I’d rolled—and missed—half a dozen 10-footers when I first heard him: “Ah, so close.” The voice came from about 20 feet away; it was soft yet masculine, without a trace of malice. I turned and fake-smiled in his direction to acknowledge that yes, jerk, I hadn’t made anything. He resumed putting his lone ball.
I kept putting and kept missing. There he was again, like a whisper: “Too hard. Too much.” He was right.
It was a little strange, but not the first time I’d dealt with unwanted spectators on a public putting green. His unsolicited play-by-play went on for several minutes; I began listening to his putts, and the Old Man, as we’ll call him, was making his fair share. When the commentary turned into what felt like snide chuckles, I’d finally had enough. I grabbed a ball and marched over to my critic: “Let’s play a few holes.”
That was my first mistake.
Aside from its claim of being the boyhood home of Tiger Woods, there’s nothing remarkable about the Navy Golf Course in Cypress, California. It’s not the kind of place that’ll buy its way onto a top-100 list or be praised on golf blogs for its architectural merit. It’s your stock public golf club, complete with restaurant, driving range and putting green. For a few years, I maintained an office in nearby Garden Grove, with Navy’s facilities often serving as a lunchtime oasis away from spreadsheets and sales reports.
Mondays were always a madhouse at work, but Tuesdays, specifically during football season, could be especially tough. That’s when the debts came due and I paid any weekend gambling losses to Gino, the assembly line lead and company bookie, who made just over $20 an hour yet drove a Mercedes S550. This meant I often found myself clearing my head at the Navy practice ground before paying up.
On the Tuesday when I met the Old Man, I owed Gino $300—primarily because Oregon had missed an 11.5-point cover against Arizona State by the dreaded half-point hook. I had Gino’s cash and an extra $22 in my wallet. The idea was to roll some putts during lunch hour with my Tad Moore TM 4 before heading to the production plant to settle up.
The Old Man changed those plans. He was at least 65 years old, weathered and a portly 5’6″ at best. He had vivid eyes like I had never seen before: shimmering gray, almost cobalt blue. They were striking and gave me pause; it was as if he’d already lived 100 lives. He was dressed like a Goodwill regular. I suspected he was Vietnamese, though his wild eyes had me unsure. But it hardly mattered: He quickly accepted my offer.
“Whatever you like,” he said with a light accent and a smile.
Whatever I like?! Did this old-timer know who he was dealing with? I am by no means Brad Faxon, but at the time I was defending back-to-back champion of the company work league and a steady 3-ish handicap. The lights, especially at Navy, were most certainly not too bright for me. I pointed to a hole some 20 feet away. Mistake No. 2.
We tied the first hole. Probably best to let him hang around for a while, I figured. A few more holes passed without fireworks, but I could tell he was good. He possessed a steady stroke that required little thought or time. He saw his lines and went. After feeling each other out, I said the words that bring this story to your page: “Let’s play this one for a dollar.”
“Whatever you like.”
I knew that he knew those words were coming. And I knew he wasn’t going to flinch.
One dollar became $2, $2 became $5, tens turned into twenties, and within 30 minutes the Old Man and his leather-wrapped Bulls Eye were up $100 of Gino’s money and $22 of my own. The worst part? His soft, dulcet words of faux encouragement never stopped. “Good effort,” he would say to each miss. “You’re a fine putter, young man,” as he won hole after hole.
Toward the end of the shellacking, my mind went to the 1986 classic The Color of Money and the timeless scene where Eddie Felson (Paul Newman) gets hustled by young Amos (Forest Whitaker.) Eddie opens hot, but eventually gets roped in. Before he knows it, he’s playing double or nothing and losing again, and again, and again. “You a hustler, Amos?” asks a crestfallen Eddie. Amos never answers. He didn’t have to. A tiger knows its stripes.
I should have known better. I was raised around hustlers like Eddie and Amos. I knew the Old Man had stripes when the first “Whatever you like” rolled off his thin, wind-chapped lips. I saw him for what he was and wanted the action regardless. I thought I was the predator. Not on this day. Salty, I paid the Old Man $122 and headed to the parking lot.
I wasn’t more than 10 feet away when he spoke again, this time in a different, sharper tone: “Double or nothing.” It wasn’t a question. It was a direct challenge, and this time it was me who knew it was coming.
He let me pick the hole and I went for a 25-footer with a little right-to-left break—a putt I knew well. Dead center. Predictably, the Old Man canned his reply. “Next hole is $200,” he said. I put my foot down.
“No, we agreed on $100. We keep playing for $100 until somebody wins a hole.”
“Whatever you like.”
He looked right through me with those steely eyes and I knew it was over. Less than a minute later, he won with a perfectly paced 10-footer. He took my last $100 shortly after that. I was cleaned out.
Walking to the parking lot—for real this time—I recounted all the tenets of golf gambling I had broken that my father had taught me in the fast and furious Minneapolis muni scene of the early ’80s. First, I was goaded into the original bet. Then I chased bad bets with more bad bets. Even worse, I came back to the action after I’d walked away. Worst of all, I let the sharp see how much money was in my wallet when I paid the first bet. “If they see how much you have, the good ones will take it all,” my dad once told me.
The Old Man took my $322 because he knew it was there. That’s what players like Eddie and Amos and the Old Man do. They charm you, they sweet-talk you and, in the end, they take everything. And therein lies the hallmark of the true hustler: The great ones don’t chase. They lay back in the cut and wait for the prey to come to them.
I sulked to the ATM and made good with Gino later in the day, then rushed back to Navy, hoping the last hours of sunlight would provide a rematch. No sign of the Old Man. I returned the next day and the day after that, but he never showed. I asked about him in the pro shop, but nobody knew him. I wondered where he went and where he came from—if he came from anywhere at all.
In the decade since, I’ve made a hundred trips to that putting green with a few extra dollars and a mission to settle the score, to no avail. The Old Man is gone. He doesn’t need to answer.