Walters WEB

Las Vegas icon grateful for “incredible support” from golf world.


LAS VEGAS, NEVADA: Every golfer knows of the bonds that develop during a round of golf. You get the measure of a person by the way they play. You learn their true personality. You see how they perform under pressure and how they respond when the ball doesn’t bounce their way.

In a lifetime of golf, Billy Walters has forged far more of those bonds than just about anyone. He has pounded balls on dirt-field driving ranges and walked the fairways of Pebble Beach with the world’s greatest professional golfers. He has played everything from a five-dollar Nassau to wagering thousands of dollars on a single hole. He’s befriended celebrities and reveled in the company of caddies. And throughout, he has found companionship, camaraderie and a love for the game.

Most importantly, he has discovered friendships that have meant the world to him, particularly of late.

William “Billy’’ Walters, 74, is likely the world’s most famous professional gambler and sports bettor. But for a good part of his life, those pursuits were just one piece of an impressive business portfolio that included auto dealerships, land development, golf resorts and Wall Street investments.

It’s that last venture that got Walters in hot water. In 2017, a New York jury convicted Walters of insider trading in a case marked by government misconduct. Walters steadfastly has maintained his innocence. After serving 31 months in federal prison, he received clemency in January when former President Trump commuted his sentence.

Throughout the ordeal, Walters was continually uplifted by friends whom he had met through the game of golf. During his 31 months in prison, Walters had at least 1,400 visits. He had 200 registered visitors, setting a record for the Bureau of Prisons, according to prison officials. Some 20 golf friends visited Walters at least four times each at the prison camp in Pensacola, Florida.

“I will forever be grateful for the support of the golf community for being there for our family during this difficult chapter,” Walters told me recently during an interview at his Carlsbad home overlooking the Pacific. “When I was in prison, I got letters every week from golf friends. I got frequent visits from some very busy people who could have been doing other things. That kind of support was incredibly helpful.’’

Walters left federal prison last summer amid the coronavirus pandemic and remained in home confinement with wife Susan until his sentence was commuted in January.

As has been widely reported, some well-known members of the golf community urged former President Trump to grant clemency to Walters. Golf instructor-extraordinaire Butch Harmon, PGA legend Peter Jacobsen and golf announcer/entertainer David Feherty were among those who crafted letters vouching for Walters. Others, including golf icons Jim Colbert and Jim Hardy, wrote letters attesting to Walters’ character as part of his sentencing in 2017.

Wrote Jacobsen: “I’ve been friends with Bill for over 30 years and know him to be intensely loyal and generous…Bill has an incredible life story. After years of struggling when he was young, he worked hard to prosper using pure tenacity. He brought many others along with him as he found success in his field. His integrity has never been in question in my mind.’’

Added Harmon: “This game of golf is a great initiator and I met Bill through that love of golf…I have enjoyed both playing and instructing Bill in golf, a game of honesty and integrity. Bill has exemplified nothing but those qualities in my 30 plus years with him.’’

Walters had never met Donald Trump. “Support from the golf community—especially titans like Harmon, Feherty and Jacobsen, no doubt influenced the former Commander-in-Chief to grant clemency,” said Walters.

Passion And Practice

Anyone who has been in Walters’ company will understand the ease with which he has made friends. Charming, courteous and blessed with a smoky Kentucky accent that immediately disarms, Walters has a personality that masks a ferocious competitive streak—one that has served him well in the always-vexing game of golf.

Johnny Humphries is the man who introduced Walters to the game. At the time, Walters was a 20-year-old car salesman. Walters had met Humphries at a local watering hole and the pair had become friends. Humphries, whose sister Susan would later become Walters’ wife, invited Walters to play golf at a local nine-hole track in Louisville, Kentucky. Walters arrived without any equipment.

He rented clubs, bought shoes, balls and a glove on the spot and proceeded to the first tee, where he quickly asked Humphries: “So what are we playing for?’’ Walters recalls leaving the 18th green with less cash than he had on the 1st tee. But he was hooked.

Adept with a pool cue from a very young age and able to hit fastballs with a Louisville Slugger, Walters knew he had the hand-eye coordination to be a decent golfer. And he had the smarts to know that he would only improve with proper instruction and time on the range.

Thus began a passion filled with seeking out good teachers from Florida to California. His first golf instructor was the legendary Bob Hamilton, a former PGA champion working in Evansville, Indiana. Since then, Walters has hit with the likes of Jim Hardy, Pete Cowens, David Leadbetter, Jimmy Ballard, John Redmond, Peter Kostas and Bill and Butch Harmon.  All remain his friends.

For much of Walters’ life, his steadiest golf partner was close friend Calvin Hash, a fellow Kentuckian.

“He’s one of the most remarkable men I’ve ever known,’’ said Walters, recalling a time in Alabama when he and Hash had lost all of their money in a golf match and were due to play again the next morning. “I’m trying to borrow money from a friend in Kentucky and have it brought down to us that night and Calvin just sat there happily, without a care in the world. I asked him how he could always be so calm and contented.’’

Hash told Walters that he’d been in the Battle of the Bulge under Gen. George Patton. He’d seen gruesome combat under horrific, cold conditions.

“Calvin said he told God that if he got out of there alive, he’d never want for anything in his life,’’ said Walters, recalling that Hash lived modestly with his wife and six children. “He was my best friend and he was the most content man I’ve ever known in my life.’’

(They won $70,000 the next day.)

“People measure wealth and happiness in a lot of ways,’’ said Walters, choking up. “But Calvin Hash had life figured out more than anyone I know.’’ When Hash died at the age of 92 in 2016, Walters delivered the eulogy.

Pebble Beach Memory

Walters won the 2008 Pebble Beach Pro-Am with playing partner Fredrick Jacobson in his second visit to the tourney. (He’d acquired an aircraft from Gulfstream Aerospace and they invited him to play.) Because of his gambling and betting prowess, Walters immediately was accused of sandbagging. But, he said, the tournament staff attested to his ability to make quads and triples right along with his birdies and pars. “I couldn’t miss a putt inside of five feet all week,’’ said Walters. “And the tournament invited me back! That says it all.”

He played regularly in Jack Binion’s gamblers golf tournament in Las Vegas. It required a minimum buy-in of $5,000 and golfers played $500 Nassau games. Walters came to know virtually all of the nation’s greatest gamblers, poker players and sports bettors.

How does a poor kid from Munfordville, Kentucky, come into such company?

With innate skills as a salesman, Walters found instant success in the Kentucky automobile business. But in his early years, he lost money as fast as he made it. He loved to gamble, loved cards and, for a time, loved to drink. It was not a happy combination.

In the early 1980s, he realized that he belonged in Las Vegas. And from there, a legend was born. Walters’ exploits at the roulette wheel, the poker table, and most especially, the sports book have become lore. He won $3.8 million at roulette on one occasion, he won the 1986 Super Bowl of Poker in Lake Tahoe and he became the most-feared sports bettor in all of Las Vegas.

During that time, Walters also became immersed in the Vegas golf community. He became good friends with Tour pro Jim Colbert, whose company controlled 26 golf courses, including five in Las Vegas. Walters took some cues from Colbert and entered the then-booming business of golf. To this day, Colbert remains a steadfast and true friend of Walters.

During the savings and loan banking crisis in the late 1980s, the government’s Resolution Trust Corp. was selling discounted real estate assets seized from failed banks. Walters acquired one such asset, the Paradise Hills Country Club in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

“Paradise Hills was a shell of its former self,” remembered Walters. “Homeowners had filed multiple lawsuits with no resolution in sight. I started making improvements and purchased new maintenance equipment when vandals struck. I called another town hall meeting to make sure members, homeowners, and I were on the same page. It taught me the importance of gaining majority support to accomplish goals and lessons that soon would pay big social dividends in Las Vegas.”

Walters went on to acquire a trio of struggling golf courses in the far western suburbs of Chicago. Again, he used his business acumen to deliver value—meeting with members, rebranding and enlisting support from friend and former baseball star Ken “The Hawk” Harrelson, the voice of the Chicago White Sox. Walters nursed all three courses back to health and sold them to institutional investors.

Walters then set his eyes on his own community—Las Vegas.

“It’s hard to fathom now, but when I relocated to Nevada, I thought the city was the most underserved golf market in the country,” said Walters. “Golf club owners were fat and happy because demand clearly exceeded supply and guest fees were high.

“I got my feet wet in the Vegas golf market by competing in a blind request-for-proposal to redevelop 100 acres located in one of the toughest parts of town,” said Walters. “Although 100 acres is a very small parcel for an 18-hole championship course—since so much land is federally owned in Nevada—opportunity knocked.

“We were the only bid submitted, showing just how difficult it would be to make the financials work. In some ways we won by default,’’ said Walters. “I hired Perry Dye who had extensive experience in designing golf courses in Japan on compact tracts of land.’’

Shortly after opening Desert Pines Golf Club, a local crime wave hit close to home. “We knew the area was depressed, but within two months we had a robbery at the corner 7-Eleven convenience store [the clerk was murdered] and another incident resulting in an underage girl being raped,” said Walters. “Remembering my experience at Paradise Valley Country Club in New Mexico, our team decided to embrace the neighborhood. We hired 65 locals, most of whom spoke English as a second language. An English teacher was hired, we started a GED program, and became a First Tee chapter. We promised local youths that if they stayed in school and maintained passing grades, they could have free playing privileges with equipment provided.

“I owned Desert Pines Golf Club for 20 years with no incidents. The club became one of local pride,” beamed Walters. “I distinctly remember one of our longtime employees, Nacho, earning his citizenship. He told me that working at Desert Pines was like an ‘angel on his shoulder’ and he asked me to attend his swearing-in during a naturalization ceremony. I did happily. Afterwards, I asked him how he was going to celebrate? His response, ‘Just like every other American, with a hamburger and Jack Daniels.’ I have to say, what we accomplished at Desert Pines is the most fulfilling thing I’ve done in golf.’’

Walters Golf also created Royal Links in Las Vegas, a course that replicated the best holes of Scottish golf. Royal Links was sold in 2016, two years after Walters sold Desert Pines to a private equity firm.  

Walters still owns Bali Hai Golf Club, a high-profile facility within walking distance of Mandalay Bay on Las Vegas Boulevard. “Although the location may have seemed like an ideal sport in the heart of the city, the land is actually unappealing for development,” explained Walters. “No vertical construction can be built because of its proximity to McCarran International Airport. The bidding process was similar to Desert Pines, but with much more interest. Concepts ranged from a racetrack to golf. Even Andre Agassi submitted a proposal. I think my bid was successful since I had a long track record of golf course management in the area.”

Walters’ team spent more than $36 million developing Bali Hai. “We planted thousands of palm trees and tens of thousands of flowering plants to make my dream of building one of the finest golf experiences in the state,” said Walters.

Jim Colbert remembers the key role played by Walters in helping him secure Las Vegas’s first million-dollar charity golf tournament.

“Bill was a major contributor of both his time and money for the citizens of Las Vegas,’’ Colbert wrote in 2017, “As founders, Bill and I were responsible for finding the commercial sponsor for the tournament, and Panasonic became our original sponsor. We then needed to obtain 1,000 amateurs at $5,000 per person to support the base of the million-dollar purse. Bill, myself, and eventually 1,000 other founders would donate the remaining costs. Being new to the community, I needed a lot of help and introductions to meet the movers and shakers. With Bill’s help, we accomplished this base community effort. He had key contacts with all the hotels and local businesses and he believed that the PGA tour would be good for the community, so he helped connect us to all of the right people to make the tournament happen. In the end, we had 19 participating hotels and individuals working together.

In 1983 we raised over one-half million dollars for local charities. Over the years, that amount has increased to over one million dollars per event. The tournament was and still is a huge success—raising millions of dollars for the Las Vegas community.’’

Golf in Las Vegas has mirrored the fortunes of many an amateur gambler: from rags to riches to rags. Once plagued by a shortage of quality courses, Las Vegas now has a glut of golf. As the population boomed in the past 20 years, home developers and casino operators invested heavily in golf. Supply now exceeds demand. In recent years, some golf courses have filed for bankruptcy protection; others have closed down.

A Golfing Life

Today, Walters has endless tales of card games and putting contests with some of the biggest names in gambling and golf. But he also acknowledges that, as he became more focused on his business interests, his golf horizons expanded and he became more of a casual player.

“Golf took on a completely different meaning for me in the past 20-30 years,’’ said Walters. ‘I played it for fun and for friendship.’’

Bill Walters has experienced a golfing life that many people could only dream of. He’s played the best courses in the world, from Augusta to Pine Valley to St. Andrews and Royal County Down. His low round is 66. He’s won and lost millions of dollars on fairways and greens.

For fellow fanatics, Walters recommends that everyone play Scotland to understand the origins of the game. And nothing surpasses the beauty of Ireland and the welcoming nature of its people. And for a golf trip in the United States, he says, you can’t do better than the Metropolitan Section of New York-Connecticut-New Jersey.

“They may have the best collection of courses in the world,’’ said Walters. “It’s really unbelievable.’’

Walters hasn’t played a round of golf since 2017. He recently had surgeries on each hand as a result of golf injuries that were overdue for correction. For now, he’s waiting to hear from his doctors about his rehab.

“The second they give me the green light, I’ll be on the golf course,’’ said Walters. “It won’t be the very next day—it’ll be the same day.’’

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