It wasn’t just that the shot was right at the flag, nor that it seemed to hang in the crystalline air of late summer/early fall like an angel misplaced it in the sky, that was so impressive. It was the purity of the strike, a purity communicated at once by the crack of contact announced at the moment of impact and reinforced by the directness of the ball’s flight—a flight that said this ball was on business and had no time for wind currents or other foolery. It was a ball that demanded, “Pay me”—pay before it even hit the ground, pay before it did that impossible thing that could only cost you more, pay before you’d owe more than you could possibly settle.
The shot was from the fifteenth tee at Medinah, a new tee that was built specifically for the 2012 Ryder Cup. I was first on the tee at the fifteenth hole, so I walked up to the Ryder Cup captain, Davis Love III, and introduced myself. Love is well-known as a “Southern gentleman”—a term with its own ironies, as I’ve been reading Fox Butterfield’s All God’s Children: The Bosket Family and the American Tradition of Violence—so I was careful to remove my hat and sunglasses first. “I’m Davis Love,” he said, and I went on to go out to forecaddie for my group.
Despite the efficiency of his tee-ball, Davis was not in town on Ryder Cup business. He’d already done that the week prior, when what was supposed to be “Media Day” at Medinah—to showcase the course a year prior to the matches—was washed out by a frigid rainstorm. (During that trip, Love and Jose Olazabal, the European captain, hit golf balls from the 15th-floor balcony of the Trump hotel to a green floating on a barge on the Chicago River; the video is amusing though badly shot, unfortunately. But it does give a sense of the weather on Media Day.) Instead, he was essentially performing for the enjoyment of the day’s principle guests: holders of American Express’ “Black Card.”
The Black Card was invented on the back of unfocused rumors during the 1980s—wild stories about how the richest of the rich were possessed of a kind of magical key that could open any door. American Express at the time denied the rumors, but in 1999 the company turned rumor into reality by creating the “Centurion Card”: a black card. Which is to say that the card’s invention may owe itself to gossip—an odd origin for a financial instrument, one might think.
Yet the Black Card is one of those symbols of wealth that have begun to pop up in recent decades: like Bugatti sports cars or Louis Vuitton luggage. From what I know, in the 1970s no one, even the wealthiest, knew about Bugatti sports cars or Louis Vuitton luggage. Things of that sort were the products of alien technology, or (it is the same) of craftsmen whose art dated far back into the Victorian Age. No one had them, or even knew they existed. Not even the wealthy, really. Which is to say that it might be best possible to understand the last 40 years of American life as the discovery of la dolce vita by the descendants of the peasants of five continents.
Part of that life is learning the aristocratic game of discovering the “best” or “most elegant” of products: this is, largely, what Apple Computer has learned to sell, for instance. It’s a game whose ends are not merely in the enjoyment of the commodity, but also in the matter of exclusion: surely one of saffron’s selling points in previous centuries wasn’t just the taste it adds to cooking (which it does) but also in the fact that your average peon out in the fields wasn’t getting his hands on any. Part of the enjoyment of having a Black Card, in other words, is knowing that almost nobody else has it. Wherever you are, you are likely to be the only one.
The Black Card, it seems, organizes special events for its “members”—to use a bit of corporatespeak—and a round at Medinah, coupled with an appearance by Love, was one of its offerings this year. Clearly, American Express was jerking Davis Love’s golden lasso, the endorsement fees it pays him, and just as clearly Medinah was joining him at the trough of corporate largesse.
This isn’t to say, of course, that Love or Medinah were whoring themselves out—that ship sailed a long time ago, after all. It is, however, to say something about how direct life has become in the past several decades: where once deals might have been made, but never acknowledged, now no one seems even mildly surprised.
Still, though Medinah may have been engaged in mercenary labor that week, the very next week the club returned to one of its oldest and least mercenary of events: Caddie Day. Held this year, as every year, on Columbus Day, Caddie Day is a day set aside by the club to allow its caddies to play the golf course, which then is followed by a dinner, then some sort of after-dinner speech, and finally the distribution of quite-excellent prizes. (This year they included two iPads, in addition to thousands of dollars of golf equipment and many other sorts of objects.)
Last year the first of the Black Card outings, which was something of a last-minute event, had the unfortunate timing of coming on Columbus Day—which meant that some of us had to work on a day ostensibly set aside to reward our season’s labor. Dickensian, no? As they might say in an office on K Street, the optics weren’t good. Nevertheless, a lot of us did work. After all, what choice did we have?
This year however American Express had the good taste to schedule its outing on the Monday prior to Caddie Day, which left us able to enjoy the day and, perhaps as importantly, play the golf course on which we spend the majority of our work days, Course #3. I had the pleasure of playing with Pat Foley, voice of the Chicago Blackhawks and, to my surprise, happened to play decently well: I shot 91. (I made no worse score than double bogey and did not three-putt once, which enabled me to shoot the score I did despite the fact that I was seemingly incapable of hitting an iron shot from the fairway that wasn’t fat.) We won the match we had with the other half of our foursome handily, thanks to steady play by both Pat and myself. Given the fact that the round took something like six hours, I was happy with the result.
The climactic moment of Caddie Day is, always, the presentation of the Caddie of the Year, a title won by some combination of the amount of loops done and the favor of the caddiemaster. There’s never a formula, and the number of loops people have done is always secret. (A classic management technique, btw.) This year’s winner was Cincinnati (short for the Cincinnati Kid), who finally made it after 15 years and somewhere under a dozen firings. The prize he selected was an iPad, donated by a member with somewhat-mysterious connections to the aforementioned Apple Computer. Even caddies, it seems, are not immune to the lure of elegance.