There is an old and skillful sport called cormorant fishing which the Japanese have been practicing for centuries. The cormorant trainer fastens a ring snugly around the neck of the bird and dispatches it to scoop from the sea, and bring back whole, any fish it can locate. The cormorant never swallows the catch. The ring sees to that. The bird merely takes whatever scraps the trainer volunteers.
Singer Frankie Laine has, in a sense, a cormorant working for him at the annual Tournament of Champions at Las Vegas. For the past three years, Laine has bought Golfer Gene Littler in the extracurricular Calcutta pool, and each time Gene has returned faithfully with the "fish"—a haul worth $237,663.
Though Littler, like the cormorant, can't help himself to any of the Calcutta catch, he has been rewarded by Laine with a total of $25,000 in cash, plus a new Thunderbird. This is in addition to the $10,000 first prize he has taken from the tournament each year.
This week Laine plans to send Littler forth again at Las Vegas, which hosts the world's most exclusive golf event. Participation is limited to winners of PGA-sponsored tournaments during the previous 12 months and to the Las Vegas defending champion.
Perhaps half the gallery doesn't know a par from a 10 the hard way. They are truants from the gaming rooms who are lured into the sun by the prospect of action. They'll bet on anything. The seventh hole, for instance, is a 221-yard par 3 whose green is partly blocked by a half-moon of water. Standard odds are 2 to 1 that the tee shot doesn't make the green. One will get you four that the ball lands in the water. A price of 6 to 5 was once posted that club-busting Tommy Bolt wouldn't finish a certain round with the regulation 14 clubs in his bag. Tommy surprisingly did. (The next day he finished with only 12.)
The side bets, however, are still incidental to the kibitzers' interest in the Calcutta pool. Each time a player raises his club, he is swinging for two people—himself and the guy who buys him in the Calcutta, which last year amounted to the staggering sum of $265,650.
A Calcutta pool is essentially an auction at which each golfer entered in the tournament is sold to the highest bidder. At Las Vegas 10% is removed from the pool for the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund and the rest of the money is distributed on the basis of order-of-finish, with 40% going to the person buying the winner. The balance is divided up among the next six places.
In the last three tournaments the winner has been Littler, purchased in the Calcutta each time by Laine, who has collected, respectively, $72,900, $69,120 and $95,643. Seats are distinctly at a premium in Las Vegas on Calcutta auction night. The golfers are-put on the block in the nightclub of the Desert Inn, which sponsors the tournament. Ordinarily, most of the bidding is done by recognized plungers on the Las Vegas strip, but occasionally strange money shows. Frankie Laine's for example.
At the time in 1955 that Frankie received an invitation to help sell golfers at the tournament Calcutta, he was puzzled.
"I'm a Sunday hacker who shoots 95, not counting the misses," he says. "I didn't know a Calcutta pool from a Bombay duck. When I got to 'Vegas, someone explained it was an auction. My wife, Nan, said to me, 'Sounds like fun, honey Let's buy Gene Littler. I saw his wife's picture in the paper this morning.' "
It was Mrs. Laine's impression that golfers sold for $200 or $300.
"Littler didn't seem like a bad idea," Frankie reasoned. "He was registered out of Palm Springs. I figured he must know something about playing in the desert."
(What Laine didn't know was that Littler, while representing the Thun-derbird Country Club in Palm Springs, rarely played there.)
The opening bid on Littler at the Calcutta was $10,000, tendered by a local roller named Morris Kleinman, at whose table Laine was-a guest. Frankie stood up and, in strangled tones, bid $10,500. His friends were stricken dumb. One whispered, "We'd better send for some cold compresses. Frankie's flipped."
Laine isn't famous in Hollywood for his extravagance. He remembers, perhaps too vividly, the times in Chicago when his Sicilian immigrant father brought home $25 a week from his barber shop to support a wife and seven children. That, of course, was before the day of the $2 haircut.
Kleinman raised his bid on Littler to $11,000, and Frankie, now entering into the spirit of the evening, quickly countered with $11,500. Laine recalls, "Kleinman laughed and said to me, 'You're bluffing, you dago.' I answered, 'Don't stop me now, Morrie. I'm hot.' "
After Kleinman went to $12,000, a third party popped into the picture and bid $12,500, whereupon Laine chirped, "$13,000!" The gavel came down. "Sold," said the auctioneer.
"When the excitement was over," says Frankie, "and I sat there writing my check, I began to realize what had happened. I said to myself, 'What have I done! I've never gambled in my life, except for five bucks on a horse!' "
When Laine, visibly shaken, walked out of the room, he met his wife. "She flashed a big smile when I told her I had bought Littler," he says. "Then she asked, 'How much?' I answered, 'Thirteen thou.' She almost fainted."
By the end of the third round, Littler had streaked to a 10-stroke lead over the field. "A guy walked up to me the morning of the final round," says Laine, "and offered to buy Gene for $70,000 cash. He was willing to take the gamble, just to win $2,900. Not knowing what I was doing, I turned him down. Little did I realize that a pro golfer could go sour and easily blow 11 strokes. In fact, on the third round—I discovered afterward—Mike Souchak blew to a 79 while Littler took a 68."
Gene, however, didn't falter on the last round, but fattened his lead, instead, to win the tournament by 13 strokes with an 8-under-par 280, a Las Vegas record.
As a result of this runaway, the price on Littler went up the following year. Laine bought him for $16,-500. Superstitious, like many entertainers, Frankie reconstructed every move he had made the previous year, even to his exact moment of retirement at 2:40 a.m., after reading Chapter 7 from The Power of Positive Thinking, entitled, "Expect the Best and Get It."
As Littler walked to the first tee the following afternoon, Frankie repeated his admonition of the year before, "Each time you bring down that club, son, say to yourself, 'I believe' " (from the Laine record of the same name that sold 3 million copies). Littler performed like a good cormorant. He shot a 281 to win by four strokes.
From that time until the Las Vegas tournament a year later, Gene went winless on the circuit. He had hit his worst slump since turning professional. His earnings dived sharply.
"Littler has developed a loop at the top of his swing," said one expert. "His pivot has gone bad," explained another. "Too much right hand," said a third.
Laine listened dejectedly. "Even Littler told me not to buy him," he said. "But what could I do? If I backed off, people would have called me a front-running chintz."
THE HARD WAY
For one going in such poor form, the price on Littler ran surprisingly high—$15,000. Gene shot a 73 on each of the first two rounds. Frankie kissed his money goodby. Then on the third round, while others lost ground in the face of gusty winds, Littler romped in with a 69 to pop into the lead by a stroke. He increased it to three strokes the next day with a steady 70, and he and Laine came home the winner for the third straight time.
Littler—and Laine—will have a chance to duplicate that triumph this year, for once again Gene has failed to win a single tournament and qualifies to play at Las Vegas only because he is the defending champion.
With his Calcutta earnings (after taxes) Laine has added a $50,000 playroom onto his home in Beverly Hills, naming it, naturally, the Gene Littler Room. Some 1,600 square feet of imported terrazzo covers the floor of the room, whose features include an indoor barbecue pit, fireplace, bar, billiard table, 100-record Seeburg automatic, hi-fi, piano, projection machine and screen, two baths with stall showers and a generous collection of custom-made furniture.
Atop the piano stands the "Gene Littler Shrine," a glass case lined with red velvet and containing such Littler mementos from the three tournaments as visors, golf balls, tees and score cards.
Looking ahead to Las Vegas next week, Laine says thoughtfully, "If I back that guy long enough, he'll build me a whole new house."
LAINE AND LITTLER proudly display golden golf balls in Gene Littler Room of Frankie's Beverly Hills home. The cabinet holds other mementos of Gene's victories.