According to Cook, he spent 90 percent of his time chipping and putting and didn’t play a full round of golf until he had practiced for a year. He got so good that his reputation preceded him in New York, Chicago and Los Angeles, where he owned a near-empty mansion in Beverly Hills and stalked the Wilshire Country Club hoping to achieve a lifelong dream of hustling Howard Hughes. The match, though, never happened: Hughes gave up golf, along with most everything else, long before Titanic could get him on the course.
It’s a testament to Titanic’s outsized life that, in between turning himself into a better-than-scratch golfer, he had adventures like the year he spent in New York City with famed mobster Arnold Rothstein, the man who fixed the 1919 World Series. Titanic was involved in a long con that ended with Rothstein shot and Titanic, for the first time in his life, media famous. Journalist Damon Runyon shadowed Rothstein and Titanic much of that year and from the experience gathered enough inspiration and material to write Guys and Dolls. Wary of press, Titanic refused Runyon’s offer to write his biography. Instead Runyon fictionalized Titanic into Sky Masterson, the main character in “The Idyll of Miss Sarah Brown,” which was adapted into the legendary play that has been revived more times than a CPR test dummy.
In between misadventures, Titanic discovered that of all the many games of chance he’d played, golf suited him best. Most of the rest of Cook’s book is devoted to Titanic’s barnstorming, where he’d cross the country, recruit partners and swindle suckers. A week after he upset 18-year-old Jack Nicklaus in the Ohio Amateur, teen phenom Don Stickney got a call at his Columbus home, where Titanic offered him “more money than your daddy makes in a year.” The long con was anything but simple. Titanic leased a farm next to a golf course and for three weeks Stickney wore overalls and drove a tractor, pretending to work the land. Meanwhile, on the course, Titanic kept losing and making his marks more comfortable in their own ability to beat him. Finally, in what looked like a bout of desperation, Titanic upped the stakes and bet his competitors $50,000 that he could beat them with any partner they chose. To his delight they picked the rube driving the tractor. Stickney proceeded to fire a 66 while still wearing overalls and, just as Titanic promised, out-earned his father in less than a month.
That story is instructive as much for what happened as what didn’t. Titanic called Stickney with a proposition and Stickney said yes. But what if Nicklaus had won and Titanic called him? It’s impossible to say because it’s merely a hypothetical. Chances are that Nicklaus, a man who got married at 20 and had his first child one year later, a man who went to college to become a pharmacist, a man who dreamed of extending his amateur career in order to follow in the footsteps of his idol, Bobby Jones, wouldn’t have been as easily hooked by the bait of quick cash.
Here’s what we do know: Titanic couldn’t have made the same call a few years later, because the world he’d known was shifting. Titanic was asked more than once why he didn’t take his prodigious talents to the PGA Tour, and every time, at least according to Cook, he gave the same smart answer: He didn’t want to take a pay cut. Truth is, he was right. In the late 1950s, professional golf didn’t pay. But that was about to change.
From the time he was born, Mark McCormack was destined to be something like the anti-Titanic. The original hustler was raised in poverty, in a home full of resentful step-siblings where everyone got one bath per week in the same pot, with Titanic going last in water that was already cold. By contrast, McCormack was the only child of a publisher and a homemaker so fastidious and obsessed with planning that “she set the family breakfast table before she went to sleep at night.”
That great detail and hundreds more just like it come from Players: The Story of Sports and Money, and the Visionaries Who Fought to Create a Revolution. Written in 2016 by Matthew Futterman, a reporter with The Wall Street Journal, Players is a book-length attempt to answer a simple question: How did it happen that athletes went from being paid less than most other professionals in America to being paid more than most others could ever dream? Futterman’s first chapter is all about McCormack, and it’s titled “The Man Who Invented Sports.”
McCormack was a lawyer in Cleveland billing $15 an hour when his life changed—and with it both golf and sports at large. As a kid he’d been obsessed with the game, in part because, thanks to a car accident and a resulting skull fracture, golf was the only sport his doctors said was safe for him to play. McCormack was good enough to qualify for the U.S. Open even as law took up most of his time. He was making good money on the side running a number of self-service laundromats, but it wasn’t enough. McCormack wanted to scratch two itches at once. As Futterman writes, “He had two loves: golf and making money. He needed to find some way to combine them.” Then McCormack found Arnold Palmer.
Here was the state of professional golf when McCormack first decided to make it a part of his life, as recalled by Futterman: “Pro golf was a bunch of guys spending months on the road in beat-up cars and competing for a couple thousand dollars a week. The prize money was paltry, barely enough to cover the expenses of most pros. The occasional product endorsement—a cigarette ad, for instance—might garner a couple hundred dollars and a few cartons of cigarettes. Shouldn’t they get more than that? McCormack wondered. Yes, of course they should, and he was pretty sure why they weren’t: most pro golfers didn’t have any kind of lawyer or manager or agent.” McCormack saw the same world as Titanic, but had a completely different reaction. To Titanic, the lack of good money in pro golf was a justification to keep hustling, as if he could help doing otherwise. To McCormack, it was an opportunity for something bigger. On Jan. 31, 1959, he filed the papers of incorporation for his company, National Sports Management. In 1962, Sports Illustrated called him “the biggest golf hustler of them all.” In those three short years, the word itself had changed meaning. Now McCormack, not Titanic, was the face of golf hustle. And his was a completely different kind of game.
As the magazine reported, McCormack, a tall, blond man “with the expression of an indignant owl,” was not just representing Palmer, but also Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus. And he wasn’t just their agent. “He is also their booking agent, investment counselor, tax consultant, publicity agent and one-man licensing corporation. In one guise or another he handles all of their contract negotiations, exhibitions and endorsements, creates and operates more than two dozen corporations in which they are involved, keeps their books, plans their itineraries, answers their mail, pays their bills. Most of all, he makes them rich.” How rich? In 1959, the first year in which McCormack represented Palmer, the pro made a total of $59,000, much of which went to the government. Two years later, Palmer’s total was close to $500,000.
How did he do it? As Sports Illustrated noted, McCormack was always on the road, always working on a new con—err, deal. “Operating out of a suitcase and a telephone booth, subsisting on six hours of sleep a night and a diet of coffee, cantaloupe and shrimp, McCormack has traveled to the Bahamas, Jamaica, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and 33 U.S. cities, including Honolulu once and Manhattan 28 times, in a little less than a year…The result…threatens to project McCormack himself into a tax bracket formerly occupied only by Cary Grant and U.S. Steel.” Readers of the magazine may have scoffed at that last line in 1962. McCormack’s family, however, did not. When he died in 2003 at the age of 72, his kids were reported to have received $750 million from their father’s estate, the lion’s share coming from his founding stock in what would eventually become the premier management company in the world, IMG.
As Futterman makes clear by calling him “the man who invented sports,” the gains McCormack enabled for his clients extended far beyond the course. “The lesson [McCormack] taught the world’s greatest athletes,” writes Futterman, is that they were “more than simply labor. They represented the essence of the sport. They needed to be empowered. By empowering them, he allowed them to transform modern sports.”
Now, friends, let’s take this full circle. Because Titanic and McCormack, at least for a time, shared the Earth. Their competing visions of what a golfer could be rested side by side for a decade or so. They represented two wildly divergent paths. And for a moment, two of the game’s greatest players were forced to choose between them.
It is what TV analyst Gary McCord has called “the last great money game.” Horizon Hills Country Club in El Paso, Texas, in 1965. Lee Trevino is a poorly paid assistant pro, a young man who until then had been squatting in an abandoned motel with his teenaged wife. A man with enough hustle in him to spend a year practicing a trick where he could break par with a 32-ounce bottle of Dr. Pepper. A man after Titanic’s own heart.
According to Cook’s biography, Titanic had tried to recruit Trevino while he was still hustling in Dallas. No dice. Then Titanic made the same proposition to another up-and-comer, named Raymond Floyd. Once again, he passed. The world McCormack was just beginning to create had already come to pass. The siren song of the Tour was now louder and purer than anything Titanic could conjure. Still, Floyd was cocky and Trevino had managed to gain the respect and, more importantly, the bankroll of the rich farmers who had founded Horizon Hills. Titanic may have known he was the last of a dying species, but he could still conjure up one last match, and he convinced Floyd to join him.
Truth and lore get seriously tangled when it comes to the Horizon Hills money matches. From Cook’s account, Trevino shot 63 to Floyd’s 65 on the first day. Then another 63 to Floyd’s 64 on the next. Titanic and Floyd were down $18,000 when they convinced Trevino’s backers to go to a third and final match, this one for $20,000. “The final day was a golf fiesta,” writes Cook. “‘There were pickup trucks bouncing down the fairway full of guys drinking beer and watching our match,’” Trevino told him. The match came down to the last hole, where both men had putts for eagle. Floyd made his. Then Trevino’s horseshoed around the hole and stayed out. “I can still see that putt in my sleep,” Floyd told Cook. “It went down in the cup, went around, came back out and stuck on the lip.” As they shook hands on the final hole of what would become a legendary match, Floyd spoke words to Trevino that may as well have been Titanic’s death knell: “I can make easier money on the Tour.”
He was right, of course—and thanks to McCormack, more right than he could imagine. Therein lies the problem for our romantic version of the golf hustler. They likely still exist, of course. They’ve just gone deep, way underground. There are fewer of them because there are fewer opportunities to make a fortune and many more chances to make an even bigger one on the Tour.
Keith Flatt, a golf pro in Las Vegas who had his own period of memorable hustling, sums up the situation well. Flatt’s life became the movie The Squeeze. It involved a wealthy backer—Benny Binion of Vegas casino fame—and a few tight jams where Flatt thought his life might be on the line. He got out in time, though, in part because he knew the world had changed. “I’ve got a couple really good friends who play on the PGA Tour,” Flatt explained to me. “Scott Piercy is a really close friend of mine. All in, he’s made $20 million, but no one would recognize him.”
The golf hustler used to be a man of such bountiful personality and infamy that even before television was invented admirers could conjure the look and shape of his face. Now, as Flatt so succinctly points out, millionaire golfers are all around us, living in relative anonymity and possibly even happier for it. Maybe the world is better off that way. Maybe it’s not. Maybe a man like Titanic would never want you to mourn him. But one thing we can be sure of, ladies and gentlemen: He made damn sure you didn’t forget him.