LAS VEGAS — Do you possess a silky putting stroke, nerves of steel and a stack of cash you’re willing to lay on the line? Do we have the event for you.
Meet the Major Series of Putting (MSOP), a series of 10 cash tournaments over 10 days just off the Las Vegas Strip, with entry fees ranging from $250 for 36-hole "turbo" tournaments to $11,000 for the celebrity-event grand finale. Visa and Mastercard accepted.
It's golf’s answer to the World Series of Poker, the popular card tournament that ESPN runs on a loop every spring. Part of poker’s allure is that the everyman has a shot at vanquishing competitors while winning a titanic amount of money through both card-playing skill and marvelous luck.
Unlike the poker tournament, the MSOP isn’t being staged on a stuffy casino floor—it’s at a spectacular 20,000-square-foot circular putting "stadium," with lights that twinkle against the Vegas cityscape and 18 holes of pristine synthetic turf, plus a four-hole "playoff course" to settle any 18th-hole ties. At this temporary site, there are also indoor and outdoor bars, a practice area, a two-story glass-walled clubhouse, a skills-game area, and a giant scoreboard tracking tournament action in real time. Augusta National it's not, but it feels major.
"Obviously when you start something new, you think about growing it over the course of five or six years, but we have the backing and the vision, and we wanted to really go for it," says Guillaume Beland, MSOP’s president and general manager. As he spoke on a clear Vegas night, competitors from around the world stroked putts on state-of-the-art surfaces in front of him. Beland’s grand vision has only just begun.
The MSOP was first conceived by Montreal native Guy Laliberté, who founded Cirque du Soleil and was also involved with the World Series of Poker. He recently sold most of his stake in Cirque, conceived the MSOP and hired Beland, his friend and fellow Montrealer, to run it. The businessmen knew they needed golf connections to get their idea off the ground. They set their sights on one of the game’s most respected putters.
"We were all grouped together in a pro-am in Quebec City three ago," says Brad Faxon, who competed in the MSOP’s pros-only event while also playing the role of tournament host. "They knew about my reputation as a good putter, and they sold me on the idea. I also introduced them to a lot of golf companies."
With Faxon aboard as the face, preparations moved ahead. The MSOP launched last summer with a series of regional qualifying tournaments for spots in the fields this week in Vegas. More than 1,000 competitors, pros and ams alike, made the trip to Sin City.
The MSOP’s 18-hole putting track was installed by Jack Nicklaus’ design company. Beland fondly recalls making his pitch to the Golden Bear. "I just called his firm and ended up flying to Palm Beach for a meeting. Jack walks in and says, ‘So, what are we working on today?'" The temporary stadium cost MSOP $2.2 million, and Beland has plans to install permanent structures around the U.S., Vegas included. He’s plotting more than just a single tournament—he wants to launch a tour.
"We have a ranking system, and we have a database with thousands of players," he says. "Yesterday we had people coming from all over, as far as Sweden. Like the World Series of Poker, we want to make dreams come true."
Those dreams aren’t just for the competitors. The stadium course is open to the public each morning, and for $35 anyone can come give it a spin. There are also side games for spectators, including one contest where for 20 bucks, everyday hackers can attempt successive putts from 20, 30 and 50 feet. Make all three on the first try, and you win a cool $100,000. (As of Wednesday, no one had claimed that prize.)
The MSOP is a feel-good event in a city that needs one. Just down the street sits the Mandalay Bay hotel, where less than a month ago Stephen Paddock shattered a window in his room and fired machine-gun rounds into a country music festival across the street, killing 59 and injuring more than 500. This week’s putting tournament was originally slated to be staged near the site of that concert. Beland and the MSOP team shifted the venue’s location, but decided not to move the dates.
"I landed here the day that happened," Beland says. "I saw the community gather and come together. I felt like the mood was that the people wanted to grieve, but not let it affect how they live. We went along with that."
This week the PGA Tour is in town for the Shriners Hospitals for Children Open. A few players popped over to enter MSOP’s pros-only tournament, a two-day event that offered a $15,000 grand prize for a $1,000 entry fee. Music played as the competitors circled the course, but the vibe was mellow. Admission was free, but there were only a few dozen spectators, mostly fellow competitors, plus friends and family. Many players were teaching pros or competitors on the Web.com and Symetra tours (yes, the ladies and gents go head-to-head here). An emcee announced players on the 1st tee and occasionally chimed in with commentary. ("We call No. 3 the ‘DMV’ because no one wants to deal with it!" he once quipped into his microphone.) The holes ranged from 12 to 50 feet, and each played as a par 2. There were no sideboards, windmills or clowns' mouths.
"It’s not like a Treasure Island putt-putt course—it’s hard. I four-putted the 9th hole, and I’m playing a PGA Tour event this week," said Sam Ryder, a Tour rookie. "I had no idea what to expect when I came over here, but it’s been great. And this is serious cash."
Ryder failed to reach the 16-player match-play portion of the pros-only putting tournament, but earlier in the week the Benjamins were flying. A $5,000 entry-fee event drew 66 players, with a 22-year-old ex-UNLV golfer named Taylor Montgomery taking first place and $75,000.
On Monday and Tuesday evening, men and women competed against one other in the pros-only event. Faxon’s Tour buddies John Cook and Tommy Armour III were in the field. So were Kyle Thompson and Colt Knost, who joined Ryder from the Shriners. The final rounds were staged Tuesday evening, where players went head-to-head in 18-hole match play to determine the champ.
As the sun slowly set over the Strip, Faxon KO’d Armour 2 and 1 in a quarterfinal, but Knost clipped Faxon in the semis. In the championship, a little-known pro from Longmont, Colo., named Cole Nygren, who wore khaki shorts and boat shoes, made three aces on the back nine and took down Knost 3 and 2. Nygren graduated from Cal Poly earlier this year and recently fell short in his attempt to qualify for the Web.com tour. The $15,000 payday was the biggest check he’d ever won.
"It’s just incredible," he said. "I had no expectation to win with so many PGA Tour guys and veterans in the field. I’m taking this money and I’m going to use it to enter a bunch of tournaments."
Perfect. Because if there’s one thing to be learned at this competition, it’s that there’s nothing more fun than betting on yourself.