How I Met the Ultimate Hustler
Excerpted with permission from Unplayable Lies (The Only Golf Book You'll Ever Need), a collection of 40 essays, © by Dan Jenkins, published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, 272 pages, $25.95.
If even half the stories about Titanic Thompson were true, he couldn't have lived to be 82 years old. Earlier in his life some gentleman in a pinstriped suit looking like Michael Corleone would have bumped him off. Big shots don't like to get robbed.
I once met Titanic. That's the big news in this effort.
I'd heard most of the stories growing up, and every article I've ever read about Titanic was written by someone who never knew him personally. But I'm not faulting them for it. A lot of people who never knew Napoleon have written about him.
Those who have rhapsodized about Titanic in print were understandably intrigued with the legend and all of the outlandish gambling stories attached to him, many of them helped along by the man himself, along with the stunts and tricks he performed, or supposedly did, to fleece the unwitting in a more naive era.
The tales about him were hard to resist. He was indeed an accomplished professional gambler as well as a hustler, and those are two different things. There is solid testimony from people who did know him that he was an excellent golfer, card player, pool shark and skeet shooter. The rest is up for grabs.
I was 14 when I first heard about Titanic. So did every kid in Texas who spent any time around golf courses. The club pros usually told the stories and pretended to know him, and some did know him, and they were prone to embellish the stories if that was needed to hold your interest.
I believed he could throw an orange or a lemon over a five-story building—I assumed he had an arm like Dizzy Dean. Of course, I later learned the orange or lemon was weighted down with lead. I never believed he could throw a brass key into a door lock from across a hotel room. That defied logic. But I did believe he could throw a bunch of quarters into a snuff can from 30 feet away without missing. At a young age I was willing to believe, if not hopeful, that he had dated movie stars.
There was a lot of romance in the stories about Alvin C. Thomas, which was his real name.
Alvin Clarence Thomas of Rogers, Ark., by way of his birthplace, a small town in Missouri.
But I never believed he could knock a bird off a telephone wire by hitting a golf ball at it with a 4-wood. I wasn't that gullible.
Then I found out how he did it if a wager was involved. Ti would drop a ball on the ground and take out his 4-wood, waggle it and pretend to aim at the bird on the wire. When some sucker would bet him he couldn't do it, Ti would pull out a gun he carried and shoot the bird off the wire.
Years later I realized Ti could do some of the things I'd heard about because I saw others do it. Bob Rosburg, for example, could sail 52 cards out of a deck, one by one, into a hat from a good distance away in a locker room.
And this day and time almost any college golfer can bounce a golf ball on the face of a sand wedge 50 times or more without missing. These days it's what a college golfer practices in the dorm instead of studying.
ALL HE WANTED WAS A MILLION DOLLARS
My first long-distance call from Titanic Thompson came in March 1970. He was then living in Grapevine, Texas, which is near Fort Worth and Dallas. I was living in Manhattan and writing for Sports Illustrated. The call came to my office in the Time-Life Building.
I let Titanic know how delighted I was to be speaking with a legend, after which he told me how rich we were going to be when I wrote his story for a movie or a book. All he wanted was a million dollars up front. Just a million.
As the saying goes, I might not be smart, but I'm not stupid. I was aware that I couldn't possibly be the first person Titanic—"Call me Ti"—had ever approached with the project. I must have been far down the list, or he would have sold it by this particular time in history.
I was also busy. Not only with my magazine assignments, but I was working on a novel, which happened to be Semi-Tough. Still, I didn't want to blow him off altogether. I told him I would ask around, talk to my agent, try to see if his story could "gain any traction in the marketplace," to use agent-speak, and we would chat again another day.
Which we did. A week later. When he called to try to stoke my interest by rolling his credits as a folklore character. I heard how he had set up the poker game at which Arnold Rothstein, a crime boss, was murdered in New York City. How he won a bundle off Howard Hughes at Lakeside Golf Club. How he took on other Hollywood folks on the golf course and "picked 'em like chickens." How he had skinned that "big fraud," John Montague, at Lakeside. How he'd dated all those Myrna Loys in Hollywood.
I told Titanic I would be in Fort Worth in May for the Colonial tournament. Maybe we could get together. I wanted to meet the notorious figure in the flesh. He was 77 then, dividing his time between Tenison Park in Dallas and Meadowbrook in Fort Worth, two public golf courses where gentlemen of sporting blood gathered. He still fancied wagers.
The Titanic Thompson I found at Meadowbrook was thin, white-haired and roughly six feet tall. First, I broke the news that I couldn't find any interest in a book or a movie. The book people had never heard of him, which didn't surprise me. The movie people said "Guys and Dolls" had covered the subject of gambling, and a golf movie didn't yell money at them.
I did tell him that SI would be interested in an article. He could collaborate with a writer on our staff, and the magazine would pay him a fee of some sort.
He said he would give it some thought.
The thing I wanted to hear about the most was his side of the legend-filled match he played against a young Byron Nelson in Fort Worth, but I led up to it with questions about other things. I said, "You mentioned John Montague on the phone. You said 'Golf's Mystery Man' was a fraud?" Ti said, "The biggest mystery to me was how he ever got famous. He could hit a long drive, but he couldn't break par for his own money. Heck, if you gave me two strokes a hole, I could beat you with a baseball bat and a rake and putting with my shoe. He got all he wanted of me in one day at Lakeside. But the middle 70s was all he needed to shoot to beat those Hollywood people with low handicaps they couldn't play to. Except for Howard Hughes. Howard was a good golfer. He worked hard at the game. He took lessons. Howard wanted to win the National Amateur more than he wanted to make movies. But he was never that good."
I said, "Your reputation came in handy, didn't it?"
"It did when my name got around," he said. "I come to find out there were a lot of people who wanted to lose money to Titanic Thompson. It gave 'em a story to tell their friends. I took advantage of that."
"Golf was the game you were best at?"
He said, "I was good at cards, too. I never cheated at cards. I played straight up. I could read cards, and I could read people. I mostly played poker, but I could play any old card game." I wanted to hear about his name. I'd read that he adopted "Thompson" when he saw his name misprinted in a newspaper.
"Titanic Thompson does have a better ring to it than Titanic Thomas," I said.
As lore had it, he got the name Titanic as a young man before World War I in a pool hall in Joplin, Mo. But I said I found it hard to buy that he got it by jumping over a pool table, or diving over a pool table, or whatever else he'd let people believe.
He said, "I did get the name in a pool game in Joplin, before the war. Snow Clark gave it to me. We were in a big game of pocket pool. Snow and me were partners against two other fellers. The stakes got pretty high. Snow saw me miss a couple of shots I should have made, and he knew it takes as much skill to miss a shot intentionally as it does to make it. He thought I'd put him in the can—that I'd bet on the other side. That's when he said, 'Boy, you're sinkin' me like the Titanic.' I started laughing. I knew he'd given me a great name." "I'll take that version," I said.
DIFFERING MEMORIES OF THE MATCH AGAINST BYRON NELSON
In years past I'd talked to Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson about Titanic. Each said he possessed a fine golf swing and was a hell of a player. Hogan also said, "Only a fool would play him in a game he suggested."
The match between Titanic and Byron wasn't covered by the press and was never written about, but it became a part of Fort Worth golf history. They played an 18-hole match for $1,000—winner take all—in 1931 at Ridglea on the west side of town. Ridglea was a public course then, but since 1954 it has been a country club of prominence.
One thousand was big money in those days. It would be the equivalent of $14,000 today in terms of buying power.
Ti was in town, and all of the public courses were gambling haunts back then. He dropped by Ridglea and let it be known that he wanted to play "the best man in town." Word reached a member at Glen Garden Country Club, where Byron was a junior member. This was a year before he turned pro. Byron was the best amateur around the area then.
The member at Glen Garden liked games of chance and rounded up two other investors to back Nelson in the match.
Byron's memory of the event:
"I never gambled at golf in my life, and I didn't want to be a part of it. I don't really remember who the backers were. A Mr. Brown was involved, but that's the only name I recall. Mr. Brown said not to worry about the money. All I had to do was play my best golf—they were taking the risk.
"Well, of course, I enjoyed competition. I wanted to play my best. About a dozen people followed us. I was nervous and bogeyed two holes and fell behind, but I played well on the back nine. We both shot 70, which was one under par, I believe. The match was a tie. We broke even." I shared Byron's memory of the match with Titanic at Meadowbrook. Ti said, "Byron Nelson said we tied? Well, all I know is, I shot a 70 and Byron shot a 71. Ask Mr. Brown if we broke even."
Before our meeting ended, Titanic said, "I can still play a little. I'll tell you what. You let me tee it up everywhere, even in the bunkers and the rough, and I'll bet you two hundred I can shoot my age. I'll shoot a 77."
I could only smile.
"I'll bet you can, too, Ti," I said.