Golf likes to cast itself as a great game of honor. But its sunny reputation runs against this hard reality: through its history, golf has also drawn its share of despots, murderers and thieves.
Sure, there was Ben Hogan. But there was also Bernie Madoff. Yes, Bryon Nelson played. But so did Kim Jong Il. We could go on. And come to think of it, we will!
Here’s a look at 13 of the most unsavory characters to ever swing a club.
Of the estimated $18 billion Bernie made off with in the largest Ponzi scheme in U.S. history, more than $1 billion came from fellow golfers at private clubs along the East Coast, where the fraudulent financier maintained close ties and, in some cases, his own membership. Madoff’s index was listed as a 9.4, but when the scandal broke, word got out that he hadn’t posted a score in years. It was just another number that was too good to be true.
Oscar Pistorius could always take up golf, right? At least that’s what he’s thinking. A gold-medal winner as a sprinter in the Paralympic Games, Pistorius was recently released from prison. In October 2014 he was sentenced to five years for culpable homicide for killing his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp. The remainder of his term will be under house arrest. The Daily Star reported that, through a source, Pistorius is considering turning to golf since he doesn’t see a future for himself on the track. (The 28-year-old can’t compete in professional athletics during his sentence.) But will we see him anytime soon? Probably not. He’s reportedly an 18 handicap.
Kim Jong Il
Never mind the cartoonish South Park depictions of him. There was nothing comical about Kim (above, right), the so-called Supreme Leader of one of the world’s most murderous regimes. Well, actually, this is kinda funny: in 1994, in his first and only attempt at the game, the North Korean tyrant supposedly fired a 38-under 34 at Pyongyang Golf Club, in a round highlighted by 11 holes-in-one.
Sir Allen Stanford was the formal title of the knighted financier, and did he ever turn out to be a royal sleaze. His umbrella company, the Stanford Financial Group, didn’t merely sponsor a PGA Tour event as well as such top players as David Toms and Vijay Singh. It was also part of a shady business empire through which Stanford perpetrated a multi-billion dollar financial scam. Stanford is currently serving a 110-year prison sentence. Among the investors he bilked was Henrik Stenson, who lost a reported $8 million to Stanford’s scheme.
The genocidal Romanian despot met his death by firing squad in 1989. Years before that, in the early 1970s, he met his match on the golf course when he played–and lost–an 18 hole exhibition against another national leader. Ceausescu’s opponent? Richard M. Nixon, who claimed not to be a crook but, in the eyes of many, was.
Before being implicated in the grisly Brentwood double-murder to which his name will forever be linked, Simpson was a member in good standing at nearby Riviera Country Club. Nowadays, of course, he spends his time at a less prestigious institution: Lovelock Correction Center in Nevada, where he’s serving a 33-year sentence for multiple felonies, including armed robbery and kidnapping.
Adolf Hitler had countless yes-men. One was Henkell, aka “the golf fuhrer,” the scion of a wealthy wine-making family who served as president of the German Golf Union. In the early 1930s, in preparation for a propagandist amateur golf tournament held in Germany in advance of ’36 Berlin Olympics, Henkell toured the eastern seaboard of the United States, visiting marquee country clubs along the way. Among the luminaries who welcomed him was Augusta National co-founder Bobby Jones (above, left), seen here posing with Henkell on the hallowed Georgia grounds.
The notorious Chicago mob-boss had deadly aim. Just not on the golf course. “He played a terrible game,” one of Capone’s regular caddies recalled in a 1972 Sports Illustrated article. “He could drive the ball half a mile, but he hooked it and he couldn’t putt for beans.” Of the gangster’s many wayward shots, the most painful was the time a revolver in his golf bag discharged accidentally. The bullet lodged in Capone’s foot.
A Depression-era outlaw as notorious as he was elusive, Dillinger robbed dozens of banks and four police stations, and escaped from jail not once but twice. One story tells how he evaded capture on a Minnesota golf course, abandoning his clubs as FBI agents approached and making his getaway on a train.
Even his worst drives weren’t as crooked as the Beltway lobbyist himself, who relied heavily on golf as part of the illicit influencing-peddling to which he pleaded guilty in 2006. Among the boondoggles he funded with his client’s money was a $70,000 trip to St. Andrews in 2000, where Abramoff pegged it at the Old Course with his longtime buddy, then House majority leader Tom DeLay.
Walter “Puggy” Pearson
“The only way to beat Puggy was to get to his ball before he did,” a fellow gambler once said of Pearson, a three-time World Series of Poker champion and an unrepentent golf course cheat. No matter the stakes, Pearson flogged the rules so shamelessly that his opponents knew to keep close watch on him. Not that Puggy ever changed his foot-wedge ways. Once, after being caught improperly repositioning his ball, in a move that cost him several thousand dollars, Pearson offered up this version of remorse: “Sorry,” he told one of the men who’d backed him. “I couldn’t help myself.”
As if his brutal, corrupt dictatorship weren’t bad enough, the late Philippine leader (above, with Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier) also fudged his golf scores. So claimed Manila-based newspaper columnist Dindo Gonzalez, who went on to note the Marcos’ caddies and bodyguards often kicked his ball into the fairway from the rough. What did the deposed despot have to say for himself? He accused Gonzalez of propagating “crude lies about my golf.”
What qualified this baddie for the role of James Bond villain? Well, for starters, he aimed to undermine the global economy by attacking the United States’ Buillion Depository at Fort Knox. And then there was this: he cheated in a golf match against 007, with a little help from Oddjob along the way.