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IS IT POSSIBLE that while casing Mesquite, Nev., Merv Griffin took a little too much sun? Surely his judgment was impaired when, in the early '90s, he and his people took a look at this dusty burg near the Utah and Arizona borders and thought, Gold mine! Here, in this desert valley, they would build a casino and resort that would draw high-rollers from such enclaves of affluence as ... as where, exactly? St. George, Utah? Kanab? Page, Ariz.? Perhaps not surprisingly, things didn't work out. Two years after Player's Island opened, Merv's backers unloaded the place at a loss.
Renamed the CasaBlanca, it lives on, catering to a clientele rather less well-heeled than the one Merv envisioned. Last week, a decade too late for Merv--and a fortnight too early, darn the luck, to catch Juice Newton in the CasaBlanca Showroom--a slew of high-rollers descended on Mesquite, each of them determined to get rich quick. With their hard-luck stories and sky-high hopes, they checked in at the inaugural Big Stakes Match Play tournament, held at the CasaBlanca Golf Club, a verdant gem tucked between the Virgin River and Interstate 15. There were 128 of them in all, 64 two-man teams, and as they milled about Player's Pavilion on the eve of the first round, sizing up each other while side-eyeing the models imported by presenting sponsor Sportsbook.com, the air was thick with optimism and avarice. In six days one of these guys would be lining up a putt worth $3 million.
This desert gathering was the result of a eureka moment experienced by Steve Bartkowski in his recliner seven years ago. The former Atlanta Falcons quarterback and some friends were watching a PGA Tour event on the tube. "Somebody was standing over a six- or eight-footer for the win," says Bart, "and one of the guys said, 'Shoot, the worst the guy can do is second place, and he's not even playing with his own money.'"
A seed was planted. How cool would it be, Bartkowski thought, to have a tournament in which golfers anted up to play for huge cash? The format he and partner Jim Thomas decided on was four-ball match play, same as in the Ryder Cup. After toying with the idea of inviting any team that could pony up the--gulp!--$100,000 entry fee, Bartkowski concluded, "The thrill of playing against Greg Norman wouldn't be worth a hundred thousand bucks."
It was decided that no player who had enjoyed fully exempt status on any major tour in the previous three years could join the Big Stakes field. This, Bartkowski decreed, would be a "tournament of the common man"--though welcome, no women signed up--"the guys who can't find a place to play."
The men who made their way to Mesquite spoke of cuts missed and nights spent in their cars on the Tar Heel tour, the Teardrop tour, the Tommie Armour tour, the Transact Mortgage tour, and that's only the T's--a constellation of satellite tours so obscure they make the Hooters tour seem ancient and venerable. All had one thing in common: None had ever played for even a fraction of this kind of money.
While they may have been anonymous--Monday's intergenerational final pitted twentysomethings Garth Mulroy and David Ping against Rick Hartmann, 46, and Mark Mielke, 42, a pair of hard-boiled Long Island club pros--there was nothing common about the shots they made all week. The match-play format tended to encourage balls-out golf. Nor did it hurt that, despite the original vision of the event's founders, only two of the 128 contestants were playing with their own money. That everyone else was backed by a syndicate or a deep-pockets sponsor made the event more, not less, interesting. There were gossipy discussions of whose sugar daddy was giving them a favorable chop of their winnings. (Fifty-fifty was as good as it got; some backers insisted on 80%.) When the discussion turned to sponsorship, Donald Wright's story topped them all.
After playing at Texas Southern, Wright moved to Atlanta, where he became an assistant manager at a Pizza Hut. "But I had a dream," he said. After 21/2 years, he bailed on the Hut. He would try to make a living with his sticks. Since then, Wright has done O.K. haunting various mini-tours. Then, not long ago, a friend called. Michael Jordan was in town. Did Wright want to meet him? As instructed, Wright showed up at the Heritage Golf Club in north Atlanta. Walking through the locker room, he greeted a familiar figure. "What's your name?" Jordan asked him. When Wright told him, Jordan took a step back and smiled. "I've heard of you," he said.
"No, sir, you haven't heard of me," said Wright. "Yes, I have," Jordan replied. "I know who you are." "Oh, dude," Wright said last Thursday, "you don't know how good that felt." He sat at a table outside the Pavilion, facing the mesa across the freeway. He could not stop smiling. On that day at the Heritage Golf Club, he had ridden in Jordan's cart. Walking from the 2nd green to the 3rd tee, Jordan had said to him, "I hear you're playing really well. I'd like to help you."
Just like that, Wright was Nevada-bound. For the first round he and teammate Dave Schreyer drew John Douma and Mikkel Reese, Arizonans in matching striped shirts who had pulled down the highest bid in the Tuesday-night Calcutta. The stripes were one up after 13 holes when Wright got hot, birdieing 14, 16 and 17. With his 40-foot putt on 17 only halfway to the hole, Wright, in his excitement, ran after it, nearly colliding with one of his opponents (a celebration that raised eyebrows when it was replayed on the big screen before that night's blind draw). Schreyer birdied 18, sealing the upset of the day.