Las Vegas Sun

October 21, 2017

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Jack Sheehan recalls the days when the Dunes course played host to some guys who usually weren’t nearly as good at golf as they were at gambling

It's been 28 years this month since I received a magazine assignment to cover a golf tournament at the Dunes Emerald Green course.

The plot of land that the old Dunes course sat on, which now rests peacefully under convention halls and a swimming pool at Bellagio, was hosting a tournament called the PGI.

This competition bore no relation to the major golf championship known as the PGA. Rather its letters stood for the Professional Gamblers Invitational, and it was hosted by Jack Binion and Doyle "Texas Dolly" Brunson, two fellows who knew a fair amount about both golf and gambling.

I knew something about golf, having played the game competitively since I was 9, but what I knew about gambling you could comfortably fit into the head cover of an old 3-wood. I learned quite a bit that week, such as that unless a guy was prepared to lose anywhere from 20 grand to a quarter of a million dollars in 18 holes, he had no business bringing his sticks.

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 exception. If Jack Nicklaus, who was dominating professional golf in the late '70s, choked on a four-foot putt, he didn't have to reach into his Sans-a-belts and fork over the cash. It just meant that he would win less money from Chrysler or United Airlines or whichever company was putting up the prize money.

But if Texas Dolly got a case of the yips in the PGI, the money he lost came right out of the Brunson family cookie jar.

I was intrigued with many of the golfers I met that day. I liked the way they talked, the way they bet, 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," and "finding the choke point." I'd been around competitive golfers all my life, but I learned that gambling golfers were a different breed altogether.

Some of the guys teeing it up that day in 1978 would go on to become legends in gambling circles. There was Bobby "The Owl" Baldwin, who two months earlier had won the World Series of Poker at Binion's Horseshoe. There was Jack "Treetop" Strauss, a poker wizard who looked more like a college professor than a card shark. There was Billy Walters, who was known as a brutally tough competitor at a variety of games, and a guy who could keep a silky putting stroke even with 100 large on the line.

There was Chip Reese, still in his 20s but already regarded as one of the top two or three poker players in the world. There was Puggy Pearson, who earned his moniker by busting up his nose showing off for a girl as a youngster, and then hearing from his parents that they didn't have enough money to get it properly fixed.

And there was Amarillo Slim, whose one-liners kept everyone laughing, e.g., "Some of these boys roar like a forest fire in their hometown for pocket change," he said, "but put a pile of money in front of them and so much dog comes out, the possums go into hiding."

There was also a smattering of what the guys called "talent" lurking around the clubhouse at the Dunes, looking to acquire some of their discretionary income. "True talent," Puggy told me on the final day of the tournament, "is not defined by the ability to hit a 3-iron out of a tight lie to a tucked pin. True talent is a strawberry blonde in a halter top, hot pants, stiletto heels, and a twinkle in her eye."

The biggest licking any golfer took that week at the Dunes course was for $275,000, but it wasn't like there was any heroism involved. "The guy who lost that money couldn't play a lick," Jack Binion told me. "But then neither could the guy who won it."

It's been interesting to follow the careers of many of the guys I met that day as the years have crept forward. Bobby Baldwin is now one of the top executives at MGM Mirage, charged with overseeing the construction of the $7 billion Project City Center in Las Vegas. He earned nearly $40 million last year.

Jack Binion netted over a billion dollars when he sold his privately held gaming company to Harrah's Entertainment in 2004. Billy Walters has built several top golf courses in Las Vegas and is generally recognized as the most successful sports bettor in history. And Doyle Brunson and Chip Reese are certified legends in the ever-growing world of professional poker, a sport which can be found on about six different channels at any hour of the day.

But as well heeled as all of these guys are, they still get fired up about strong action on the golf course. Recently Brunson told me that he is back playing golf, at 73 years old, even with an artificial hip.

"I'm delighted to report that big money golf games are back in Las Vegas," he said. "These new young poker stars like Phil Ivey and Daniel Negreanu have taken up the game, and they'll tee it up for about anything you want to play for."

You should have seen the smile on Doyle's face as he talked about it. You'd have thought he'd just drawn a royal flush in the final hand of a poker tournament.