Golf’s Greatest Hustler: Titanic Thompson

December 14, 2010

(Excerpted from 'Titanic Thompson: The Man Who Bet on Everything' by Kevin Cook.)

He blew into town like a rogue wind that lifted girls’ skirts and turned gamblers’ pockets inside-out. Tall and thin with a bland mask of a face, he had close-set eyes that looked a little dead, at least until he offered you a bet. Then those dark eyes sparked and he smiled like he had good news.

“Are you a gambling man?” he’d ask. “Because I am.”

Alvin was his name, but nobody called him that. They called him “Titanic.”

Titanic Thompson — a made-up name for a self-made man who won and lost millions of dollars playing cards, dice, pool, golf, horseshoes, and anything else he could think of to bet on. He also married five women, each a teenager on her wedding day, and killed five men, all in self-defense. (While most of Titanic’s victims were hardened criminals, one was a teenage caddie who had tried to rob the gambler at gunpoint hours after one of his money matches.)

In the years between world wars, Titanic motored from town to town in a two-ton Pierce-Arrow, living by his wits and reflexes. He carried his tools in the trunk: left- and right-handed golf clubs, a bowling ball, horseshoes, a shotgun, and a suitcase full of cash. He conned Al Capone out of $500. And he double-crossed Arnold Rothstein, the crime boss who fixed the 1919 World Series.

He was America’s original proposition gambler, always on the move, one step ahead of his prey and the law — and he did some of his best work from tee to green. He hustled country-club golfers for $20,000 a hole while elite pros like Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson were earning $10,000 a year. He once drove a ball more than 500 yards. “The best shotmaker I ever saw,” Hogan said. “Right- or left-handed, you can’t beat him.”

In the 1930s and 40s, even the most upstanding golf professionals played money matches on the side. In 1934 several members of Ridgelea Country Club in Fort Worth, Texas, put up $2,000 to back rising star Byron Nelson against Titanic. “I told them I wasn’t a gambler,” Nelson recalled. “They said, ‘We’ll do the gambling. You just play.’ “

The 22-year-old Nelson, who would go on to win five majors, shot 69 to Ti’s 71. He thought he had won. “I was pleased with my play,” Nelson said. Later he discovered that Titanic had dickered with Nelson’s backers before the match and convinced them to spot him three shots.

Nelson admired Titanic’s talents, as did two other golf greats: Hogan and Sam Snead. Hogan would recall Ti’s knack for working the ball — slicing or hooking a shot around a tree, or punching the ball between bunkers to a rock-hard green. The hustling Snead called Ti “golf’s greatest hustler,” a title that might have required as much skill as being the game’s best tournament player.

Nelson, shortly before his death in 2006, said there was “no question” that Titanic could have excelled on Tour, “but he didn’t have to. He was at a higher level, playing for $25,000 a nine while we played for $150.” Twenty years older than the Hall of Fame threesome, Ti was a golfer from another time who still called his 9-iron a niblick and referred to backspin as “English,” as if the green were a pool table. He wasn’t inclined to report to a course at 7 in the morning three or four days in a row in hopes of winning $1,000, even if he could add another thousand in side bets as Snead and Hogan often did. For reasons of temperament and timing — his prime came just before the Tour’s purses began to grow — Titanic was the last great player to ignore tournament golf.

He seldom trusted skill alone. The great poker player Johnny Moss, who hustled golf on the side, once bet a man $5,000 that he could shoot 45 or better for nine holes using only a 4-iron. Titanic appeared out of nowhere and bet $3,000 against Moss. “They didn’t know it, but I’d practiced for days with that 4-iron,” Moss remembered. “I’d even given the greenkeeper a hundred to keep the cups where I liked them.”

On the first hole Moss missed a three-foot putt. The same thing happened on the next hole — his ball was heading for the cup when it veered off. Moss realized that someone had tampered with the cups. (It was easy, Ti admitted later: “You just reach a pocket knife under the rim of the steel cup-liner and lift it a little.”) So Moss sent a friend to the third green to step on the hole and push the liner back down. “Ti’s conniver is on the fourth green raising ’em up and my man’s on the third stomping ’em back down,” Moss said. “It went on like that for a hole or two, till Titanic stepped out of the crowd.

I said, ‘So it was you?’ Ti just grinned. I told him I’d call off my man if he called off his. I shot 41 and took all the bets.”

After that Titanic and Moss teamed up to beat other golfers out of sums ranging up to $100,000. In one legendary match Ti employed a trick that was the conceptual opposite of the one he had used on Moss. He had been thinking about those steel cup-liners, asking around until he found a handyman who helped him rig a car battery and jumper cables to magnetize a few of them. They planted magnetic liners in the last three greens of a course Ti was about to play. He had a $25,000 match set up for the following day, and brought a new box of First Flight golf balls.

“Titanic’s putts kept sucking right into the hole,” said gambler Rudy Durand, who saw the trick years later. “Those First Flight balls had steel centers.”

Titanic played most of his golf at Dallas’s rough-and-tumble Tenison Park, where the city maintained a pair of sun-blistered public courses flanked by thousands of pecan trees. Gamblers called it “Hustlers’ Park” because the action never stopped. “You could always find a money game at Tenison,” said a PGA Tour pro who knew the place.

During the 1960s, Titanic spent long afternoons on the practice putting green. At 70 he was too creaky and weak off the tee to break par anymore, a condition that irked him. He kept busy by betting he could break 80 left- or right-handed.

Around this time Titanic and a few others invented cross-country golf. Teeing off from one course, he and some Texans known as Moron Tom, Cecil the Parachute, and Magoo played across streets, fences, front yards, parking lots, and the odd highway ramp, holing out after 30 or 40 or 100 swings on a different course two or three miles away. Ti always won. Some said he went part of the way by bus.

He also crossed paths with hustlers he dismissed as gimmick golfers. One was LaVerne Moore, a 300-pound con man who had joined Titanic on the road 30 years earlier. Moore followed Ti to Los Angeles in the Thirties and skinned movie-colony golfers. Calling himself “The Mysterious Montague,” he made his name by hustling 2-handicapper Bing Crosby for $5 a hole. Crosby used his full set of clubs while Moore played with a baseball bat, a shovel, and a rake. On the last hole Moore raked in a birdie putt.

Scammers abounded in the Fifties and Sixties. The next best after Titanic was probably Martin “Fat Man” Stanovich, who looked like a hippo crouching over the ball, but whose steel nerves and miraculous short game made him more than a match for touring pros. Another trickster, Ray Hudson, beat crooner Dean Martin in a $35,000 round in which each man had to down a bottle of vodka. Martin never bothered to check Hudson’s Smirnoff bottle, which was full of water.

The most alluring golf hustler was a Las Vegas mob moll who belted drives while wearing high heels and a bikini. Gamblers distracted by Jeanne Carmen’s 36-25-36 figure missed the pure thwack she put on the ball. A generation later she might have been an LPGA star; instead she tucked hundred-dollar bills into her bikini top after stacking three balls on a tee (a tricky task in itself) and lacing the middle ball 220 yards while the top ball popped up into her hand and the bottom ball sat untouched on the tee.

Titanic might admire Carmen’s three-ball stunt as well as her figure, but he dismissed her and the rest as his imitators. “Bush-leaguers,” he said.

In the Mid-1960s Titanic arranged a high-stakes clash between two up-and-coming pros named Raymond Floyd and Lee Trevino — “the last of the great money matches,” veteran pro Gary McCord later said. Over two days at Horizon Hills Country Club, a dusty track in El Paso, Texas, Titanic and his gambling buddy, Ace Darnell, bankrolled Floyd, and gnashed their teeth as they watched him lose not one but two tightly contested matches to the gritty Trevino. The cost to Titanic and Darnell: 18 grand a piece.

Titanic was livid. “We bring a sports car to race a Model T and get run over!” he told Darnell. Their one hope was to talk Trevino’s backers into a third round for still-higher stakes, a real showdown. But first Ti had to take his man’s measure. He sat Floyd down in a corner of the clubhouse. Floyd hung his head, griping about the cement fairways, the unreadable greens, and the wind.

“Listen here,” Ti said. “You forget all that. There’s times you get yourself down to two choices. You can lose. Or put your head down and play.”

“I can beat him,” Floyd said.

Trevino’s camp agreed to one more round. Titanic wanted to play for $50,000. Trevino’s backers agreed to $20,000, not knowing that he couldn’t cover even that. Down $18,000 already, Ti would be in a fix if Floyd lost. Losers who were slow to make their markers good sometimes “woke up dead,” as he put it.

The final day was a golf fiesta. “There were pickup trucks bouncing down the fairway full of guys drinking beer and watching our match,” Trevino recalled. Truck radios provided a Spanish-music soundtrack as Floyd fired a 31 on the front nine that had Darnell thumping the steering wheel of Ti’s golf cart. Titanic, riding shotgun, had yet to crack a smile. “Got a ways to go,” he said.

Sure enough, Trevino made a late birdie to cut Floyd’s lead to one shot. He birdied again to pull even. They were deadlocked as they stepped to the tee box at the 18th hole, a 556-yard par-5 that was reachable in two shots, thanks to a hard-baked fairway that sent Floyd’s drive bounding and rolling to a stop in a patch of brown grass within 250 yards of the green. Trevino’s shorter drive left him farther back. That meant he would hit next. He lashed a fairway wood shot that zipped past at head height, curled from right to left, and bounced to a stop 15 feet from the hole. The muchachos in their pickup trucks pumped their fists and honked their horns. Floyd was surely snakebit; if Trevino made that eagle putt, Floyd stood to lose even if he birdied the last hole. He reached for his 1-iron.

Head down, Floyd pictured the target, a flagstick with another ball too damn close to it. He swung and struck a low, near-perfect approach that bit the green, skidded, and stopped — a Tour-level shot, almost as good as Trevino’s. Moments later the 18th green was ringed with golf carts, pickup trucks, Horizon Hills golfers, course workers, and other locals who had heard about the match, a rowdy gallery of perhaps a hundred spectators. Some were drunk, others just festive, but everyone and everything — every gambler, dog, crow, and cowboy-hatted truck driver — went quiet as Floyd studied the green between his ball and the cup. After three days at Horizon Hills he knew which way his 20-foot putt would break. He started his ball toward the hole. It rolled for four long seconds and curled into the cup. An eagle!

Those four seconds turned the match upside down. Trevino would have to sink his own 15-foot eagle putt to match Floyd’s 63. If he missed, he would have outplayed the Tour’s golden boy for 53 holes only to lose on the 54th. Trevino eyed his putt from every angle. When he chose his line, he didn’t hesitate; he took his stance, rapped the putt.

The ball horseshoed around the hole. Floyd blinked. “I can still see that putt in my sleep,” he said later. “It went down in the cup, went around, came back out and stuck on the lip.” Trevino looked at his ball in disbelief. Titanic sat up straight in his golf cart. After more than a minute of waiting, with Trevino walking around the hole, peering down from every angle, the ball still refused to drip in. Ti and Darnell clambered from their cart and hugged Floyd. Trevino’s supporters surrounded him, commiserating in Spanish.

Their assistant pro had fought Floyd to a three-day standoff. They loved him more than ever. Floyd worked his way through the crowd to Trevino. The players shook hands as Floyd deployed the only Spanish he knew.

“Adios, amigo,” he said. “I can make easier money on the Tour.”