Le­gends

Golf Vacations (Malaysia) - - Contents - By owen black­hurst

A golfer, a gam­bler, and hus­tler who is a force of per­son­al­ity in the early 20th cen­tury.

Ti­tanic Thomp­son was born plain old Alvin Clarence Thomas in ru­ral Arkansas on Novem­ber 30 1892 (see Rais­ing Ti­tanic). Still awash with the de­tri­tus of the Wild West and the Amer­i­can Civil War, it was a piti­less era where the men drank and gam­bled with aban­don and the women, if they knew what was good for them, kept their mouths shut. Ti’s fa­ther Lee - him­self no stranger to moon­shine and seven-card stud - skipped town when Ti was five-months-old and left him to be brought up by his God-fear­ing step­fa­ther, who used him as cheap labour on the farm right up un­til the day, aged 16, when he packed up his mea­gre be­long­ings and headed off in search of caper.

By the be­gin­ning of 1925, Ti had spent 18 months in near per­ma­nent res­i­dence at the Kingston Club in San Fran­cisco. With his skills at count­ing cards honed from years on the road, he and fel­low le­gendary gam­bler, Nick ‘The Greek’ Dan­do­los, had won two mil­lion dol­lars in high-stakes poker games against lawyers, politi­cians, boot­leg­gers and bankers. The games were lengthy, of­ten go­ing on un­til dawn, though rather than sleep dur­ing the day, Ti would be out on a lo­cal muni prac­tis­ing his new favourite pas­time; golf (see A New Hus­tle). And he didn’t have to wait long for it to be­come an earner.

With his San Fran­cis­can vic­tims less and less will­ing to part with their cash – and a grow­ing taste for di­a­monds and tai­lored suits – Ti and his sec­ond wife, Alice (see Loves, Labours, Lost), moved to Bev­erly Hills. There were three rea­sons for this. Nor­mally, the de­sire to first mix with, and then fleece, the wealthy busi­ness­men and ac­tors would be the driv­ing forces. But Ti­tanic was hooked, and wanted to gain tute­lage un­der Ed Dud­ley - then the finest teach­ing pro in the world - at Hol­ly­wood CC.

Ar­riv­ing in LA fresh from the Brainer hus­tle (see The First Golf Hus­tle), Ti pur­chased a ram­bling, Span­ish Colo­nial house from a left-handed golfer named Ed Jones. A keen, if av­er­age, golfer him­self, Jones was soon on at Ti to tackle him over 18 holes at Hol­ly­wood. The pair played sev­eral times, with Ti play­ing right-handed and fail­ing to break 100 on ev­ery oc­ca­sion. At din­ner one night, with the bait in place, Ti be­gan needling Jones over the paucity of his game. “Ed, why in the hell do you keep try­ing to play golf? I mean, the cold, hard fact of the mat­ter is that you can’t play a cry­ing lick. I hon­estly be­lieve I could take your own clubs and beat you left-handed.” “You’re hardly a god­damn cham­pion your­self, if you’re se­ri­ous about play­ing me left-handed, I’ll see you to­mor­row morn­ing. I got $5,000 says you can’t beat me with my own clubs.”

The next morn­ing, Ti­tanic ham­mered him by 15 strokes, and word quickly spread of his am­bidex­trous ex­ploits. Un­for­tu­nately for Ti, word spread in the wrong direc­tion, and a few days later he was hi­jacked by two masked gun­men as he left the range. The pair robbed him of $12,000 and, de­spite his protes­ta­tions, Alice told an LA po­lice­man that her sis­ter was friendly with and he tracked the hi­jack­ers down to a nearby apart­ment. Hold­ing the pair at gun­point, the of­fi­cer called Thomp­son and told him, “that they were work­ing for a man named Ed Jones...”

Rac­ing to Jones’s house wav­ing a pis­tol, Ti found only re­moval men and a ‘Sold’ sign in the front yard. To com­pound his anger fur­ther, the of­fi­cer did a run­ner with the $12,000. Peo­ple, as he would of­ten say, just aren’t to be trusted. But he couldn’t be down for long; he was rak­ing it in at the cardta­bles and his game was shap­ing up nicely un­der the watch­ful eye of Dud­ley. And, as ever with Ti’, it wasn’t long un­til the next big hus­tle came along.

The good ol’ boy who swapped

south­ern dis­com­fort for bets, birdies and

brides…

Ti­tanic Army Uni­form

De­spite word-of-mouth ex­po­sure of Ti­tanic’s ex­ploits, it was a cocky am­a­teur called Ge­orge Von Elm whose name graced the sports pages that year. He’d beaten the le­gendary Bobby Jones for the 1926 US Am­a­teur ti­tle and, on re­turn­ing to the coast, was miffed to find an­other golfer as the dar­ling of LA. He’d heard the sto­ries of how Ti would al­ways beat his op­po­nent by a stroke or two, whether it took 100 or 65, and he wanted to prove that Thomp­son was noth­ing but a lucky hus­tler.

Ti also knew of Von Elm, and though he had lit­tle rea­son to play the US Am­a­teur cham­pion, he did want a way into the pock­ets of Von Elm’s friend, the Hol­ly­wood di­rec­tor, Howard Hughes.

Sit­ting in the pro shop one day, Von Elm no­ticed Ti on the driv­ing range and turned to Ed Dud­ley, “Ed, I hear you’ve given Ti­tanic Thomp­son some lessons. How good is he? Re­ally?” “Ge­orge,” he replied, “for my money that skinny fella out there is one stroke bet­ter than any golfer in the world.” An­noyed at the per­ceived slur, Von Elm marched out to the prac­tice tee. “Hey Ti, why don’t you throw away those beat up old sticks and let me buy you some new ones?” Ti didn’t even bother to turn around. “I’ve been do­ing pretty fair with these. Wanna play?”

“Listen, mis­ter,” spat the cock­sure tyro, “I’m one of the best golfers in the coun­try. I keep hear­ing you’re pretty good, but don’t see you play­ing no tour­na­ments. Hell, yes I want to play. We’ll play 18 and I’ll spot you nine shots. Hun­dred dol­lars a hole.” Fi­nally, Ti looked up. “Get your sticks boy, we got us a game.”

By the time the match got to the ninth green, the pair were level. Ti faced a three-foot putt while Von Elm was 30-feet away. With no shots used, Von Elm knew that he had to win that and ev­ery other hole to de­feat his neme­sis. Af­ter study­ing his line for a minute, the man who had beat Bobby Jones threw down his put­ter and stormed off to the club­house. It was the one and only time they played. Weeks later, Von Elm tried to get one over on Ti by ship­ping in a pro from Omaha who pro­ceeded to play badly for days be­fore ap­proach­ing and of­fer­ing him a chal­lenge. Had Von Elm not walked to the first tee with a grin on his face, Ti may have lost. Von Elm should have lis­tened to Ed Dud­ley; Ti shot 65, one off the course record, to beat the pro by a stroke.

Ar­riv­ing in New York in 1928, Ti quickly saw that there wasn’t much ac­tion to be found that wasn’t al­ready fixed in one way or an­other, and de­cided that the Big Ap­ple was a propo­si­tion town. To his mind, if he could not con­trol the game, he wanted no part of it. And golf was a game he could con­trol. One night at a poker game, he met Leo Flynn, who’d man­aged world heavy­weight cham­pion, Jack Dempsey. “There’s a pro called Ge­orge Mcclean out in Westch­ester County,” drawled Flynn, “thinks he’s the best damn golfer alive.” With Ti con­fi­dent he could beat any­one, Flynn said he’d put up the money, and the plan was set. Two days later, af­ter send­ing word to Mcclean that he’d be com­ing, Ti turned up with sticks in hand. Mcclean had heard the leg­end, but thought that Thomp­son must be a far bet­ter hus­tler than golfer, and he was proved right when he beat him by ten strokes for $2,500. Show­er­ing his op­po­nent with praise over an iced-tea, Ti played the role of gra­cious loser to per­fec­tion. “You’re a good guy, Thomp­son,” said Mcclean, “and if you ever want a chance to get your money back, let me know.”

Ti set the bet at $20,000 and beat Mcclean on the last hole with a cracking dis­play of games­man­ship; forc­ing Mcclean to have a side bet on ev­ery hole and never let­ting him set­tle into his rhythm. “Ti,” said Flynn as they got into the car, “God knows where you’d be to­day if you’d put this kind of plan­ning into some­thing hon­est.” “Prob­a­bly too broke to pay at­ten­tion,” came the re­ply.

Both in New York and on the road, the next few years were good to Ti. Aces and dou­ble-sixes came reg­u­larly, and his golf hus­tling was still of the high­est or­der. He beat one long-drive cham­pion out of $20,000 by al­low­ing the man three drives on ev­ery hole, leav­ing him too tired to swing. He hooked up with fu­ture World Se­ries of Poker cham­pion, Johnny Moss, to fleece $50,000 out of a group of high­rolling coun­try club mem­bers, and won a size­able amount through the in­fa­mous icy lake bet where, af­ter bet­ting an­other group of rich buf­foons that he could drive a ball 500 yards, he teed up left of the fair­way and watched it roll for a mile over the ice.

Writer Da­mon Run­yon was trans­fixed with Ti, and im­mor­talised him in Guys n’ Dolls, as Sky Master­son, a high stakes gam­bler who was played in the 1955 film ver­sion by Mar­lon Brando. His ego may have loved this at­ten­tion, but it was bad for busi­ness.

Ti re­turned to Fort Worth, Texas in 1934. With his fifth killing (see In Cold Blood) still play­ing heav­ily on his mind, he was a lit­tle out of sorts but still up for ac­tion, and he soon found it. Af­ter fin­ish­ing a prof­itable round at the Ten­ni­son Golf Course one af­ter­noon, he was ap­proached by three strangers who asked if he would like to play By­ron Nel­son for $3,000. Though Nel­son was still three years away from claim­ing his first Ma­jor, ev­ery club­house in the south was be­gin­ning to ring with tales of his ex­tra­or­di­nary shot-mak­ing abil­ity. Ti had heard the same sto­ries, but he had yarns of his own, and doubted that Nel­son had much ex­pe­ri­ence of hus­tling.

On the day of the match, ev­ery known gam­bler in Texas turned up to see the pair lock horns. Johnny Moss even left a poker game in Ok­la­homa to make it. Af­ter nine-holes, Nel­son was two-strokes to the good. To all in at­ten­dance, it was clear this was more than just a money match and the gal­leries were as silent as the play­ers. On the back-nine, Ti posted six con­sec­u­tive birdies, and fin­ished in a record 29 strokes to beat the fu­ture best player in the world.

With Ti con­stantly try­ing to avoid pub­lic­ity where pos­si­ble, any re-telling of his story will al­ways con­tain gaps, and in that sense.

With Amer­ica in fi­nan­cial melt­down, he con­tin­ued to make mil­lions through­out the Great De­pres­sion. He moved to Illi­nois in the late

30s and made $3 mil­lion on the oil boom, only to lose most of it chas­ing lame horse af­ter lame horse. He mar­ried third wife Joanne and be­came a fa­ther aged 52, be­fore leav­ing her for fourth wife Max­ine in 1946. He moved to Ari­zona and be­came a cham­pion trap-shooter, and was at rel­a­tive peace un­til be­ing sen­tenced to

"Peo­ple, as he would of­ten say, just aren’t ato be trusted. But he couldn’t be down for long."

two years for ‘con­tribut­ing to the delin­quency of a mi­nor,’ when one of the hostesses at a party he’d thrown was found to be un­der­age. He was re­leased in late 1954, and headed straight to New Mex­ico with fifth wife Jeanette to tap into the lat­est oil boom. Af­ter mak­ing, and los­ing, an­other boat­load of money he fa­thered an­other son aged 67 and they moved back to Fort Worth in 1962. They were soon joined by Ti’s first son Tommy who, af­ter los­ing $400 to his dad on the first day they met, stayed around long enough to learn ev­ery trick in the book and be­come one of the best poker play­ers in Amer­ica.

If there is no men­tion of golf across these decades, it’s be­cause it was his one con­stant. Women, kids, oil and cash would en­ter and leave his life in a trice, but he al­ways had golf. He played left and right handed, blind­folded, in a sling and even once turned up in a wheel­chair. And if he wasn’t hus­tling, he’d be in his yard prac­tis­ing his short game.

In 1968, aged 76, Ti moved to Dal­las. Even though he still played, age and ill-health had taken 50 yards off his drives, and his last jaunt saw him fly down to Mex­ico to back fu­ture four­time Ma­jor win­ner, Ray Floyd, against a then un­known named

Lee Trevino. Over the course of four days, Ti lost $40,000 as Su­per­mex showed the skills that would win him seven Ma­jors. At this time, Ti was tak­ing pills for his heart con­di­ton and sleep­ing pills to cure his in­som­nia. On the way back from Mex­ico, he and his trav­el­ling part­ner, a man named Ace Dar­nell, stopped at a coun­try club in El Paso for one last hus­tle. It was to prove a dis­as­ter. Ti took the wrong pill and, at one-point, com­pletely missed a chip shot. “God­damn it Ace,” said a de­jected Ti, “I’m 76 years old. There was a time when I beat By­ron Nel­son. Hell, I helped Sam Snead straighten out his back­swing and Ben Hogan said I was the best shot­maker he’d ever seen... and now I can’t even whip that sonuvabitch.”

In 1971, Ti was asked to com­pere the World Se­ries of Poker, which was won by his old friend Johnny Moss. One night, he and Jeanette were play­ing domi­noes and he be­gan to ru­mi­nate on the money he’d seen at the World Se­ries. “I’m a man who doesn’t have many re­grets,” he told her, “but I wish now that I’d been a lit­tle smarter and saved some­thing. I wish I’d have been able to see down the road, beyond the next game. Yeah, I re­gret that most of all.”

It was a re­gret that re­sulted in his fifth and fi­nal di­vorce. Jeanette was no longer able to care for Ti and hold down a job and, un­less they di­vorced, the state wouldn’t pay for the care that he needed. In Au­gust 1973, Jeanette filed for di­vorce and drove her hus­band to the rest home on the out­skirts of Fort Worth. “I love you Slim,’ she cried, ‘don’t you ever for­get that.”

It goes with­out say­ing that he gam­bled with his fel­low pa­tients. When the weather was warm, he would has­sle one of the nurses into tak­ing him to a nearby pitch ‘n putt course where, for old times sake, he would hus­tle a two-dol­lar game and then amaze ev­ery­one present by shoot­ing the course in par. He never let his vic­tim walk away with­out telling him he’d been beaten by Ti­tanic Thomp­son.

In May 1974, aged 82, Ti suf­fered a stroke. The man who had hus­tled through two-world wars, slain five men and mar­ried five women was found dead in the bed­room of his nurs­ing home. Fifty miles away, on Ten­ni­son Golf Course in Dal­las, four gam­blers were play­ing when a teenage cad­die ap­proached in a golf cart. “Fel­las,’ he shouted, “Ti­tanic Thomp­son has died.” Af­ter a pause, one of the men spoke. “You ever know Ti­tanic Thomp­son, boy?” “Can’t say that I did sir,” he replied. “But you say he’s dead?” “That’s what I heard.” “Well son, likely he is dead. But take my ad­vice and don’t go bet­ting any money on it.”

If that sen­tence is a fit­ting epi­taph, then the man him­self should ap­ply the full stop. In his hus­tling hey­day of the mid

1930s, some­one asked Ti why he had never had a crack at the pro­fes­sional golf cir­cuit. “Well son,“he said, shuf­fling his deck of cards. “It’s be­cause I couldn’t af­ford the cut in pay.”

LEFT PAGE: Ti­tanic OAPTHIS PAGE FROM LEFT: Ti­tanic Left Hand Swing; Ti­tanic Shot­gun Fam­ily.

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