Halting Flow From the Giver Jordan

All right, Miss K, how about if we take a letter to Michael Jordan, the flying basketball player? Head it, "For Eyes Only; Shred on Receipt." That will get his attention.

Dear Michael:

It has come to my attention that certain extensive gambling debts of yours keep surfacing--$108,000 here, $57,000 there. Big time to most of us, although I realize that with the money you're making, you probably drop that much on your way to breakfast.

But I think we see a pattern here we've seen before, Air. I mean, you could ask Joe Louis, Sugar Ray Robinson. What's going on here is the good old pigeon drop.

I mean, you're an athlete with big money. And the word is out, you like to play golf.

Trust me, Michael, there are guys in locker rooms all over the country who are studying plane fares to get to you today.

You probably never heard of Titanic Thompson, but take my word for it, he would have heard of you. Titanic made a good living off guys like you. It was right out of Damon Runyon by way of Nathan Detroit.

You probably never heard of Teddy Rhodes or Smiley Quick, either, but you can bet Joe Louis did.

Teddy Rhodes was a great black player in the days when he couldn't buck the "Caucasians only" clause in the PGA bylaws. He couldn't make his money at the Masters, although his game was probably good enough. His workbench was the municipal course at Western Avenue or some hustlers' paradise in Chicago. Teddy probably siphoned off more of Joe Louis' money than the government.

What he didn't get, Smiley Quick did.

You see, I have to tell you something, Michael. Every golfer who ever lived always thought he was three to 10 shots better than he was. It goes with the game.

It's the hustlers' edge.

So, let me give it to you straight, Michael. The next time you arrive at a golf course and you get a game with this friend of a friend, a guy you never heard of, and the first day he shoots a lousy 82 or so and you win the bets four ways-- don't double the bet the next day.

Sure as you do, the next day, he will shoot a 69. Or whatever it takes. He will shoot well enough to beat you by one shot.

He knows he can beat you, Michael. He knows precisely the number of shots it will take to close you out on the 18th. He will make it look difficult. But it won't be. His hardest job will be missing shots, under-clubbing to make the heist look legitimate. He will give you four-footers all day--until you come up to 16, 17 or 18. Then he will make you sink them. You won't come close.

If you come out some day and one of your partners points to some young kid with his knickers falling down and a ratty set of clubs and he says, "Michael, if you'll give that kid over there five a side, I'll take him for $5,000. With automatic presses. Just to be a good sport," forget it, Michael.

That kid will turn out to be a young Lee Trevino. You don't think the first Lee Trevino didn't lift the wallets of lots of guys like you when he was growing up around Dallas?

You know, one time I was playing golf with the great football player, Jim Brown, and the great basketball player, Bill Russell, and one of our foursome (it might have been Elliott Gould) said to Brown, "Jim, it's well known you like to play golf and bet a bob or two. How do you keep from getting cheated?"

"Oh," Brown says, "I watch the way the guy swings at the ball."

On the tee, Bill Russell snorts. "Not me!" he says. "I watch where the ball lands!"

Watch where the ball lands, Michael. These guys can do anything with a swing. When Dutch Harrison was hustling a young player who kept hawking his bag to see what club he was using, Dutch would haul out a four-iron for a 145-yard shot. Dutch could do anything with a four-iron. Make it sing "Carmen" if he wanted to. He would feather that four-iron in three feet from the hole. The kid would take the four-iron and knock it over into the next county.

If the guy offers to play you left-handed, just to even things up, don't do it. He will turn out to be left-handed. Ti Thompson was left-handed. He could play both ways if he had to. But left-handed, he would murder you.

If one of these guys offers to bet you, as you drive past farmland, that of the next 10 horses you see, eight of them will be white, don't take the bet. He has put the eight white horses there.

Always cut the cards. Make the shooter roll up his sleeves before you fade him. If a guy says, "I'll play these," fold.

Even if the deck is still in cellophane, don't let him deal it. He is probably the only one who knows there are only two aces in it.

Never, never putt by flashlight with one of these guys. If the guy hits it in the woods, go in there with him. And never let him use a barefoot caddie. Particularly if his nickname is "the Toe."

If one of these guys is so pale he looks as if he lives in an igloo, don't be fooled. He's been out in the Florida sun plenty. They wear hats and sun block and use bleach. You can try shaking hands with a guy to check for calluses, but this is not much of a giveaway any more. They wear gloves.

It goes without saying that, when you find a guy with a set of clubs that looks as if it's 100 years old, you can bet they are like Stradivari. These guys can shoot a 66 or play the "Moonlight Sonata" with them. But don't be lulled if a guy shows up with new shoes, new clubs, new bag and the latest in yuppie-wear, either, and announces he has recently taken up the game. It's a reverse grift.

Don't say, "We'll adjust at the turn." That simply means the louse will shoot a poor front nine, get the match in his wheelhouse--and eat you alive.

You are an annuity to these guys, Michael. You are like everyone else who gets in the game late. You are obsessed. You are probably too tall ever to play it at the professional level--that ball is awfully small and awfully far away when you take the club up in the nine-foot range. You can't slam-dunk a putt.

I already see where you are getting your picture taken with some pretty questionable characters. One of them got murdered. One of them got in tax trouble. I think I have seen this movie before, Michael. The names change, but the faces look familiar. So do the swings. Remember, even Al Capone got hustled on the golf course. So don't think because you are Michael Jordan, these guys won't send you home in a barrel.

Well, I just wanted you to know these guys are out there, Michael. You will find out. Maybe you already have. But if, by some stroke, you come off 18 some night all even and one of the guys suggests you have a contest for the money--see who can throw a golf ball farthest, for example, don't do it. They will have weighted that golf ball for distance. Titanic Thompson used to throw a walnut over a building.

You have one thing going for you. The money will be no pressure. Many years ago, when the word went out that billionaire Howard Hughes had taken up golf, the hustlers prepped a kid out of Texas to come up and play Hughes for $50,000, which was a lot of money in those days. They played even all the way to 18, according to the script. Then they both had mid-irons to the green.

Howard turned to the young hotshot. "Well, kid, I guess this is for the whole 50,000," he said.

The kid suddenly couldn't get the club back. That was all the money in the world to him. It was doughnut money to Howard Hughes. He swung free and easy.

Of course, that's not always going to work for you. You are going to run into guys whose choking point is not 50 grand.

Well, this advice is free, Michael. Keep your day job. And, by the way, keep in mind the Brooklyn Bridge is not really for sale.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World