ESPN looks to cash in on televised poker's appeal with inaugural High Stakes Golf Tour stop in Vegas

By Brandon Tucker, Managing Editor

LAS VEGAS, Nev. - What's been discretely occurring beyond the public eye in Las Vegas for decades is about to be revealed to the masses: bad golfers with big egos and a high bank roll putting up millions against each other on the golf course.

Bali Hai Golf Club
Bali Hai on the Las Vegas Strip is the setting for the inaugural High Stakes Golf Tour event.
Bali Hai Golf ClubHigh Stakes Golf Tour - Bali Hai

This is the concept behind the new High Stakes Entertainment Group, which will debut the first tournament of its High Stakes Golf Tour, held at Bali Hai Golf Club, on ESPN later this month.

"We do this every day, it's not a big deal for us," co-founder and gambling legend Doyle Brunson said of the event. "It's been a way of life my whole life."

The 74-year-old Brunson walks with the aid of a crutch these days and lacks much power off the tee, but when it comes to clutch putting, he's still a force. He and fellow gambling icon Dewey Tomko are teaming up with fellow high stakes gamblers to bring their once "back room" golf games to the mainstream.

The premise for the upstart tour was inspired largely in part by the book "Who's Your Caddy?" written by Sports Illustrated's Rick Reilly. In the book, Reilly himself carried the bag for pros like Jack Nicklaus, John Daly and David Duval, as well as non-tour players like Donald Trump. One chapter chronicled his experience looping for Tomko, who was playing for "just a little $50,000 nassau."

The book has since become a bestseller, and Reilly is a partner in High Stakes Entertainment.

The inaugural event comprises two separate competitions over a two-day span. Day one is a three-team, three-man scramble over nine holes. Each player puts up $1 million of his own money per hole. Day two consists of nine two-man teams playing best ball. Each team puts up $250,000, with payouts to the top teams. The winner takes home a grand prize of over $1 million.

That leads to a potential payout greater than most PGA Tour events, and it's coming from the competitors' own wallets - not corporate sponsors. Dewey and Tomko are betting the public will enjoy watching your average Joe Golfer, who is subject to duffs, shanks and slices playing under pressure. That is unlike PGA Tour robots, whose margin for error is sometimes as little as the wrong side of a fairway. Not so with these mid and high handicappers.

"People can relate to us more," said Tomko. "Tiger does everything perfect. They're going to see when bad golfers have a shot or putt for a million dollars."

Poker players over the last several years have become borderline sports stars, thanks to ESPN's primetime coverage of the World Series of Poker, which grows every year in participants and prize money. Now, poker can be found on numerous cable channels, all hours of the day. Internet message boards show poker enthusiasts discussing players' table strategies from last night's coverage like NFL fans discuss a Tom Brady-orchestrated two-minute drill.

But rather than the usual darting eyes and occasional trash talk in a dark room, gamblers will be taking full swings and three-foot putts with millions of their own cash on the line.

"Most poker players secretly wanted to be pro athletes on ESPN," said 'Kid Poker' Daniel Negreanu. "This is an opportunity for us to flip the script. A lot of actors and athletes play our game, now this is our chance to do something a little different."

Tomko and Brunson helped recruit the biggest names in the poker industry, including Negreanu, Phil Hellmuth, Phil Ivey. The field even features one woman: wife of hockey great Wayne Gretzky, Janet Jones, whose gambling habits became public knowledge when former NHL player Rick Tocchet was investigated for running an illegal gambling ring and Jones was revealed to be a client.

After the tour's TV debut in October, High Stakes hopes to bring the event to a new destination, possibly in Europe or Asia. They would also like to extend the field beyond poker stars to any celebrity or athlete willing to stake big cash on the golf course. While it's also a "made for TV" event, organizers would like to start bringing in galleries to add a crowd component.

It's a safe bet that these players don't really care whether the cameras are on them or not. They're going to be putting up big money on courses worldwide regardless.

"I love golf!" said Negreanu, easily the most animated of the competitors during the two-day event. "I'm addicted."

High Stakes Golf Tour on ESPN

The High Stakes Golf Tour will debut on ESPN on Saturday, Oct. 21 at 3 p.m. EST, with the second day, 10-team best ball the following Saturday, Oct. 28 again at 3 p.m. Re-air dates will be announced later.

Brandon TuckerBrandon Tucker, Managing Editor

Brandon Tucker is the Managing Editor for Golf Advisor. To date, his golf travels have taken him to over two dozen countries and over 500 golf courses worldwide. While he's played some of the most prestigious courses in the world, Tucker's favorite way to play the game is on a great muni in under three hours. Follow Brandon on Twitter at @BrandonTucker and on Instagram at BrandonTuckerGC.

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