SPORTS The Hustler

Meet deadly Dick Martin, the scourge of the amateur golf circuit - and hold on to your wallet

Start with Dick Martin’s hands. In Pigeons, Marks, Hustlers, and Other Golf Bettors You Can Beat, Sam Snead warns golfers to be wary of betting with anyone whose left hand has callouses at the base of the ring and little fingers. Martin’s left hand is calloused there. His hands are also incongruously large for a man no more than 5-foot-5 and 140 pounds, having been built up by gripping golf clubs each day for the past six decades.

Then there’s Dick Martin’s skin, Snead advises golfers to be wary of making bets with anyone who has a darker tan than theirs. And although Martin’s complexion is too fair to tan deeply, his weathered skin testifies to the years he’s spent in the unforgiving Texas sun and wind. The lines at the comers of his pale blue eyes suggest the hundreds of thousands of times he’s squinted to see his golf ball arc against the horizon.

And don’t forget Dick Martin’s clubs. Martin carries a putter that can double as a driver and a rusty, lightweight nine-iron that has deep grooves in the clubface and can make the golf ball hop, skip, and dance on its way to the hole. These are the tools of a real pro.

Unfortunately, many golfers are unaware of Snead’s warning signs of a golf hustler. From the Forties well into the Seventies, whenever golf hustlers arrived in Dallas they invariably asked two questions: How do I get to Tenison Park? and Where can I find Dick Martin?

The answer was simple. To find Tenison Park, a municipal course just off Grand Avenue in East Dallas, was to find Dick Martin. For decades he would arrive by mid-morning each day, and when he wasn’t out on the course looking for lost golf balls or empty Coke bottles-anything he could convert into cash-he held court in the grill.

Martin was without peer at poor-mouthing his own game while giving a pigeon false hope. “There’s a sucker born every minute,” he would say with conviction, if not originality, and then he’d proceed to demonstrate an uncanny sense of who they were. And how to pluck them.

When the propositions had been made and accepted, Martin would step up on the first tee and begin to operate on his opponents with the precision of a surgeon. “Dick Martin didn’t ever try to drain a guy’s blood,” says his friend and frequent two-man partner Jerry Biesel. “But he’d take a drop or two- every day.”

Martin generally played matches for $10 or $20 a side, with a few side bets. He’d take home maybe $200 a day, and with his frugal habits-perhaps the only thing Martin does better than play golf is live cheaply-he accumulated enough cash to begin investing in rental properties in far Northwest Dallas. It sure beat working 9 to 5.

Martin wasn’t a long hitter, but he was straight off the tee. Accuracy was paramount at Tenison Park, a tight course with enough trees to give Smokey the Bear an anxiety attack. Once Martin was within 125 yards of the green, he picked up his trusty nine-iron, which he bought in the late Twenties for 50 cents.

That four-bit club, which he paid out over five weeks at 10 cents a week, has helped Martin win maybe a million dollars, cash, in golf bets. “Dick’s nine-iron has crippled’ more guys than polio,” says one Tenison Park veteran.

Martin, who turned seventy-three last December, now plays at Great Southwest G.C. in Arlington, usually in a gangsome game with some of his old pals from Tenison. There’s money riding every time a ball is in the air. Not big money, necessarily, but enough action to keep everyone interested-except Martin, who’s prone to wander off looking for golf balls.

Gambling is a tradition in golf, a tradition-rich sport. Centuries ago the founding fathers in Scotland, the golfers at Muirfield and St. Andrews, kept a record of their golfing wagers on the town scroll. Today, whether the stakes arc $10 a hole or 10 cents, most golfers play the game for more than the exercise. Perhaps 75 percent of all golf games have something more riding on the outcome than a pat on the back. That estimate could be low.

Martin still takes an occasional trip to Las Vegas, which Dan Jenkins calls the most likely place to Find a fourteen-handicapper who shoots 71. It was in Vegas, where Martin made a habit of winning tournaments for high-rollers sponsored by casinos like the Sahara and Desert Inn. that a sportswriter dubbed him “Dandy Dick Martin, the scourge of the Texas amateur golf circuit.”

It was also in Vegas that Martin once lost a $10,000 game in the biggest match he ever played. Martin was summoned to Vegas by Johnny Moss, a poker player nonpareil with Dallas connections, for whom Martin had caddied in high-stakes golf games in the late Forties and early Fifties. Moss paid Martin caddie fees of $20 a day plus 10 percent of his winnings, which were considerable at times since Moss liked to play for $1,000 (and up) a hole.

Martin couldn’t come through for Moss that day. Martin’s misadventures in the greenside hunkers cost Moss the $10,000 (Martin says he won several hundred on his own money on the back nine) and convinced Dandy Dick to add a sand wedge to his bag.

At seventy-three and with a touch of arthritis in his back, Martin can’t drive the ball as he once did. But put him within 100 yards with his nine-iron in his hand and he remains Doctor Death. And he can still putt an opponent’s lights out, as he did at the fundrais-ing tournament Lee Trevino sponsored last spring for Texas Wesleyan College in Fort Worth. Martin’s team in the four-man scramble birdied sixteen consecutive holes, with Dandy Dick sinking “at least ten” birdie putts from fifteen to twenty feet.

Trevino, who got a putting tip from Martin (“stand more directly over the ball”) on the eve of the 1971 U.S, Open and proceeded to beat Jack Nicklaus in a memorable playoff, praised Martin in his autobiography written with Sam Blair: “Dick Martin was probably the best player I ever saw until Jack Nicklaus.”

Trevino and Martin saw each other mostly at Tenison Park, where the cast of hustlers and con artists came straight out of a Ring Lardner novel. It was at Tenison Park that Trevino fashioned his definition of pressure: having to make a $5 putt with only $2 in your pocket.

And it was at Tenison Park that Dick Martin was king. He’d beat the low handicappers and scratch players, Lee Trevino included, straight up. And he’d “even things up” with high handicappers by inventing hustles like the game “Putting for Birdie.” Under the rules, Martin had to play from the back tees, while his opponent was given a pun for birdie on each hole. The catch was that Martin was allowed to place his opponent’s ball on the green. Martin knew the Tenison greens so well he could place the ball where his pigeon had no chance to make the birdie putt and a better-than-average chance of three putting. The pigeon would shoot 76 or so. a score Martin had no trouble beating.

Playing Dick Martin at Tenison Park was like going one-on-one with Larry Bird at Boston Garden. Any way you hooked or sliced it, you had virtually no chance to win.

Martin began playing golf full-time in the early Thirties. He tried his hand at, gainful employment on occasion-he worked for a laundry service and an auto body shop, and during World War II he transported recruits arriving in Dallas over to Camp Wolters near Mineral Wells-but mostly he played golf. He caddied and hustled bets, and he began winning golf tournaments. The first was in 1931 at the old Parkdale course in East Dallas. Martin has won so many tournaments in the interim that he’s lost count of the exact number, though he suspects 200 might be close. He has a collection of golf trophies that cover nearly as much of Texas as AAA road maps.

In Odessa in 1949, Martin added to his reputation by making a hole-in-one on the final hole to win the tournament. Informed that his team needed a birdie two on the final hole to tie, Martin said, “Okay, boys, let’s win this thing.”

When the first member of the foursome hesitated in making his club selection, Martin kicked his ball off the tee and threw down one of his own. “What club do I hit?” mocked Martin. “Hell, just knock the goddam ball into the goddam hole.” With that, he hit a four-iron that landed on the green 213 yards away, took one bounce, and disappeared into the cup.

In Levelland another year, Martin tuned up for a tournament by shooting 41 for nine holes. He tramped into the clubhouse and began bellyaching. “Hell, I ought to be able to shoot 41 with just my nine-iron and putter,” he groused.

One of the locals took umbrage at what he considered to be Martin’s impudence. “Wait a minute, buster, that’s a pretty tough tract we’ve got here,” he countered.

“Well, I didn’t say it wasn’t hard,” said Martin, who maintains he wasn’t hustling some action that day. “But I can play it in 41 with those two clubs.” Before he knew it, $200 that said he couldn’t was sitting on the table.

What the man from Levelland didn’t know was that Dick Martin carried in his bag a blade putter with a hickory shaft with which he could hit a low, long tee shot. Using the putter as a driver had once helped Martin win a match against Don January in Ranger, Texas, and take a two-man event with partner Miller Barber in Little Rock, Arkansas. Ninety minutes later, Martin had finished a tidy nine holes in thirty-eight strokes and pocketed the $200.

On the days Martin doesn’t play at Great Southwest, he piddles around The Golf Shop, which sits on his property on Southwell, near Walnut Hill and Harry Hines. In addition to several small rent houses, the property is cluttered with broken-down golf carts, rusted appliances, and scrap metal. Fred Sanford and son would love it.

The walls inside The Golf Shop are covered with photographs tracing Martin’s career. There’s a picture of him with Ben Hogan at the 1945 Victory Open at Dallas Country Club, and a publicity photo of Wahoo McDaniel, the football player/wrestler, a frequent Martin playing partner. It’s said that McDaniel broke two or three clubs a round.

The main attraction at the golf shop, | though, is golf balls. Martin finds them himself, wraps them in Dallas Times Herald rain protectors, and sells them below retail.

“Hell, I’d just as soon look for golf balls as play,” says Martin, and the stories bear him out. Once he was at the Tropicana Hotel in Las Vegas playing with Jerry Biesel and Gene Herndon in a three-man match for $1,500 a hole. After watching his opponents drive into trouble on the sharp dogleg right hole and seeing his two partners hit long drives in the fairway, Martin snap-hooked his drive out of bounds on the left.

Not coincidentally. over a fence on the left, at least a dozen golf balls were in plain view in the area where Martin’s ball happened to land.

“Dick, you sonuvabitch, you did that on purpose,” Biesel shouted.

“jerry, I had to do it,” Martin finally confessed. “I couldn’t stand the thought of not getting at all those balls.” Martin attributes some of his success on the Texas tournament trail, the so-called “barbecue circuit,” to clean living. He has never smoked, rarely drunk alcohol, and generally stayed away from the socializing that made Texas club tournaments notorious. “I’ve seen too many guys rum-dumb on the first tee the next morning,” he explained. “Not me.”

In addition to the first-place trophies Martin won, he often was given the choice between a new set of golf clubs or sterling silver. For Martin, who grew up poor, there was no choice involved. He would select the golf clubs, which he’d take back to Tenison Park and sell out of the trunk of his car, a movable pro shop of sorts.

Once, after winning a tournament in Cor- sicana, where he was born in 1913, Martinexplained his rationale,” If I look the silver.Marguerite [his wife since 1947] would haveto spend all her time polishing it. As it is,she”s got to keep the grass cut while I’m outplaying golf.”


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