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Money

Going for the Green:
At the Ultimate Game, the Best of the Rest Need Only $50,000 and a Dream

By Eli Saslow

HENDERSON, Nev.

Kevin Streelman arrived, as always, by car. He placed his Callaway golf clubs in the trunk of his Toyota Camry parked outside his condo in Scottsdale, Ariz., wasted two hours in Phoenix rush hour and then drove 300 miles northwest to Las Vegas. He stopped only once, for gas. Streelman already had logged almost 6,000 driving miles in May alone -- from South Carolina to Pennsylvania to Illinois to California.

Bob Kahan arrived, as always, by private jet. He drove up to the runway at a small airport in Santa Rosa, Calif., and handed his car keys to a valet. Kahan and three friends climbed on board his $15 million Dassault Falcon, furnished with 13 leather seats and burled wood interior. They sipped bottled water and read newspapers. The flight to Vegas lasted 55 minutes.

At 8 a.m. two days later, Kahan and Streelman met for breakfast at a table near the overlooking the 18th green at Reflection Bay Golf Club. Streelman, a struggling, 28-year-old professional golfer, brought his mother, Mary Lou, and his fiancee. Kahan, an insatiable sports fan and gambler, brought his business partners.

Kahan and Streelman had been drawn together in Las Vegas by their twin passions. They both loved to compete. They both craved money. Strangers two days earlier, they would now spend the next two weeks united in pursuit of a goal: to turn a $50,000 entry fee into $2 million by winning the Ultimate Game, a new golf tournament open to all players who don't regularly compete on the PGA Tour, second-tier Nationwide Tour or the Champions Tour.

Kahan, a 60-year-old retired Wall Street equities trader, had spent the last decade jet-setting with powerful athletes and gambling on their performances. When he heard about the Ultimate Game, whose motto is "all you need is game, guts, and a $50,000 entry fee," Kahan launched into exhaustive Internet research for a player he could sponsor. A 40-handicap golfer, Kahan studied the results from small professional tournaments and talked to friends in the golf industry. Finally, early this year, he cold-called Streelman and offered a plan. Kahan would assemble a group of investors to pay Streelman's entry fee. Streelman would outplay 39 other golfers and win the tournament. The two men would split $2 million and Streelman would resume his pursuit of the PGA Tour with both his confidence and his bank account fortified.

"Just relax and have fun," Kahan told Streelman over breakfast, minutes before the golfer's first-round tee time. "It's not life and death out there."

"I know," Streelman said. "It's just a round of golf. That's what I keep telling myself."

[Photo Gallery]

The Ultimate Game, co-created by casino mogul Steve Wynn, attracted dozens of golfers like Streelman. Most had spent their professional lives toiling on minor league tours or working as club professionals. They viewed the Ultimate Game as a chance at career panacea: One good tournament could undo a lifetime of mediocre finishes and bad breaks.

Streelman knew he needed that kind of reversal. Soon. Six years out of Duke, he was one of the world's great golfers -- except not quite good enough to join the 100 or so regular players on the PGA Tour. He was always one stroke, or one bounce, or one bad tournament short. Yet he felt so close to a breakthrough that he had been compelled into an exhausting chase.

He had climbed through the minor leagues of professional golf without ever pocketing more than $30,000 in a year. By progressing, Streelman had further delayed the question he dreaded most: At what point would he pack up his golf clubs and give up this dream?

Three years earlier, he had met Courtney Caples, a former college swimmer from Alabama, while both tried to find a table for lunch at a crowded Las Vegas eatery. They wound up sitting next to each other at the bar. They got engaged nine months ago.

Now, Streelman was sick of pinching pennies. He hated thinking about leaving Caples in their Scottsdale condo and making yet another 2,000-mile drive. "If I peak out where I am now," Streelman said, "then there's no way I can make this a permanent career."

[Graphic]
GRAPHIC | Kevin Streelman's Expenses

At the beginning of each golf season, Streelman and his father, Dennis, planned a budget for about 25 tournaments. In 2006, Streelman spent more than $30,000 on entry fees and another $27,000 for food, lodging and gas. To break even each week, Streelman needed to place in the top 20 out of more than 150 golfers. He arrived in Las Vegas in the midst of his best season, with one victory on the third-tier Hooters Tour and just more than $51,000 in winnings. None of it amounted to a profit.

When on the road, Streelman refused to sleep in hotels that charged more than $70, and he split that cost by sharing a room with another golfer. While almost every competitor at the Ultimate Game stayed near the course at the Lake Las Vegas Resort in Henderson, Streelman bunked 25 minutes away because a friend could give him a good rate at a less-prestigious hotel than the resort's Ritz-Carlton. Though Kahan had offered him plenty of travel funds, Streelman felt guilty spending a stranger's money. He scheduled his practice round at Reflection Bay for late in the afternoon so he could pay the discounted twilight rate.

On Tuesday morning, Streelman walked to the first tee at Reflection Bay wearing khaki shorts and a white golf shirt. His sandy brown hair spilled over a visor, and sunglasses covered his eyes. In the first round of 18-hole match play, Streelman had been paired against an assistant club pro from Alabama. Streelman stepped up to his ball and crushed a drive 310 yards down the fairway with a smooth swing made to look effortless through 15 years of practice and refinement. He bent over and picked up his tee, not bothering to watch his ball land.

[Photo]
Kevin Streelman tees off on the first hole to open the competition at the Reflection Bay Golf Club. (John McDonnell - The Washington Post)

He proceeded to cruise through his first-round match, and Streelman couldn't help but wonder if Kahan's random phone call finally had marked his big break. Streelman eagled two holes, chipped in twice from the rough and easily beat his opponent, 4 and 3. If he could win one more match, Streelman would earn back double his $50,000 entry fee and advance to the 12-man stroke-play finals June 7 and 8. There, he would play against some of the best up-and-comers in the world. He would be on Fox Sports Channel. And if gravity finally pulled his ball the right way at the right moment, he would become a millionaire, free to chase whatever dreams he pleased.

***

Later that night, Kahan and Streelman sat at the best table at the Ritz-Carlton's Medici Cafe and Terrace, their golf shirts tucked into slacks. To celebrate Streelman's win, Kahan had suggested a group dinner to include Streelman's family and his financial backers. Three waiters introduced themselves to the table of 11. One of Kahan's friends and co-investors ordered four bottles of wine.

As he waited for dinner, Kahan thumbed through the Internet on his cellphone and read updated sports scores out loud. Yankees losing, 3-2, in the ninth. Boston up, 4-0, in the sixth. Tonight, Kahan had gambled on baseball, basketball and another golf match. It was, he explained almost apologetically, "a pretty light time of year."

[Info]

Since Kahan sold his share of a San Francisco brokerage firm, Montgomery Securities, for several hundred million dollars in 1997, he had lived out the stereotypical male fantasy. At least a dozen times each year, he invited his close friends onto a jet and flew to the most exciting sports events. He had become an annual fixture at the Masters, the Kentucky Derby, the Final Four, the World Series and the NBA playoffs.

Kahan had thrived at Montgomery by relying on arrogance and aggression. He worked in the biggest trading room outside New York. He helped lure top stock traders away from the East Coast. His work philosophy -- risk big, win big -- also defined his retirement. He flew to Las Vegas at least once each month and spent 10-hour nights at the tables, sometimes playing blackjack for $5,000 a hand. He owned a racehorse with Louisville men's basketball coach Rick Pitino. His latest obsession -- Texas hold 'em poker -- took him to 10 tournaments across the country each year. Lately, he had traded tips with professional poker champion Doyle Brunson.

"You know, I go to a lot of events in a lot of places," Kahan told his dinner companions at the Ritz-Carlton. "But this golf tournament right here might be up there with my favorites."

Kahan's friends nodded. Former co-workers at Montgomery, they had eagerly accepted when Kahan asked them to contribute to Streelman's entry fee. The four other sponsors, most of them retired or semi-retired, had invested partly to make a profit. But investing in the Ultimate Game also allowed them to walk the course a few yards from their golfer and experience the highs and lows of competition with a small sliver of their own well-being at stake. Gambling accentuated their spectator experience. No longer were they watching a disconnected golfer and appreciating his shots. They were tied to Streelman's fate and feeling his results. Each shot became intensely personal.

At dinner, Streelman dumped the diced onions and guacamole into his deconstructed gazpacho and joked, "I usually don't have meals like this on the road." Streelman told one of his favorite stories, about cramming into a trailer with four other golfers during a tournament on the North and South Dakota tour and paying $5 per head to sleep on worn cots in a field located 70 miles from the nearest town. Kahan laughed and then told one of his favorite stories, about forgetting that he had purchased a membership, a locker and clubs at the swank Shadow Creek Golf Course in North Las Vegas until an employee there called him a decade later and asked Kahan if he still wanted his golf clubs.

"I guess I'm not much of a golfer," Kahan told the table, as those around him finished dessert. "I'll tell you what, though. I can take the game pretty seriously sometimes.

"I was playing with a friend a while back, and we got paired with two other guys who were very good players. The two of us took forever to get to the green on the first hole, and I think my friend was finally lining up a putt for 11 or 12 and really taking his time over it. So one of these other guys says to me, 'Why don't you just give him the putt and we can move to the next hole?' And I said: 'I can't give it to him. I already got an 11, and we're playing for $3,000 a hole.'''

***

During the second round Wednesday, Streelman almost never took off his sunglasses. When not swinging a club, he stood with his hands on his hips and his lips pursed into a half smile. Kahan recognized the look immediately. "The kid's got a pretty good poker face," Kahan said.

By offering a chance at instant money and athletic glory, the Ultimate Game had created dozens of awkward unions between poor golfers who wanted to be rich and rich businessmen who wanted to be golfers. With so much at stake, Streelman's sponsors tried to ease the pressure he felt from playing with someone else's money. After Streelman drove his ball out of bounds on the fifth hole, sponsor Adam Tracy took a cigar out of his mouth and hollered encouragement. But privately, the sponsors gathered behind each green, sent e-mail updates to friends via BlackBerry and considered the fate of their investment. "If he can just hold on through this," sponsor Howard Berl told the group, "then we get to come back and play the finals with house money."

[Photo]
Kevin Streelman, golfer. (Post Photo)
[Photo]
Adam Tracy and Howard Berl, sponsors. (Post Photo)
[Photo]
More from Streelman. (Post Photo)

Streelman let a one-hole lead slip when opponent Erik Compton birdied the par-4 10th, and the two players tied the next five holes. Streelman birdied the 16th to go ahead by one; Compton, a former college all-American, birdied the 17th to tie it again. As the early-afternoon temperature surpassed 100 degrees, the two players walked to No. 18 in a deadlock. A crowd of 20 spectators gathered to watch the end of the day's closest match.

Standing on a slightly elevated tee box, Streelman stared at a smooth green fairway bordered by the blue of Lake Las Vegas. Red cliffs rose up in the background, and deep purple mountains stretched beyond that. It was the most beautiful view at Reflection Bay, but the 561-yard, par-5 hole hardly afforded players the luxury to appreciate it. Instead, Streelman and Compton mulled a crucial decision: Hit driver to the left, away from the lake, and count on two more shots to make the green? Or hammer the ball right and flirt with the water to gain more distance? Compton played the conservative shot and then waited for Streelman to hit.

"I want to go for it and put it on the right side," Streelman told his caddie, Tim St. John.

"That's risky," St. John said. "Why chance losing this whole thing on one shot?"

Streelman stood over his ball for 40 seconds, debating, before he finally took aim to the left, away from the water. As soon as he struck the ball, Streelman realized he had pushed it badly to the right. He watched it sail over the water and then plop, harmlessly, onto the right side of the fairway. Unintentionally, he had landed in perfect position.

He struck his next shot much more cleanly. With the wind blowing against him and the flagstick 255 yards away, Streelman took out a hybrid -- a midway club between an iron and a wood -- and rolled the ball all the way onto the green. He two-putted for birdie, and Compton missed a 15-foot putt to tie. Streelman's mother stood to applaud. Caples rushed onto the green to hug him.

[Photo]
Kevin Streelman and his sponsors recap the final hole of his match against Erik Compton, where he made birdie to win 1-up and advance to the finals with $100,000 in his pocket. (John McDonnell - The Post)

On the hill above the 18th green, Streelman's sponsors -- "the Syndicate," they now called themselves -- huddled and congratulated each other. Streelman walked up to join them, and he put his arm around Kahan's shoulder.

"Thanks so much for giving me the chance to do this," Streelman said. "I can't even tell you what this all could mean for me."

"Hey, the best is yet to come," Kahan said. "And if you do this again next week at the finals, you and me are heading straight for the [high-stakes] tables."

Transcript: Monday, June 4
» Eli Saslow was online to answer questions about this installment.

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Comments

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I am gonna be in Vegas on the 8th. Gonna have to leave the tables for a bit and go check these guys out!

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 12:21 AM

it is so awseome

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 08:35 AM

it is so awseome

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 08:35 AM

it is so awseome

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 08:35 AM

radical

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 08:35 AM

radical

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 08:35 AM

I'm 29 now and I don't know who I'd rather be... the 28-year old almost golf pro, or the 60-year old retired investor playboy!

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 09:54 AM

best thing ever


Posted by: | June 3, 2007 10:03 AM

best thing ever


Posted by: | June 3, 2007 10:03 AM

best thing ever


Posted by: | June 3, 2007 10:03 AM

best thing ever


Posted by: | June 3, 2007 10:03 AM

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Posted by: | June 3, 2007 10:03 AM

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Posted by: | June 3, 2007 10:03 AM

how about the green piece advocaters' consideration over golf?..did u hear them?

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 10:22 AM

An old fart spending millions to play. That kind of self centerdness is just sad

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 10:57 AM

Great article. I'll be watching and rooting for Streelman to win next week.

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 11:21 AM

I really enjoyed this article. Perhaps we have a new 'Daly' like golfer to root for. Go Streel...I'll be watching

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 12:39 PM


Great once -in -a lifetime -opportunity for young Streelman to reach for the stars and make a dream come true.

So interesting to see both viewpoints - from the struggling golfer watching his pennies to the millionaire with not a care in the world regarding money.

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 01:19 PM


Great once -in -a lifetime -opportunity for young Streelman to reach for the stars and make a dream come true.

So interesting to see both viewpoints - from the struggling golfer watching his pennies to the millionaire with not a care in the world regarding money.

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 01:19 PM


A great article, I will be looking forward to their next tee time. Great work on your part.

Ken, in Idaho

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 02:09 PM

Competition, bridging the gap between rich and poor. Interesting that the thrill of victory seems just as sweet for the rich guy when he sort of bought it, as opposed to the poor golfer who earned it through years of hard work.

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 03:01 PM

Bravo, Eli. Journalism well above the cut, and a fine piece of writing.

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 10:33 PM

Great story! I'm rooting for Streelman to win it all!

Posted by: | June 3, 2007 11:08 PM

Watch out for Compton. He's in the final 12 and is the most seasoned player out there. My money is on him. Oh, and by the way, the kid had a heart transplant at the age of 12. Coincidence.......I think not.

Posted by: | June 5, 2007 01:27 PM

The curiosity column and now the $ article are outstanding. In a media world of contract holdouts, paris hilton and the "weather report for the millioninth time in an hour" these articles are exctly what is needed. Oh by the way, there is actual journalism involved. I am glad the Post supported this series.

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