On another flawless afternoon in Palm Beach, Fla., Susan Markin breaks out a golf ball emblazoned with the image of a man who bilked her for more than a million bucks. The man's face, smug and shameless, has haunted Markin lately, smirking from the covers of magazines and tabloids, smiling wanly for the cameras on the evening news. It is the unrepentant face of financial scandal, and Markin can't shake it. It has even tracked her to the tee box, imprinted as a logo on her ball, which Markin acquired as a gag gift from a friend. "Part of me wants to laugh, but mostly I'm just sickened," she says.
Markin waggles her driver and uncoils into impact, smashing the ball, and with it the dimpled mug of Bernard L. Madoff. "They say to trust your swing," she says. "But it's hard to know what else you can trust these days."
As the summer golf season kicks into gear, a similar lament echoes across many of the country's poshest clubs, where fallout from history's largest Ponzi scheme has struck particularly close to home. Of the thousands of investors swindled by financier Bernie Madoff, scores were golfers, as was the scam's architect himself. Through his own memberships, and those of associates who wrangled investors for him, Madoff enjoyed access to swank private clubs in Florida, New York, Boston and beyond. He used their grounds to prey on the game's fat cats, whose trust (and trusts) was the lifeblood of his ploy. Some of Madoff's alleged victims were household names, including four-time major winner Raymond Floyd, whose name appears on a list of Madoff clients that was released as part of a court filing. But most were merely wealthy, pursuing their pastime in privileged anonymity on the same fairways where Madoff chased his ball.
For many of these clubs, already staggered by a deepening recession, the scandal hit like a body blow. Up and down the East Coast, club members have resigned in droves, some casualties of the economy but many of them cleaned out by a man who'd changed his spikes beside them in their locker rooms. Last December, days after Madoff confessed, management at Glen Oaks Country Club on Long Island (where Madoff's brother, Peter, was a member and Madoff himself played) called an emergency meeting at which some 20 members resigned on the spot, according to a veteran club pro with knowledge of Glen Oaks. (The club did not return several phone calls seeking comment.) At North Shore Country Club, another Long Island haunt full of Madoff investors, membership has reportedly plummeted from 175 to 110 in the wake of the scandal, driving speculation that the 95-year-old club might not live to see its 100th birthday. And at Palm Beach Country Club in Florida, the club hardest hit by the scheme, staff responded to news of the scandal by stripping Madoff's name from his locker and shipping his sticks to his New York penthouse — small consolation to members who reportedly could no longer afford their dues.
"It's hard to overestimate the impact that this has had on the golf world," says Casey Alexander, a senior golf-industry analyst at Gilford Securities in New York. "If you talked to members of almost any high-end club, you'd find someone who was affected, or who knows someone who was."
If the scale of Madoff's scheme stands unrivaled, the spirit of it is not unique. In plundering golf's riches, Madoff placed himself in the company of other prominent scam artists whose purportedly shady dealings have only recently come to light. In 2008, Minnesota businessman Tom Petters was indicted for his suspected role in a $3.5 billion Ponzi scheme that tapped country clubbers from Chicago to St. Paul. Not to be outdone, Sir Allen Stanford, a knighted Texas financier whose close ties to the PGA Tour included sponsorship deals with Vijay Singh, Camilo Villegas and the Tiger Woods Foundation, stands accused of making off with $8 billion. Tour pro Henrik Stenson is among those wondering where his money is. "Not all my money," Stenson told a reporter in February. But "quite a big part" of his personal wealth.
The full toll that Madoff took on golf may never be known. The tally so far registers in grim estates: a staggering $1 billion-plus purportedly swindled from the membership of Palm Beach CC; a reported $100 million from those at Hillcrest and Oak Ridge country clubs in Minnesota; and on. But the damage to the game can't be measured in dollars alone. In his wide-ranging betrayal, Madoff not only stole a fortune, he frayed the social fabric from which golf is stitched. His still-unraveling scheme has left some players questioning the sense of trust supposedly inherent among golfers, and others contemplating the cruel irony of having joined clubs that were built to keep the riffraff out, only to discover that the worst kind of riffraff was already in.
"It's like incest," Susan Markin says. "There's a sense of pain and shame, and it's all the more intense because this awful thing was done to you by someone you knew."