David Weiss: You Wanna Bet?

Can golf be enjoyed with no green on the line? 

You may well remember the indecisive prince whom Shakespeare dubbed Hamlet, the dude who saw six sides to every problem, each stinking alternative no better than the last. Poor chump, he’d probably take twenty minutes in a Denny’s trying to decide between the “Pancake Puppies” and the “Grand Slamwich.”

But why is a shallow, un-introspective type like myself, a mere golf writer, thinking about Hamlet in the first place? Surely not to set up another cheap paraphrase of his most famous line! Okay, I confess, it was all in the name of a pretentious intro to a rather pedestrian topic: gambling while golfing.

To bet or not to bet, that is the question — whether ‘tis salutary for one’s game to have a little something at stake when you’re staring down that six-footer, or to play mano-a-mano against unseen opponents like Pete Dye or Robert Trent Jones, for the mere pride of momentarily conquering one of their devious designs.

In other words, is one better off staying in a Zen-like zone, smelling the pine trees and seeking ego transcendence, or trying to get deep inside the wallet of a friend or relative you’d secretly like to crush under a hail of pars and birdies?

C’mon, admit it, merely humiliating an opponent isn’t satisfaction enough — but impoverishing them while doing so, now that’s a noble endeavor. Or as my man Ham-dogg put it: “A consummation devoutly to be wished.” Man, that Dane could sure talk some high-class trash!

So why not set up a few slings and arrows in the fairway of your mind, and see if a little cash-money pressure results in improved performance or, instead, makes you fold up like an origami butterfly? Do you believe in your game enough to back yourself with a little legal tender? Or are you too yellow to risk the green? 

I may as well be honest and admit that I’m one of the timid types myself – risk-averse they call it. Even the prospect of losing five bucks a side makes me feel like I’m playing for my very life against one of Saddam Hussein’s sadistic sons. Of course, even if I made a string of eighteen birdies, my man Qusay would still have clobbered me senseless with a solid-gold Ginty, just for ships and squiggles.

Not that it’s much safer gambling with people you know, when love and friendship may be at stake along with the exchange of a few dollar bills. My older brother insists that we “make a game” before a round begins, both of us knowing full well that neither will ever actually pay up. The point is that one of us wins and the other loses, a sum far more precious than the mere glimmer of gold.

Aye, but here’s the rub! My dear brother Leon is already one of the most annoying people one will ever golf with — a walking thesaurus of gratuitous self-commentary and corny half-witticisms. But heaven help you if he’s actually your opponent, for he will now employ his lethal arsenal of inanities to purposely unnerve you, to get into your head like a plaid-clad tapeworm. I’ll give you a for instance….

Let’s say that I’m about to attempt a short putt worth a few skins, just after hearing my brother say with great solemnity: “I’m going to have to make you putt that. It’s definitely outside the leather!” Then, as I settle into my address position, mere moments from profit and glory, he quietly whispers: “Knock it in.”

Now just in case you don’t have Google’s translator button handy, what my brother really means is that I should stiffen up and yank the shot six inches to the left. But being the devious lawyer that he is, his patently insincere “encouragement” is actually intended to promote failure, not success. And inevitably, I will miss the godforsaken gimme and then secretly hope that he drives his golf cart into a gator-infested swamp.

What’s even worse is making a game with a near-stranger, telling them honestly that you’re a twelve-handicap, then uncharacteristically playing out of your shoes. I did that in a match against the delightfully mordant Larry David, shooting a smooth 77 and then having him order me “off the island.” We were playing at his private club on Martha’s Vineyard and I diplomatically asked that he donate my $20 winnings to the charity of his choice.

Of course, all of this blather is academic, given that gambling at golf is technically illegal. Police are currently investigating the Tarpon Springs Golf Course near Tampa Bay, where club officials collect money from members to fund tournament purses. I’m no legal eagle, but I’ll lay five to one on a double-sawbuck that the golfers go free.

For the record, one of my favorite local courses, Rustic Canyon, holds a Wednesday Skins Game and openly posts the winners on its Facebook page. Not that I’ve ever actually participated myself. Why? Because like my man Hamlet, “I am pigeon-liver’d and lack gall.” I should probably get myself to a nunnery and try to hustle the sisters out of a few bucks. Them I could handle…

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