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Present at the Creation

Only in Vegas: An old idea and the possible birth of a new sport

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There’s no situation in life that can’t be improved by knowing a billionaire. Guillaume Beland discovered that three years ago.

At the time, Beland was frustrated with his day job. The 41-year-old owned a Montreal-based sports-production company that for 15 years had been responsible for the behind-the-scenes work that goes into televising golf tournaments. For 10 of those years, that meant a PGA Canada event; for the last five, a Champions Tour event that had run its course. “There’s only so many times you can ask the local big shot if he wants to play in a pro-am,” Beland says in a heavy French-Canadian accent.

Beland wanted out, but to where he didn’t yet know. Then he played a round at Oakmont, the famed club outside of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that’s hosted nine U.S. Opens. Beland is short and slight but claims to have game, so he was less than pleased when he shot 95. He was much happier with what happened next.

Near sundown, Beland and some members held a putting contest. On the course, Beland had lost badly. But when that course was shrunk down to one small arena bordered entirely by fringe, he emerged victorious. The idea he took away from the experience wasn’t an original one. People who love golf have spent years trying to find a way to break off one part of the game and make it a sport unto itself. But those people didn’t have Beland’s background in television. They didn’t know firsthand the frustration of spending months in preparation for an event, only to have its most consequential moment occur on some far-off corner of the course where there were few spectators or, even worse, few cameras. Like Beland’s game, televised golf gets harder the more ground you have to cover. Make the game smaller and more people can compete. Better yet, more people may want to watch.

Enter the billionaire. How Beland discovered the following fact we’ll never know—he says he doesn’t remember—but somehow he heard that someone with money was looking to spend some of it on a new project.

Guy Laliberté isn’t the most eccentric rich man in the world. According to Forbes, there are, give or take, 448 people alive who are worth more money than him, and some percentage of those people probably have quirks that make his look as strange as a stamp collection. But because he has more money than just about anyone else, Laliberté still does things just about no one else can. 

As the founder of Cirque du Soleil, he made his fortune by looking and acting different. He was a busker, an accordion player and a fire-breather on the streets of Montreal when he first got the idea for a different kind of circus. That idea now employs thousands of people on four continents. It’s also allowed Laliberté to do billionaire things. He made a trip to the International Space Station while wearing a red clown nose; he bought a small chain of islands in French Polynesia where he could, to quote the interview he gave to a Canadian newspaper, “bring people I like and my family…in case of an epidemic or a total war”; he also got really into high-stakes poker. That last obsession led Laliberté to begin hosting a tournament of his own. It’s called the Big One and, at $1 million per entry, it’s the priciest buy-in event in the world. Held annually since 2012 alongside the famous World Series of Poker, the Big One was conceived as a charity event, with part of the proceeds going to One Drop, the foundation Laliberté created to facilitate access to sanitation and safe water in poor countries. That poker obsession also led him to go looking for another splashy way to make money for his nonprofit. And that’s about the time Beland walked off the green at Oakmont with an idea in search of a funder.

Will the MSOP grow into the must-see TV that its organizers envisioned? It’s still too soon to tell. Despite some early challenges, the organizers are doing everything they can to cultivate this into a big-time event. Much will depend on diehards like Jim Palisano continuing to be year-round ambassadors for the event and, perhaps more importantly, young players with interesting personal stories, like Taylor Montgomery, showing up to compete. Either way, the organizers will be working to stack the deck in the MSOP’s favor.

Now it’s late October 2017 in Las Vegas and the thing Beland wanted to happen is actually happening. Between the spark of the idea and the execution, there were the 43 slides he created to pitch Laliberté, the $15 million Laliberté reportedly committed to the project (Beland will confirm only that his benefactor has spent “millions”), 450 qualifier events at 300 different golf courses in roughly 200 cities and the construction of a 20,000-square-foot putting stadium one block off of the Strip. Which is all it really takes to create a new sport from scratch.

In a sea of men in moisture-wicking polos and soft-grip cleats, Beland stands out in his tailored sports coat. He’s in the air-conditioned lobby/sponsor’s shoe store/restaurant that was built, along with everything else, within spitting distance of the monorail that few in Las Vegas actually use, and within another few blocks of the Topgolf franchise that a lot of people definitely use. This is the site of the first Major Series of Putting, known as the MSOP. The acronym is intentionally meant to evoke the World Series of Poker. And the evocation is especially apt because while the Major Series has its origins in golf, its potential as a new sport has a lot more to do with how the World Series went from also-ran to must-watch TV in a matter of just one year. 

The World Series had already been around for 33 years when, in 2003, an unknown named Chris Moneymaker won it all. Moneymaker was a comptroller and part-time waiter in Spring Hill, Tennessee, who mostly competed online, a far cry from the normal card shark that usually dominated the event. 

He had qualified by winning a $39 satellite tournament, which he then turned into $2.5 million in prize money. Moneymaker’s win tripped a siren heard by every other amateur in America, and the effect was immediate: The year after his win, three times as many entrants paid the $10,000 fee to play in the World Series. Moneymaker’s unlikely victory was the official beginning of a mid-2000s poker boom that would, oddly enough, end up directly affecting the outcome of Beland’s inaugural Major Series of Putting, which sought to do something similar. Shrink the course, increase the odds and create a format where golf’s version of a Moneymaker can make his or her name by beating the best and winning a stack of cash.

Through floor-to-ceiling glass windows, Beland and I can look out on the course. There are nine holes on two islands of artificial turf specially designed to withstand the desert sun and dry air. Surrounding the islands are sunken pathways for spectators. Hovering above are a series of lights and speakers that, at night, turn the course into a dance club that just happens to feature putting greens. And there are cameras. Lots of cameras. This is where the genius of Beland’s idea really comes into focus: Nothing is hidden. There’s no chance that any pivotal moment can be missed. As we speak, a TV production company that specializes in golf events is working to record the entire week’s worth of mini tournaments. If things go well, you’ll one day stumble upon the inaugural Major Series while channel surfing late at night. If things go really well, you won’t have to stumble far: Shane Bacon, part of the team that helps broadcast the U.S. Open for Fox (and a Golfer’s Journal contributor), is on the premises and will, within the next 48 hours, interview a man holding a giant check for $75,000—quite possibly more than anyone has ever won in any televised putting-only event.

But right now I’m trying to press Beland for details about something else. The thing that brought everyone here. The thing that every story about Vegas ends up being about.

Earlier, before our conversation here at this table, I had waited for Beland in one of the production trucks that sits just outside view of the cameras. There, one of the dozen fellow French-Canadians organizing the event took a phone call I’d been lucky enough to overhear. “Be here by 11,” the man said to someone on the line. “Yeah, same deal we talked about before.” Then he hung up.

The cameras catch it all. Event organizers created the enclosed Major Series of Putting arena both to heighten the drama and document every putt. They were also looking for stars of the show, and Las Vegas native Taylor Montgomery (center) perfectly fit the bill.

The capitalist quest to convince people that putting was something worth paying money to do hit its peak in America in 1930. In the November issue of Popular Science Monthly, the magazine catalogued the excesses of what it called “America’s newest big industry—miniature golf.” At the time, mini-golf was an economy unto itself, with Popular Science estimating that some 150,000 Americans were directly employed or affected by the craze from “the New Jersey factory that is marketing a ‘miniature golf green paint’ to the men engaged in gathering seaweed, which, after the removal of chemicals, is shipped by hundreds of pounds from Florida to be used as one type of surfacing material for fairways and greens.”

The fad had begun two years earlier when Garnet Carter, the owner of an inn and golf course near Chattanooga, Tennessee, opened a putting-only course where “rock tunnels and hollow logs were the chief obstacles.” Carter would go on to patent the name “Tom Thumb” for his course designs. Soon there was a race to snap up every available bit of vacant land (or roof—many a course was built on top of New York City apartment buildings) and turn it into a course made from discarded cottonseed hulls.

By August 1930, reported the magazine, “the United States Department of Commerce estimated that there were 25,000 courses in the country, and that 15,000 of them had been built since the first of the year.” In a country of roughly 123 million people, Popular Science estimated 3 million were playing mini-golf every day. When it came time to explain why so many Americans were obsessed, the magazine threw up its hands. Sure, it was easy to play and cheap enough for just about anyone to buy a round. But “the exact reasons for the enormous success of the fad are a mystery to everybody, including its promoters.” Especially coming, as it did, just months after Black Tuesday, the largest stock-market crash in history.

Fad it was, though. Oversaturation nearly killed the game and recreational putting took a decades-long slumber. It rewoke after World War II in two very different forms. In Fayetteville, North Carolina, a nervous former insurance salesman took to the idea that what putting needed was an absence of gimmick and an infusion of rigor. It’s too much to assert that Don Clayton invented Putt-Putt to calm his own anxieties, but from the sidelines, that’s exactly what it looks like. Clayton’s form of putting was all about angles and geometric precision. In his lifetime, he obtained copyrights for 108 different hole designs. For a long while, every single ninth hole at every Putt-Putt in America was the same design: 28 feet from tee to cup, with two 3-inch slopes standing in the way. Clayton sold hundreds of franchises and at one point was running a business with annual revenue of $100 million.

Then there were the Lomma brothers. They opened their first mini-golf course in Scranton, Pennsylvania, at the same time that Clayton was sketching out his rigorous designs. Unlike Clayton, the Lomma brothers defined themselves by gimmicks. Alphonse was the mechanical genius who made the machines run; Ralph was the businessman and marketer who first realized that the best way to distinguish his and his brother’s course from competitors was to catch the eye of passersby with whale spouts that actually shot out water when putts dropped and windmill blades that moved and could knock a ball offline. Like Clayton, the brothers also created an empire. Instead of selling franchises, they were a vertically integrated manufacturer; if you wanted to open a mini-golf course in the latter half of the 20th century, the Lomma brothers were a one-stop shop for all your gimmicky needs. They mass-produced more than 5,000 courses, some of which ended up in such far-flung places as Kenya and Vietnam. In The New York Times obit published after Ralph’s death in 2011, his son said the invention his father was most proud of creating was the “insatiable clown’s mouth” that often greeted players at the final hole.

 Outside of Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, which has more than 50 mini-golf courses in the style of the Lomma brothers, America largely sided with Clayton’s approach. Putt-Putt became the Kleenex of putting, the brand name that turned into a stand-in for the original product. It didn’t hurt, too, that Clayton’s version was actually more sport-like. Mini-golf was a fun diversion; Putt-Putt, with a mathematical base that suggested it could be solved, became something you could obsess over. For more than 50 years, Putt-Putt even became its own televised sport.

Jim Palisano saw it all. He began playing competitive Putt-Putt in the 1980s, at age 49. During one event broadcast on ESPN, he won $13,000. A few years before the Major Series was first announced, Palisano moved to Las Vegas for work. Because he was far away from the East Coast, where most tournaments are played, he had to cut back on competitive events. Palisano spent his workweeks at a one-man warehouse that sells the machines and materials used to service Build-a-Bear franchises. Surrounded all day by the unstuffed carcasses of yet-to-be-made novelty bears, he was ecstatic when he discovered that someone was trying to recreate the spirit of Putt-Putt, only with more prize money and within driving distance of his home. “Once I saw this was coming, I knew I wasn’t going to miss any of it,” Palisano tells me in between practice rounds.

Palisano is an ambassador for Putt-Putt. The day I arrived, he was impossible to miss, a bowling ball of a man in a bright-blue custom Buffalo Bills jersey with “JIMBO” emblazoned on the back. Palisano is friends with many of his fellow competitors, so when the details of the Major Series were announced, he became the tournament’s greatest promoter. He spent the entire year beforehand traveling to 35 qualifying events and talking up the tournament to the men—mostly men—he normally competes against. He wanted them to see what he saw: the big opportunity they’d all been waiting their lives for. The chance to actually cash in on this peculiar talent they’d been developing in obscurity. “I was the only one who embraced it,” he says. “Everyone else was skeptical.” Most skeptical of all were the Swedes.

European Putt-Putt is its own animal. The oldest mini-golf federation in the world began in Sweden in 1937, inspired by the American boom that would soon go bust. If American Putt-Putt players compete for quarters, their European counterparts chase pennies. The money isn’t there, but in its place is a sort of camaraderie that the American version lacks. In a parody of continental stereotypes, the Europeans are far more likely to compete in teams, often formed among men who live in the same town and have been playing together in weeknight games for decades. Mostly, though, the difference comes down to the ball, which in Europe could, depending on a player’s preference, resemble a smooth, lacquered orb rather than the normal dimpled sphere found in America. Some of those Europeans, like the Swedes Palisano was referring to, occasionally come to America to compete, which is how he came to know three of them: Anders Olsson, Ricard Lockner and Gunnar Bengtsson. They were more skeptical than most for very practical reasons. Unlike Palisano, they couldn’t just drive to a qualifying tournament. Palisano knew this. So every week for a year he drove to the 10th floor of the Planet Hollywood parking deck that overlooks the site where the Major Series arena was being built. Then he took a picture and posted it on Facebook to prove to the Swedes, and everyone else, that they wouldn’t be wasting their time or money by buying plane tickets and paying to enter this new tournament.

 Palisano is a good story. The Swedes are interesting too. To really succeed, though, the MSOP will need better stories. The sorts of stories that play well on TV. The sorts of stories that transcend the amateurism of a game born at a rural Tennessee inn and make it feel as if it were an actual sport with an actual future, and actual stars worth rooting for. Sitting in a chair next to Palisano and the Swedes, and currently sitting in first place, is the man who might be that story.

The most expensive golf course in Las Vegas is Shadow Creek. The Tom Fazio design costs $500 to play and is the sort of place that attracts people with money and a desire for more. It’s where Taylor Montgomery learned the game.

Montgomery is 22, broad-shouldered and guileless in a way that’s unexpected of someone who grew up in a city overflowing with the stuff. His father, Monte, is the general manager at Shadow Creek, where Taylor came of age at a time when the city’s apex predator—the high-stakes poker player—was flush with cash and looking for new ways to gamble.

Poker players have been wagering their own money on golf for years. But in the mid-2000s, post–Moneymaker boom, there was a renaissance of high-stakes games, many of which were played at Shadow Creek. Some of the money came from the rush of online amateurs ready and willing to put up their own money on sites like Full Tilt, which paid millions to poker stars to serve as sponsors. Some of those stars then took up golf and brought to it the obsession, not to mention the money, they’d previously kept mostly confined to felt tables. It would all go away in 2012 when Full Tilt’s owners were arrested, the site was labeled a Ponzi scheme by the federal government and some $730 million in fines were paid. But during its height, Montgomery learned to play at the course most closely associated with the mania.

If there’s a way to modestly imply that you’re a cold-blooded assassin on the golf course, Montgomery has found it. As we talk, he tells me about life growing up at Shadow Creek, which he’s the first to admit was “not normal.” Montgomery watched as the men he caddied for wagered up to $100,000 per hole. When he was 12, he saw poker legend Phil Ivey win $1 million on a single hole, Shadow Creek’s ninth. The next day, Ivey drove into the parking lot in a brand-new Mercedes-McLaren, threw Montgomery the keys and said, “Take it for a spin.” It’s a testament to Montgomery’s level-headedness that given the opportunity to live out the fantasy of a lot of American teenagers, he declined. (Or maybe it’s a testament to his father’s good sense as a parent, since he was standing right there and laughed at the idea of his not-yet-teenaged son destroying the gear shift on a half-million-dollar car.) 

Level-headed or not, Montgomery didn’t just watch the action. “Sometimes you’ve got to put what you have out on the table,” he says. Montgomery politely declines to get into specifics, citing the fact that doing so might imperil the four years he spent 

playing golf at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. (“The NCAA is a joke,” he also says, correctly.) From the casual way he explains his background, however, it’s clear that Montgomery was raised to succeed in the high-pressure moments the Major Series is meant to replicate.

I’d first seen Montgomery play the night before, when he set a new course record of 8 under. Unlike a lot of competitors, who seemed to think there was an advantage in dressing for a real round of golf, Montgomery was wearing a white tee and sneakers. His build and his stroke made it obvious that he was an athlete. Less obvious was what was going on inside his head. After every hole, an excitable, shaggy haired man who had the tan and mannerisms of an aging ski bum strained to lean over the small wall separating spectators from players and whispered into Montgomery’s ear. Whenever the man whispered, Montgomery laughed. Curious, I turned to someone who seemed to be in the Montgomery posse—a collection that would at times include his mom, dad and sister—and asked who the guy was. “His mental coach,” came the answer, which sounded vaguely sarcastic.

 If Montgomery seemed like a fascinating enigma the night before, our conversation in the daylight made it clear that he was actually just a talented player who won despite, not because of, the ski bum. The guy’s name was Layne Flack, a friendly if notorious pro poker player.

Flack had won and lost millions during his career. He was an addict, first with booze, then with ecstasy and, eventually, most dangerously, with crystal meth. It had taken a $60,000 check from fellow poker star Daniel Negreanu—another golf junkie who was also competing at the Major Series—to help get Flack clean and sober. From the look of Flack’s antics the night before, those days were sadly long gone. Just in case there was any doubt, Flack approached Montgomery as he and I were talking and, interrupting, told him he’d found “the formula”—the right mixture of booze, weed and pills, Flack said to Montgomery and everyone within a 10-foot radius, to keep him on an even keel. The supposedly even-keeled Flack then turned and giggled and shimmied his way back to the bar, where two Coronas were waiting. When I turned back to Montgomery, I told him it was amazing that he’d grown up to be so exceedingly normal in a city that attracts people who are very much not. “Thanks,” he said, laughing. “It’s pretty easy to figure out what not to do.”

At that moment, Montgomery was in an enviable position. In a week’s worth of events, he was leading for one of the richest purses. After five rounds of the six-round Stroke Play Championship, Taylor had a 4-stroke lead. If he held on, he was due to win $75,000, which is why it came as a surprise when he joked that he might try to lose on purpose.

Unlike Palisano the Putt-Putt ambassador, Montgomery hadn’t spent the previous year traveling around the country to try to win his way in. In fact, he’d only really gotten the idea to compete, he told me, a few days before the tournament began, when his dad suggested he join a last-minute qualifier. Montgomery did. But because he hadn’t practiced on the artificial turf that beguiled many players used to natural grass, he missed by one spot. If he wanted to play, he would have to pay the entrance fees required of everyone else, some of which were as high as $5,000.

Montgomery had the money. He also had the resources to find a backer if he didn’t want to pay the whole fee himself. The idea of being “staked” was not a new one for a young man who’d grown up playing at Shadow Creek. But it turned out that none of that was necessary. 

Shortly after he missed out on the qualifier, Montgomery told me, an organizer of the event pulled him aside and made him an offer: He could enter any one of the events he wanted to play in that week. The entrance fees would be covered. The only catch was that he had to sign a contract stipulating that 80 percent of his winnings would go back to an unnamed sponsor who wanted to back him. The deal had sounded good to him the day before. Now, two days later, and on the eve of winning $75,000, it sounded less good. The joke about throwing the event came because Montgomery realized it’d be more profitable to conspire with the second-place finisher to split the purse than to give up 80 percent of what he would win by coming in first. “I’m thinking I might try to renegotiate,” Montgomery told me. Then he asked me where he could find the organizer. Looking over his shoulder, I spotted Beland standing outside in his sports coat and pointed in that direction.  

Before he left, I asked Montgomery if he was the only one who had received the offer. He told me no. In fact, every competitor he knew personally—a former teammate at UNLV, a woman who had once competed on the Golf Channel reality show “Big Break,” and a few others—had signed the same contract. Suddenly the conversation I’d overheard earlier in the production trailer—“Be here by 11.…Same deal.”—made sense. As did the fact that the current event, which the MSOP’s organizers had opened up to 100 competitors, had only 65 entrants. Beland and his team were trying to fill slots; their unnamed sponsor was trying to back a winner. And both had gotten what they were after. 

The next night, Montgomery tees off after 10 p.m. in the last round of the stroke play. In the previous few days, the course has always featured some combination of players and spectators milling about. There was always something happening in the arena, but it wasn’t always clear what was at stake. Now, however, there is only one focus. 

Montgomery’s playing partner is a young pro named Chris Johnson who wears a polo covered with the logo of a pricey new vodka. A frustrated Montgomery pars his first nine holes while Johnson cuts his lead down to two. Despite the presence of three dozen spectators, the arena is mostly silent. For the first time all weekend, the Major Series of Putting feels like the hold-your-breath event its creators intended it to be.

Still up two and playing the relatively long 16th hole, Montgomery misses a short comebacker. It’s by far the shortest putt I’ve seen him miss all weekend, and suddenly the just-graduated collegiate star with the easy smile and easier laugh looks serious. Johnson pars, the camera operator working atop the big crane on the north side of the arena veers down for close-ups and it’s a one-shot lead with two to play. The drama ends just moments later. On the 17th, one of the shortest holes on the course, Johnson’s effort dies on the left edge. Montgomery makes his putt. A routine two-putt on the 18th and the guy who entered on a lark is now champion. 

There’s no telling what the MSOP will become. If you’d been a spectator, you might have your doubts about the future of putting as its own sport. The crowds were thin and even in just one arena the action was spread out and sometimes difficult to follow. But TV has a way of smoothing things over. Of making the narrative look airtight. Of turning something hectic and frayed into a great story that fits seamlessly in between commercials. Certainly whatever skepticism existed among the competitors disappeared in a flurry of large checks: By week’s end, the three Swedes will have cashed, collectively, nearly $180,000 in prize money, more than enough to justify the long plane flight, a week’s stay at a Vegas hotel and the high entrance fees. “Oh yeah, we’ll be back,” says Bengtsson when I ask him if the crew will return. “And there will probably be more of us.” Palisano is even more assured of the building momentum. “This year I got maybe 10 of my guys to come,” he says. “Next year it’ll be 30 to 50.”

The image that will stick, though, is the one that ends the night: that of Montgomery beaming while holding a novelty check of his own. No one watching will know that he won’t actually take home the vast majority of that money. Or that the man smiling next to him in the sports coat had earlier convinced him to sign over most of it to a still-unnamed sponsor. When pressed on the contract later, Beland will insist on something that’s undoubtedly true. “Golfers have looked for ‘sponsors’ to finance their quests for a PGA Tour card for ages,” he writes in an email. “There will always be sponsors available to help athletes with talents.” 

Where the Major Series goes from here is unknowable. The fact that the temporary arena where the inaugural event was held seems likely, thanks to what Beland says are successful negotiations with the landowners, to become a permanent fixture just off the Strip suggests it may be the beginning of something big. As does the fact that veterans like Palisano, who’ve seen variations on the idea come and go, are more excited for what the Major Series could become than even the people behind the event. All that can be known at this point is that those who traveled to Las Vegas to start a new sport largely pulled it off. In the ultimate homage to their host city, they also may have done an even better job of hedging their bets.