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Titanic Thompson: Perhaps the Greatest Hustler

Following on from last week, Dermot Gilleece looks at an incredible golfing gambler

Posted Nov 08, 2010 by Dermot Gilleece

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I was fascinated over the weekend to note that a book is about to be published on one of my all-time favourite golfing characters. "Titanic Thompson: the man who bet on everything" is by Kevin Cook and deals with the utterly captivating activities of a man born Alvin Clarence Thomas in Monett, Missouri at this time of year in 1892 and enjoyed his salad days during the early years of the Great Depression.

Not having read the book, I can draw only on my own research but I imagine our hero's more celebrated escapades will not have escaped Cook's attention.  Thompson's story has to do with an accomplished, ambidextrous player, who had the ability to hide his great talent. Then there was his caddie/ side-kick, Ky Laffoon, who would one day be good enough to play in the Ryder Cup.  It is difficult to imagine a partnership with greater potential for golfing skulduggery.

Their most fruitful years were roughly from 1920 to 1933, before Laffoon progressed to legitimate play as a tournament professional.  Born in Zinc, Arkansas in 1908, Laffoon became one of golf's great eccentrics.  Part Native American, he was known to his colleagues at "The Chief" and became so successful as to win four tournaments in 1934 when he also captured the Radix Cup for best stroke average.

Thompson never played tournament golf but was described by US PGA Champion, Paul Runyan, as "the best left-handed player in the world until Bob Charles came along."  Tommy Bolt, the 1958 US Open champion, said of him: "He could have been the greatest.  He had great everything, including a solid, compact swing.  Not one of those long swings like Hogan's where you had to practice every day to keep it; Ty had a gambler's swing.  No telling how great that guy could've been, except back then he made more money hustling oilmen in east Texas than he could have made on the tour."

Other observers less interested in Thompson's golfing talents, described him as a kind of American Robin Hood except that when he stole from the rich, he kept it.  Though he once led the life of a millionaire, he died penniless. Still, he remained immensely proud of his achievements and boasted that he could "outsmart, outcheat, out-connive and roll higher than 'em all in my day.  And that's no lie."

The sobriquet Titanic came to him in a poolroom in the spring of 1912, shortly after the tragic sinking of the great ocean liner.  Responding to a bet that he couldn't jump across a pool table without touching it, the then Alvin Thomas took a running start, dived headfirst across the table and landed on the far side without touching an edge.  On being told that nobody knew the stranger's identity, a local pool shark remarked: "It must be Titanic, the way he sinks everybody."  Thomas liked the sound of it and when a newspaper later mistook his name, he happily became Titanic Thompson.

He was almost 30 when he came to golf in San Francisco in 1921, but a mastery of hand-eye co-ordination made him an extremely quick learner. Though he generally played left-handed, he would often start right-handed against a prospective pigeon and when the stakes began to rise, would generously suggest: "I tell you what.  I'll play you double or nothing - and I'll play left-handed."      

With Laffoon by his side, the options became all the more attractive. Like saying contemptuously to an opponent after beating him right-handed and left-handed: "Why, even my caddie could beat you."  The bet was duly struck and Laffoon would get his share of the resultant winnings. 

When Raymond Floyd was engaging in a little hustling in Dallas in 1965, he noticed an old man among the trees.  "He was a tall, slender gentleman and I had seen him watching me," Floyd recalled.  "He introduced himself as Ty Thomas.  I'd heard of him, of course, and he asked me if I'd heard of Lee Trevino."

On being told "No", Titanic went on to enquire if Floyd would be interested in playing Trevino. "Certainly," came the reply. "I'll play anybody I've never heard of."  "On his course?"  "I'll play anybody anywhere that I've never heard of."  The pair played at El Paso CC over three days, Trevino winning on the first two days and Floyd winning on the third, with maybe $1,000 changing hands.

Floyd said of Thompson: "I remember most his hands - long, elegant, linear fingers, just perfect, like they'd been drawn.  It's an odd word to use about a man's hands but they were just beautiful."    

When he entered a nursing home in 1973, Thompson said with a sly grin: "It won't be so bad.  I'll beat those old geezers out of their social security money."  A year later, golf's greatest hustler was finally outsmarted- by the grim reaper.

- Dermot Gilleece

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