The Ultimate Hustler – The story of Titanic Thompson!
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Even as a young man in South Africa, I had heard of the legendary Titanic Thompson.
Gambler, golf hustler, accused murderer, and more were monikers attached to this man. Titanic Thompson traveled the USA wagering at cards, billiards, shooting, golf, and more. He had extraordinary eyesight, terrific hand-eye coordination, and was also ambidextrous. The renowned pool player, Minnesota Fats, considered Thompson a genius and “the greatest action man of all time.” His ‘work’ line attracted a criminal element intent on robbing him, and Titanic killed 4 men in self-defense. There was the fifth death on a boat that the Sheriff deemed ‘iffy,’ but Thompson released the deed to the boat and left town, rather than stand trial.
Titanic Thompson didn’t start his golf career until his early 30’s, but his natural physical skills served him well.
After taking some lessons in San Francisco and playing a great deal, he became good enough to turn professional. But he replied when asked if he’d ever turn Pro, “I could not afford the pay cut.” In the 1930s, top pro golfers were lucky to make $30,000 in a year, and Thompson made that most weeks, hustling wealthy country club players!
Hall of Fame golfer Ben Hogan traveled with Titanic Thompson in the early 1930s for money games, and he later called Titanic the best shot-maker he ever saw. “He can play right or left-handed. You can’t beat him!” said Hogan. One of Thompson’s hustles was to beat an opponent playing right-handed and then offer to play the course again left-handed for double or nothing. Usually, the opponent was unaware that Titanic was an ambidextrous golfer, so you know how that went!
Many golfers, who later became famous, have left documented accounts of their matches and dealings with this colorful man.
These golfers include Bryon Nelson, Sam Snead, Lee Elder, Harvey Penick, Paul Runyon, and Ben Hogan.
Thanks to renowned golf writer Dan Jenkins for his story ‘How I Met the Ultimate Hustler’ in Golf Digest, April 2015.
Pictures: Erik Söderström
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