By the time I was 18, I knew my profession was going to be in one of my four areas of expertise: mathematics, computer science, poker, or golf. Of those, golf was the one I was most passionate about.
The early years
I took up golfing when I was 12 years old after getting my first job as a caddy. By the time I was 14, I had won the caddy golf championship. By the age of 15, I was on the high school golf team and shooting in the mid-80s. By 16, as a senior in high school, I was a good golfer and averaged in the mid-70s.
When I was 17, I went to college at the University of Illinois where I tried out for the golf team. It was a six-mile walk from campus to the university’s golf course, and on the day of tryouts it was raining. After making that walk, I didn’t play very well and didn’t make the team.
The next summer I got a job as an instructor at a golf camp in Wisconsin. I didn’t shoot any rounds over par that whole summer. When I got back to college, I assumed I was the best golfer at the university and would easily make the team.
Unfortunately tryouts weren’t scheduled until a month after the semester began, and I was taking 22 units in the College of Engineering for my degree in computer science — more than anyone had ever taken at the university. I spent my weekdays going to class. My weekends were taken up playing poker, so I didn’t play golf for a month. I knew I would only have to average 75 for the four rounds in the tryouts, and I hadn’t shot over 75 in a year.
This time I called the golf coach ahead of time to line up a ride to the golf course so I wouldn’t have to make the six-mile walk with my golf clubs again. Then the tryouts got postponed a week because the golf coach had somehow forgotten about a tournament that was going to be played that weekend. Even though I tried to get a ride, it didn’t work out. That meant I again had to make the six-mile walk.
Still, I only had to have one of the top five scores to make the team. I didn’t think it would be a problem.
The so-called “gentleman’s game”
The first hole was a par 5 and I hit a drive about 280 yards down the middle, putting me about 220 yards from the green. I came to my ball and saw it was in a divot — the course wasn’t in the greatest condition — and I looked over where another guy had driven about the same distance. His ball was in a divot as well.
I took an iron out and prepared to lay up. There was no way I could hit a wood out of that lie. After I hit my shot I looked over at the other guy and noticed he had a wood in his hand. I couldn’t figure it out. Then I looked down and understood: he’d moved his ball.
I saw several other instances of cheating by people in my group. One guy was keeping score for the group, and on the ninth hole he hit the ball out of bounds but still gave himself a par.
Meanwhile, word had gotten out after people had seen me hit the ball that I was a really good golfer. The coach met me at the ninth hole and asked me what I’d shot. I told him I’d shot 40, but everyone else in the group was cheating and there was no one to monitor it. I told him I was the best golfer at the university and that I’d play anyone — including him — for money. But this was a joke.
I didn’t play well that weekend. I shot almost 320 for the four rounds, and I didn’t make the team. Of those who made the team, I was sure some of them had cheated. I was really disgusted.
I had seen the same phenomenon a few years earlier. When I was 15 and 16, no one my age ever beat me when we played for money. I noticed some of these same guys were winning junior golf tournaments, and I’d never won one. I remember one guy who had never beaten me — not once — who had won a few titles. I went out on the course once when he was playing, and as I came upon him he had his ball in his hand and was throwing it out of the rough. Just in case you’re not familiar with golf, that’s a no-no.
Even on the pro level, cheating happened, too. I knew because I’d caddied for pros a few times, and while they didn’t necessarily cheat, their caddies would move their balls out from behind trees and and so forth.
One of the reasons I became a poker player instead of a golfer was because poker was more honest, contrary to what a lot of people might think. After all, golf has the nickname “the gentleman’s game” while poker — especially at that time — has had a somewhat shady reputation. I found people in poker tended to play by more of an honor code than was the case in golf.
In any event, I quit golf at that point and didn’t play again for about five years.
A nice day to drive
A little later I was in my mid-20s and was at a poker game where the subject turned to golf. Someone asked me if I played and what I shot. I explained how I used to play and that I probably would shoot around 90, but that I could hit the ball really far.
I never totally understood it, to be honest, but I always drove farther than just about anyone. My drives with the old wooden clubs used to average around 280 yards and would often go 300. Using today’s equipment — and this might sound preposterous to some people — I would hit the ball 350 yards. Even when I was 18 my average drive was longer than any pro on tour. And that was at 140 pounds! I don’t believe there was anyone on the planet who weighed what I did who could hit a golf ball as far as I could.
Apparently the reason I hit it so far is a combination of several factors: I have a strong left side because I’m predominantly left handed but golf right handed (like Jack Nicklaus). I have strong legs from wrestling and track. I have good weight transfer from my early baseball training. I have good hand-eye coordination which allows me to swing as hard as I want and still make good contact. Also, the way I pronate my wrists when I swing maximizes my power.
Anyhow, the others didn’t believe that someone who shot 90 could outdrive them. One day the four of us decided to go out to the course. There were 14 driving holes, and we decided to bet each other $100 per drive on who could hit the longest.
On the first tee I just steered the ball 270 yards down the middle. One guy fell down, and the other two just said “Oh, shit.”
I grounded one drive that day, and drove the farthest on the other 13 holes. I won $3,600 on the drives — the most I’d ever won on the golf course and one of my larger gambling wins at the time.
I started playing golf regularly with those guys after that, and before long I was shooting in the 70s again. Then I shot a round under par one day. It caused a problem.
See, I looked better than I really was. My drives were usually bombs, but my short game was inconsistent. As a result, no one would play me for money without asking for a much bigger spot than I could give up. There was no reason for me to gamble at golf anymore, because I couldn’t get a fair game.
Some time later I was playing poker again and once more got in with a group of guys who golfed.
By this point I had lost my short game entirely. When I was young, my two strengths were putting and driving. I was a little weak on my irons. Once, I’d taken off from golf for so long, for some reason I didn’t have any feel around the greens. My swing still looked good, and I could still hit the ball 300 yards. I’d scare people on the tee, but I just couldn’t post a good score anymore. I’d rarely break 80.
Once in a while, I would get hot and score in the low 70s. Again, people didn’t want to play with me without me giving them a huge spot. I quit golfing for five years again.
Hitting greens with Ivey
After that, a friend of mine in poker, Phil Ivey, took up golf. He knew I used to play and asked if I would play with him. I told him if he practiced and got to the point where I could only give him a stroke per hole, then I’d play with him. He practiced and got to that point, and we started to play. It started out being a fair match, but eventually he got too good. We often played as partners after that.
After the poker boom, ESPN decided to have a golf competition among poker players. There was handicapping, and players shot from different tees. Phil and I were supposed to be partners for it, but everyone objected that it would be unfair because I could drive too far. There would be no way they could compete if it were Phil and I playing a scramble.
Instead, they allowed David Oppenheim to partner with Phil, despite the fact that David could drive about as far as I could. As it turned out, Phil and David won that competition.
That was about five years ago, and I haven’t played a round of golf since.
Overall, I’d say I have had a really disappointing golf career.
It was something that at one time I was really passionate about. I loved being outside and being able to enjoy nature. From the time I was 12 until I was 16, I played golf almost every single day. I’d take the bus to the course and practice until it got dark. I’d play in the rain and snow in Chicago. I once even fell through the ice going after a golf ball. I always wanted the weather to be as bad as possible when I played, because that meant there would be fewer people on the course.
Now I suppose my golfing days are behind me. I’ve taken five years off from golf five different times in my life. I think this hiatus will probably be longer.
Barry Greenstein is a member of Team PokerStars Pro