Putting breakthrough put Las Vegas golf course operator Billy Walters over the top in Pebble pro-am
Las Vegas golf course owner and businessman Billy Walters has been playing golf for 40 years, and is a savvy enough amateur to know what was coming last month after he and his touring pro partner Fredrick Jacobson won the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am by 10 strokes.
"Any time you win a golf tournament that uses handicaps, the 'sandbagger' label is going to get thrown at you," says Walters, who owns 50 percent of LasVegasGolf.com through Las Vegas Golf Ventures, LLC. "It just comes with the territory. So I don't take any of it seriously. Anyone who doesn't think my 11 handicap is legitimate can just talk to the guys I've played with over the last couple of years."
So we did just that.
We called Hilbert Shirey, who was Walters' partner last summer in the High-Stakes Golf made-for-television event on ESPN. That tournament featured two days of scramble and better-ball matches, with millions of dollars of the golfers' own money on the line. The field was comprised of a dozen of the most high-profile gamblers in the world, among them former World Series of Poker stars Doyle Brunson, Dewey Tomko, Phil Hellmuth, and Daniel Negreanu.
"I'm not making excuses for Billy, but a lot of us gamblers are getting older, and some bad habits set in," Shirey says. "I know Walters was a terror on the golf course in the early '80s, but he was pretty pathetic as my partner last summer in Vegas. He had the yips and couldn't make a thing. If he woulda played good, we wouldn't have been able to spend all the money we'd made.
"I saw Billy make a couple putts on TV at Pebble Beach, and he didn't look like the same guy I was paired with," Shirey added. "In Vegas, he didn't come close to playing like an 11 handicap, more like a 16 or 17. In fact, if he hadn't been my partner, I'd have wanted to go play against him for a lot of money."
When asked whether he thought Walters' 11 handicap was on the square, Shirey says, "Now if you're gonna go in the tank to pad your handicap, you certainly wouldn't do it when there are millions of dollars on the line."
Walters doesn't dispute Shirey's assessment. "The Vegas tournament was embarrassing," he says. "I got off the reservation and I got scalped. I hadn't played any really big money games in about 20 years, and I just wasn't prepared. I'm 61 years old now, and with my many business interests, and not having played much golf, I didn't have any confidence. I've also had three shoulder operations and an elbow operation, so that's limited my practice and playing time. It really showed in that High-Stakes event. I couldn't play a lick."
But the stars fell into alignment the first week in February, when Walters was invited back to the AT&T for a second time. He was paired once again with Swedish pro Jacobson, an easy-going veteran with three international victories and five top-10 last year on the PGA Tour.
"Fredrick and I have become pals, and we really mesh as partners," Walters says. "We played together in 2006 and did reasonably well, and we got to know each other's strengths and weaknesses. There's good camaraderie when we play and we never get too serious, which makes playing those great courses on the Peninsula even more fun."
"When Freddy first came to our Tour, I called him my little brother, even though our last names are spelled differently," says former AT&T champion Peter Jacobsen. "But I'm so old and crippled now I call him my son. Anyway, Freddy's the ideal pro-am partner because he cares enough about his amateur partners to strategize with them and get involved in the team aspect of the tournament. Many of the younger pros are so caught up in their own games, and making the cut or whatever, that the amateurs are kind of incidental to them. But not Freddy. And because Billy hits the ball longer than most amateurs, and can reach all the par-fours in two, he can be a valuable partner. He can throw in a couple birdies in addition to parring some stroke holes. Plus, he's a helluva competitor."
Peter missed something like 18 consecutive cuts with Jack Lemmon, who usually played to a 17 handicap.
"With Lem, I often coached him to lay up on the long par-fours so he'd have an easy pitch for his third shot," Peter says. "His biggest drive went about 220 yards. The best we could hope for was a net par, and I knew I had to make all the birdies. I loved Jack like my own father, but we knew we had to play lights out just to make the cut. Winning was pretty much out of the question."
Because Walters hadn't played more than a few rounds in 2008 before the tournament, and no golf at all from September of '07 through mid-January, he went into the week of the AT&T with very little confidence.
"I was still kind of haunted by my poor putting," Walters says. "The best part of my game my entire life has been my putting, from playing so much pool as a kid. I'd never before lost confidence that I could make an important putt, but when I blew a couple of three-footers down the stretch to lose that money in Las Vegas, it really affected me. I was breaking down a lot with my left wrist, and nearly in a panic about how I would do on those poa annua greens at Pebble and Spyglass."
On the Monday of tournament week, Walters registered in the clubhouse at Pebble Beach Golf Links and received some nice tee prizes, including a new pair of golf shoes. He played a practice round at Poppy Hills, and found nothing during that round to bolster his confidence.
"On top of everything else, I was out of shape and walking those fairways at Poppy got to me a little. I was still putting poorly and had five different putters with me, just hoping one of them would feel good."
The next morning he wore his new golf shoes for a practice round at Spyglass Hill Golf Course, but had to quit after 12 holes with blisters on his feet.
"I was really mad at myself for being so dumb as to wear new shoes without breaking them in," he says. "It was looking like I was in for a long week, but then fate stepped in and everything suddenly turned around."
After covering his feet with Band-Aids, Walters put on some tennis shoes and went to a practice green at Pebble. There he met a fellow who was showing off some extra-thick Sure Stroke putter grips, like the one K.J. Choi had been using of late.
"Well, I tried putting with one of them and couldn't miss," Walters says. "I could see the line better, and the ball rolled beautifully. The rep from the company told me these new grips wouldn't be out until April. Man, when I heard that I was heartbroken, because I thought I'd found the answer to my putting woes."
Walters put the old Kentucky charm on the rep the next day and got permission to put the grip on his Odyssey Sabertooth putter. With his veteran Pebble Beach caddie Zach Williamson reading greens for him, Walters instantly felt his putting touch return.
"The big grip took the putter out of Billy's fingers, and back into his palms, where he could use more of a shoulder-powered pendulum stroke," Williamson says. "He'd been really handsy before, and suddenly he had a nice fluid arm stroke with no jerkiness in it at all. His posture also improved and he closed up his stance, where before he'd been open to the hole. I know the greens on the Monterey Peninsula pretty well, and when I'd give Billy a good read, he started hitting every putt right on line."
Despite an erratic first round, in which he made two double bogeys and two triples, Walters managed to make par on five of his stroke holes, and with Jacobson adding only two birdies, the team posted a seven-under par 65. They were back in the pack, but at least in the hunt.
The second round at Pebble, Walters made one gross birdie, and combined with his pro's five birdies and an eagle, they jumped into the top five with a second-round 62 and a 17-under-par 127 total.
"Golf is such a fickle game," Walters says. "Two days earlier I couldn't scare in a three-footer, and now the hole was looking like a bathtub."
Walters played steady at Poppy Hills on "moving day," recording just one double bogey and one birdie, but Jacobson caught fire, shooting a 31 on the back nine. The team turned in their second straight round of 62 and were surprised to learn that they had a five-stroke lead going into Sunday's final round at Pebble. Jacobson had also moved into individual contention in the tournament, at six under par, just three back of co-leaders Vijay Singh and Dudley Hart.
The final round was a clinic in ham-and-egging, with some good fortune thrown in. The par-three fifth hole was a harbinger. Walters pulled an eight-iron left of the green back by the grandstand, in long matted-down grass behind a narrow bunker and with very little room to the pin. Jacobson's ball was on the front of the green.
"It was such a difficult shot I told Zach I should just pick the ball up because I didn't get a stroke on the hole," Walters says. "He talked me into taking a swipe at it. I swear if you'd given me a hundred balls, I might have gotten one shot remotely close to the hole. Well, I opened up a sand wedge, took a hard swing like a bunker shot, the club slid perfectly under the ball, it popped out pretty softly for a thick lie, and wouldn't you know rolled right in the hole. The folks in the grandstand went absolutely berserk. I stood there awestruck. If that shot had been televised it would have made ESPN's Shot of the Day."
On top of that, Jacobson three-putted, so Walters had saved his team two shots. Their lead on the field at that point was eight shots, and if ever there would have been a time to sandbag for Walters, it would have been on the back nine Sunday. He could have had his ball in his pocket on every hole and his team still would have won the pro-am. Instead, he shot his best nine of the tournament, a 40, and that led to the eventual 10-stroke victory.
For the round, Walters shot an 86, and Jacobson a 74. Yet their net best-ball was an 11-under-par 61. That's not just ham-and-egging it. That's a Spanish omelet with suckling pig and caviar.
"It was just a magical week in every sense," Walters says. "My lowest score of the week was 83, but I was there when Freddy needed me. That's what partners golf is all about. To go from no confidence, to being able to help my pro by making a lot of pars and an occasional birdie, and to win an event as prestigious as the AT&T, was just unbelievable. For someone who's played golf for 40 years, that has to be my biggest thrill as a golfer."
Love of competition drives Billy Walters
Billy Walters grew up orphaned and poor in Munfordville, Ky., but even as a young boy he had a strong survival instinct and a gambler's need for action. He was shooting pool for his life's bankroll by the age of 12, and pitching coins or playing poker for high stakes by his late teens. He carried two jobs through most of those years, and was married with a child by the time he earned his high school diploma.
"The best lessons you get in life come from knots on the head," he says. "Once you've experienced it a few times, you never forget the cold and lonely feeling you get when you lose every penny you've got and owe more money than you know how to get a hold of."
The very first time he played on a real golf course, in his twenties, he insisted his golfing companion play him for money. He knew it would make him play harder.
Walters says it's a love of competition that drives him in all aspects of his life, whether in the golf courses he's developed and manages, or in his active trading in the stock market and his betting on football. Walters is considered the highest action sports bettor in the world, and it's well known that his wagering is so strong that it often moves the Las Vegas betting line.
But in the last two decades, Walters' business interests and philanthropic endeavors have taken precedence over his golf game. He and his wife Susan built an entire campus for Las Vegas charity Opportunity Village, which provides training and employment opportunities for seriously mentally and physically disabled citizens, and the couple provides assistance to dozens of other deserving causes in Southern Nevada.
But those competitive fires which were sparked as a young man have never burned out. Put in an arena like a national pro-am, in company with the top players in the world, Walters obviously has the knowledge and the experience to get the most out of whatever game he brings to the course that day.
Walters says that there are a lot of strategies and practice techniques that weekend amateurs can employ to become more valuable to their professional partners in competitions like the AT&T National Pro-Am.
"Since I took up the game in my twenties, I've always played from the tips of the back tees on every course," Walters says. "Playing every course to its full length teaches you all the shots, because you're going to miss a lot more greens, and seeing the full character of a golf course prepares you to be mentally tougher. Too many amateurs play middle or up tees so they can shoot lower scores and thereby get a lower handicap. When you do that, you're massaging your ego, but you're not preparing yourself for tougher competitions on longer golf courses.
"If you take a six-handicap on an average municipal course or tame country club, and you put him up against a guy with a six who's established his handicap from the back tees at Winged Foot or Bethpage Black, that second guy will beat the first guy 19 times out of 20," Walters says. "It's not even close to who's the better player."
By playing stretched-out courses, Walters says when he plays in club tournaments and the tees are placed forward, psychologically he has the feel of playing a pitch and putt course.
Caddie Zach Williamson, who provided us the four-round scorecard for the team of Jacobson-Walters, says Walters' length compared to other 11 handicap golfers was a big advantage in the AT&T. "Billy occasionally gets a little crooked off the tee, and he had several out-of-bounds drives in the tournament, but when he hits fairways from the amateur tees he often has nine-irons or wedges to the greens, and those are a good part of his game. When he's also putting well, as he did that week, that makes him pretty darn tough."
Walters also has made a point through his life of always trying to play with better golfers.
"I enjoy playing with scratch amateurs and professionals, because it causes you to raise your own game," he says. "By watching better players, you subconsciously pick up their good habits and learn how to hit different shots. Conversely, playing with poor players is more likely to cause you to lower the bar for yourself and there's a danger you'll pick up their bad habits."
An unusual practice technique has also helped Walters become mentally tough in competition.
"In the early 80s, when I was playing a lot of high-action games, I would prepare in practice rounds by playing a two-ball reverse scramble with myself," he says. "The way that works is you hit two drives on each hole, play the worse of the two, then hit two shots to the green, play the worse, all the way to the putts. If you have a five-footer left, you have to make it twice to finish the hole.
"It's a grueling practice regimen, but it makes you tougher than nails," he says, "and it causes you to really work hard to minimize your mistakes. A lot of amateurs I've seen will use two balls and play a better-ball with themselves, or they'll play a two-ball scramble and delude themselves into thinking they're playing really well.
"In golf, when you make it easy on yourself or take shortcuts, you're only cheating yourself. Those bad habits will get magnified under pressure."
Walters feels the USGA handicap system is as fair as can be, all things considered, but he also knows the one thing handicaps can never measure is the ability of a golfer to perform under pressure.
"If I had one advantage this year at Pebble, it might be that I've probably played more golf under pressure than the other guys in the tournament," he says. "Pressure does funny things to people. Some golfers can't handle it at all, and others raise their games the greater the pressure they feel."
One gets the sense, after a long visit with him, that Billy Walters had been preparing for that magical week on the Monterey Peninsula all his life.
March 11, 2008