Sixty amateur golfers each ponied up $10,000 to tee off Monday in a three-day golf tournament that uses poker betting in place of traditional scoring.
"It's a lot like poker in the sense that the whole thing is a game of pressure," said Steve Dannenmann, one of five poker pros who traded the felt for the greens at the Primm Valley Golf Club, some 40 miles south of Las Vegas.
Unlike regular golf, it's not the score that matters most, but how many chips each player has left. Each golfer starts with 10,000, meticulously accounted for by a croupier in a cart who tallies the round of betting before each shot.
Players can go all in after their tee shot or, - if they happen to be in a fairway bunker while their opponents are on the green - can fold, pick up their ball and walk to the next hole. The player with the fewest strokes on the hole wins the pot.
"You could have three good holes and clean someone out," said Terry Leiweke, president of the tournament that airs in June on NBC. "You don't even need to have a great round."
In Dannenmann's group, the skills were so raw that the players took out their drivers more often to measure two club lengths from the water hazards than to hit their ball off the tee.
Scott Tucker, a 44-year-old Las Vegas businessman, used his errant slice to keep himself from betting too much on early holes when antes were low.
"I'm hiding in the bushes," he said. "Let them wager a lot, at least for the first three holes when I don't lose a lot."
Like in poker tournaments, small antes kept the betting reasonable early. But the automatic bets double, starting at $100, every three holes.
Grilon Rodas, a 34-year-old land use consultant from Palm Springs, Calif., folded so often that he didn't end up putting until reaching the 12th green.
"That's the second putt I've hit all day," he said after sinking one from 6 inches.
Len Fattori, a 59-year-old retiree from New Jersey, breathed a sigh of relief after draining a 2-footer to split a $4,400 pot.
Just like in poker, pot odds play into strategy.
Players with the best lie and closest to the pin tend to bet the most, while other players facing tough putts or even chip shots tend to fold.
On the par-4 13th, Dannenmann was in the best shape after two shots, needing a long putt for birdie and $13,900 already in the pot. Tucker was past the green in the rough, and Len Fattori, a 59-year-old retiree from New Jersey, was short and to the right.
After Tucker and Fattori checked, Dannenmann bet $3,000. Tucker, with only had $2,100 left, called. "I'm almost out, so I've got to try to be in the game," he said.
Fattori eyeballed a difficult chip onto a two-tiered green. "It's 4-to-1 to try to get it up and down," he grumbled. He called.
Tucker chipped to within 10 feet, Dannenmann putted to within 4.
Fattori chipped onto the slope and watched his ball roll away into the recesses of the lower tier. "Fold," he said, picking up his ball in disgust. Because he'd pushed all in, Tucker had to make the putt.
He missed, and Dannenmann sank his to win the pot.
After shaking hands with the group, Tucker headed home. Dannenmann offered a consolation: "You come to Vegas, we're partying all night."
On the opening day's final hole with only Dannenmann and Rodas left - good golf and good luck came into play. With a $12,800 ante and only $13,600 left, Dannenmann hit his ball into the water on the challenging par-5 second hole (play extends beyond 18 holes if no one has won the round). Rodas landed in the rough off the tee and pushed all-in, which Dannenmann had to call. Rodas' third shot went through the green and headed precariously toward the reeds of a green-side water hazard before an extra tall tuft of grass kept the ball from going in the drink. After Dannenmann hit his next shot into the water again, Dannenmann conceded the hole, the match and the $10,000 entry fee. "He's the better player," he said. Rodas credited his late mother, who taught him the game of poker, with saving his skin. "I've got to chalk that up to my mom's watching me now." Play continues today toward the $250,000 grand prize. The tournament is set to air on NBC Sports June 23 and 24.