Escaping Alcatraz

Stone walls do not a prison make,
Nor iron bars a cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an hermitage.
—“To Althea, From Prison”
Richard Lovelace, 1642.

By the fourth tee, a three-par at Chicago Highlands, I’d had enough. “Look,” I said, “you have to put the bag on the right side.” So far, the other two caddies with me had been placing the bag almost haphazardly, sometimes even behind the golfers. “Oh.” one of them said, “Nobody told us that.” For those unaware, where to place the bag is usually one of the first things one learns in caddie training. But since the Highlands is a new course, without a caddiemaster, the golf pros were doing the training in between setting up kids’ clinics, getting the honeywagon cleaned out, and ordering beer for the beverage cart. Something had to give.

Moving the bag is a sort of skill that is so basic that it’s hard to remember that it is a skill—something unnatural, something that must be taught. Usually a looper learns it the first day and quickly forgets about it: it becomes a reflex, unconscious. It is, in a sense, a fundamental, like the grip a golfer uses to hold the club. But just as golfers know that how to hold the club is critical to hitting a golf shot, moving the bag is one of those skills that can influence everything. Joe Daley taught me that a long time ago, at a tournament that no longer exists.

We—yeah, I said “we”—hadn’t missed a fairway all day, and except for two missed up-and-downs sometime after the turn, it had been one of the most boring rounds of golf ever—which, I would hasten to add, is exactly what pro golfers want. It isn’t that exciting for fans, but if you are trying to make money by putting a ball in a hole there isn’t much better. Walking up the 18th fairway at Kemper Lakes on the first day of the Nationwide Tour’s Chicago Open, I felt pretty good about our chances. Then I saw the scoreboard.

I had first met Joe Daley a few days earlier, after arriving at Kemper near dawn. I’d worked the Illinois PGA sectional there earlier in the year, and I met Kemper’s head pro then. At the beginning of the week I headed to the caddie tent, checked in, and shortly afterward the pro came looking for me, saying he had a guy looking for a local bagman.

He said Joe would be there a bit later, and when I returned to the tent, where a number of veteran tour loopers were drinking coffee and sharing tales of the road; they asked who I’d gotten. I told them. The looks they gave each other—and the little they wanted to talk about the subject—spoke volumes.

Joe Daley’s nickname on tour is “Sarge,” and it isn’t because he has a military past. He has a reputation as a taskmaster with a temper, a temper that some might remember from the time he ended up missing his tour card by a single shot at Q-School in 2000. One of the shots he hit during that six-round tournament came on the 17th hole at the Stadium Course at PGA West, a hole nicknamed “Alcatraz.”

Alcatraz is an island green, like the 17th at TPC Sawgrass. Daley missed the green on his tee shot, got wet, hit his third shot to 18 feet, then missed his first putt. He then hit his second putt, and fifth shot, into the hole—and then, after a second or two, the ball spun out because of a badly-placed cup. (The video is still up on the webs somewhere, I think.) Like its namesake island prison, there is no escape from Alcatraz.

Like a lot of pro golfers, though maybe to an extreme that might be influenced by his experience at Alcatraz, Joe is (or was) obsessed with nearly every detail. That included the actions of his caddie.

Joe, for example, wanted the bag placed directly to his right upon arriving at the ball—which isn’t quite standard practice, which is for the bag to be placed slightly behind the ball. (All relative to the target, of course.) Joe had other ideas too, such as that he wanted his ball washed immediately upon arriving at the green. He didn’t want me to set the bag down and then come back to the ball. He wanted me to wash the ball with the bag still on my shoulders—kind of a pain with a tour bag, which can weigh over fifty pounds.

There’s a famous scene in the movie Hoosiers that maybe demonstrates why pro golfers usually are obsessed with minor details like this, though not often to that degree. In the scene, Gene Hackman’s team of nobodies from small-town Indiana have reached the state finals at the big fieldhouse in Indianapolis. None of the team has ever seen a building that big before. Hackman’s character tells his assistant to measure the height of the basket. It’s ten feet. The foul line is regulation too: Hackman wants to demonstrate that nothing about the court is different, just the size of the stands. It’s a lesson in the idea of the “level playing field” so beloved, say, of international economists.

A scene like that though would never work in a golf movie—because in golf, there’s no such thing as a level playing field. Joe Daley’s experience at Alcatraz is maybe the extreme example of that: even the properties of the cup, though almost always the same, could possibly be different. Even if it’s just that one day, out of thousands of possible days … In golf, far more than almost any other sport, there’s so little within human control that golf pros can become a little OCD with the things that are within their control.

All of which can tend to make Joe out to be kind of an oddity, which he is in a way, but I don’t want to suggest he’s a bad guy. He isn’t—in fact, he’s quite an intelligent one, and pretty engaging. He had a theory about how he wanted the bag placed: it created, he said, a “workspace” for him. Before it was set down, he was effectively on break, willing to chat about just about anything. Once the bag was down, however, Joe was working.

That’s in line with the thinking of a number of instructors and sports psychologists, all of whom claim that the golfer must distinguish between what happens between shots, walking up the fairway for instance, and what happens after reaching the ball. It’s the reigning philosophy of Vision54, the Swedish golf school that takes Ben Hogan’s dream of birdieing every hole literally—and produced Annika Sorenstam.

Pia Nilsson and Lynn Marriott, the partners in Vision54, describe in their book Every Shot Must Have a Purpose, a distinction between what they call the “Think Box” and the “Play Box”: “All decisions,” they say, “are made in the Think Box.” “All action,” on the other hand, “unfolds in the Play Box.”

What they argue is that golfers should make their decisions about what shot to hit and so on before getting over the ball—but once over the ball, decision-making ends and all effort is devoted to execution. The golfer has to create a difference between ordinary and extraordinary space, the space between the ball and the space over the ball.

Part of that difference is created by the caddie, by where the bag is set down, which may act as a conditioning agent like Pavlov’s tinkling bell, alerting the golfer not that dinner is served, but that it’s time to hit a shot. And it’s right here that the deep strangeness both of the act of setting the bag down, which Joe Daley somehow intuited, and the theories of golf coaches, comes to light.

The idea of course is the same as that animating, say, the creation of universities or research labs or monasteries: the idea of a separate sphere where the “life of the mind” or the “life of the spirit” can be undertaken without concern for mundanities like where the beer cart is, for instance. That at least makes the act of setting the golf bag down into a kind of profound, even mystical, act.

It’s worth remembering at this point, however, the old philosophical notion of the dialectic—if setting a golf bag down can be an expression of the same impulse that led to religion or science, it may also be attached to the same sort of impulse that led, say, to “redlining” certain neighborhoods in American cities, or the U.S. Supreme Court’s “separate but equal” decision of Plessy v. Ferguson. Divorcing oneself from the rest of the world, after all, is not always an angelic act. It is, though, a consequential one—even if you are unaware of those consequences. Just like my fledgling loopers at the Highlands, for instance, Southerners and Northerners, Germans and South Africans, have always defended themselves against accusations about segregation by saying “I didn’t know” or “Nobody told me”—a defense that only works if one presumes it matters whether everyone has the same knowledge. Or in other words, a level playing field.

It may be, however, that such fields are becoming harder to find; maybe the lesson of where to put the golf bag, then, is a better one to teach than the lesson of Hoosiers—it’s a film explicitly drenched in nostalgia, after all. Maybe golf, in that sense, better fits the conditions of the contemporary world: when I walked up the 18th at Kemper with Joe Daley’s bag on the first day of that long-ago tournament, we had missed maybe two shots all day. Then I saw the scoreboard—our two over par, which seemed not so bad to me, was 12 shots off the lead.

Golf, unlike basketball, has little to do with “fair,” and maybe that’s a good lesson—if the world is like Alcatraz. It’s worth remembering, however, that Joe Daley’s story is only notable for being so odd, just like the claim to fame of Alcatraz the prison rested on its being different not only from the world itself, but even other prisons. Sometimes the world is like Hoosiers and sometimes it’s like Alcatraz—but it isn’t all one or the other. Thinking it is one or the other is just another form of imprisonment—or in other words, another way of waiting for someone to tell you how to get out.

Please let me know what you think! Also, if you are having trouble with posting a comment, please feel free to email me personally at Thanks for reading!

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