“Well now that’s done: and I’m glad it’s over”
According to a friend whose golfer narrowly missed the cut and, thus, spent Friday staring at the leaderboard as it clicked and clacked, sometime as that drowsy south Georgia afternoon drawled on toward sundown my golfer had been tied for ninth, and perhaps even as high as seventh. It may, for all I know, be possible to reconstruct events using tee times and the full leaderboard, but in the event I slept pretty well with the knowledge that, as Friday slipped into Friday night, we stood at tied for eleventh. Part of the myth of golf is that underdogs and unknowns can suddenly leap up from nowhere—a century ago near Boston, at the Country Club in Brookline, the former caddie Francis Ouimet beat the two British champions Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. But in pro golf, Friday afternoon is about as far from Sunday night as Galveston is from El Paso.
Still, if Sunday’s a week from Friday, Friday is a month from Monday, which is when professional tournaments hold their “qualifying tournaments.” These are 18 hole shootouts open to anybody with 450 bucks and the requisite USGA-certified handicap. Usually they consist of around 80 brave souls willing to wager their money against the chance of shooting low enough to get one of the five or six or so tee times assigned to “qualifiers.” Those “tournaments before the tournament” last all day, because everyone’s spending forever on their putts and so on, and then end with some kind of playoff for the last tee time available in the tournament proper: often there are four or more guys playing for one or more of the last remaining slots.
Qualifiers are thus always the last to be looking for a caddie. They show up to the tournament golf course on Tuesday morning with haunted and hunted looks, furtively searching out the faces of the loopers hanging out in the parking lots and wondering if one of those guys might be the final piece of the puzzle that might enable them to escape from the hell of Monday qualifying forever—the only way for a player without status (that is, a player without a “tour card” gained by his past performance) to get into a tournament without Monday qualifying is by finishing in the top twenty-five places in the previous week’s tournament. Conversely, the Monday qualifier is the time-honored way for a new caddie to learn his trade and break into the business—the “Mondayer,” as they’re called, gets you out of the parking lot and onto the golf course, where you can be seen by other, better-established, players.
I’d picked up my player in said time-honored fashion, in the parking lot on Tuesday. “Hey,” I said to the golfer carrying (as opposed to the light carry bags most Monday qualifiers have) a technicolor tour staff bag, “Are you set for the week?” No, the guy replied. But he wanted to look around a bit first. After this initial encounter, my guru Mullet told me what would happen: “He’s going to go around and see that all the quality experienced guys are already locked up for the week. Then he’s going to come right back to you.” And that is what happened.
My player was, as his tour golf bag signified, an actual touring professional: he had, in fact, not only won on what was now called the Web.com Tour (formerly the Nationwide Tour, and before that the Nike and Hogan Tours) but had also won on the PGA Tour itself. It’s a small piece of knowledge, but it contained worlds about the realities of life on tour: another chunk would reveal itself when I learned that our playing partners on Thursday, when the tournament finally began, were Rich Beem, winner of the 2002 PGA Championship, and Len Mattiace, who lost the Masters to Mike Weir in a playoff in 2003. Both Beem and Mattiace had, once, been ranked in the top 50 of the world rankings; life on tour could go sidewise at any time.
As, in fact, things had for my pro: after winning on the PGA Tour, he’d fallen on hard times lately—as his financial guy, Tom (who looked remarkably like the best-friend-turned-manager character on Entourage) told me on the eve of the tournament’s start Wednesday night. He’d gotten a divorce and—though the causality appeared unclear—had played only twice since October of last year. Making it into the field for the South Georgia Classic, in other words, meant at least one more week avoiding going into the shirt-folding trade. A top twenty-five finish in this tournament, in turn, would ensure dodging that fate for yet another week.
His showing in the tournament, in sum, was terribly important to his future. Every shot hit was one step closer either to the life and security he’d felt as a tour winner, or one step farther away: which is to say, one step closer to the life he’d been dreaming of from childhood, or one step farther away. Rolling off the eighth tee box—a par three—that Wednesday, we were discussing baseball. I asked him what team he followed, given that he was from the South: the Braves, or some other team, for some idiosyncratic reason. He was not. He liked football; baseball, he said, had too many games. He attended the games of his state’s university, a large member of the SEC; they gave him access to the sidelines, apparently. No, he didn’t donate to the university. He didn’t appear to think of this as unusual; or rather, there was something about him that seemed to dare you to find something unusual about it.
Ever since Francis Ouimet, American golfers have participated in what Tom Wolfe, speaking about the original seven Project Mercury astronauts in The Right Stuff, calls the “magical” practice of single combat: where “the mightiest soldier of one army would fight the mightiest soldier of the other army as a substitute for pitched battle.” Wolfe notes one curious fact about the practice: “the honor and glory” granted to these warriors “were in many cases rewards before the fact; on account, as it were.” Golfers, like other athletes, participate in this economy: that’s why mine had access to the sidelines for every home game of his hometown college team (which wasn’t his alma mater). He’d been riding a gravy train with biscuit wheels ever since he was a teenager, in short, and now somebody was threatening to take it away.
It wasn’t then the ideal situation to be introduced to someone, much less to work for, and whether it was that circumstance, or some quirk to his personality, I quickly realized he wasn’t the most personable guy. He was curt: on Wednesday, I waited for him to come out of the clubhouse at the appointed time—he wasn’t there. I eventually found him on the opposite side of the practice range from most of the players: his first remark to me was a snide “I don’t think anyone practices at the clubhouse.” During our practice round, while I adjusted to the fact that he stood on the opposite side of the ball (he’s a lefty), he continually reminded me that he’d been a golf pro since 1997; I fought the urge to note that I’ve been looping since 1995.
Along about then, when I realized what sort of person I was dealing with, I approached an experienced caddie about my situation: the problem, I told him, was that I had not had a conversation about payment immediately. “You got to get your money straight right away,” he said, after listening to my story. He told me that not getting the money straight was unprofessional, “on both your parts”—but that the burden fell more heavily on the pro, who should have known better. That was an egg that would remain broken however, because if I tried to approach him now about it, I could easily end up fired because there were still caddies available.
With that kind of smoothly-functioning working relationship established, then, we went to battle on the longest golf course played by the Web.com Tour: Kinderlou Forest, outside Valdosta, Georgia. Designed by Davis Love III, it’s a strange track: in addition to a punishing length, the par-fives in particular have the peculiar feature of being both ridiculously long but also absurdly penal toward long hitters, through the use of contrived angles and forced perspectives. One of them actually called upon the players to hit away from the fairway. Not a single golfer I talked to had much praise for the course, other than to say that the maintenance was good: drolly, the eventual winner would afterwards observe that “You won’t see par fives like this anywhere else in the world.” The course, oblivious to the obvious irony, immediately put that up on the website.
Throughout the spring the Southeast had suffered heavy rains, which was good for Georgia farmers (Georgia has been undergoing a drought that some think may be related to global warming) but not so good for golfers. Due to the wet conditions, the already-monster long Kinderlou track was playing even longer: a tee shot that might, on a dry course, run out twenty yards or more was more or less staying where it landed. And in another way the course played slightly differently than its design: because of the need for grandstands and such as befitting a tour stop, the nines of the course were reversed, so that what was the first hole for normal play was the tenth for the tournament, and so on.
The history of our week is recorded, somewhere, in the servers of the PGA Tour’s ShotLink system, which records every shot hit by every golfer in every sanctioned tournament worldwide. That record will reflect a one-under par first round, a fine three-under second round (which launched us up the leaderboard, since birdies on such a golf course were as scarce as anti-smoking laws in Georgia), and then a one-over par third round—a setback, but not terribly so given how hard scoring was. Although his ballstriking was sometimes not the best, he had an excellent short game that papered over a lot. Everything appeared set for a nice Sunday walk that would nail down my player’s entry into the next week’s tournament and (perhaps) begin a heartwarming story of professional redemption.
Sunday was another sunny Georgia peach of a day, foretelling the oceans of heat that come in summer. We set off just inside the top twenty-five cutline that was our implicit objective—which, given how things had gone the past three days, translated into a sense that an under-par score would lock up next week. And he seemed to respond: on the first hole, where he’d missed an ideal fairway lie each of the three previous rounds, he striped one down the middle. In fact, he played his best golf of the week: by the time his putt fell on the eighth hole, he was three-under for the round, and six-under for the tournament. We weren’t just looking at getting into the next tournament, we just might have been about to make some serious money.
What—predictably—followed was perhaps the worst hour I’ve ever spent on a golf course. At the ninth, a badly-pushed drive ended up on the inside of the dogleg-left, blocked by trees that rejected his first recovery shot. The bogey save appeared to right the ship, but missing the tenth green from the fairway less than 150 yards from the pin augured poorly. And then came the eleventh.
The eleventh at Kinderlou (the second on its standard scorecard) is a monster par-five that, on tour, begins with a tee shot over a massive ravine. That accomplished, a long downhill second shot can reach the front of an elongated green canted at an angle to the fairway. Behind the green is a lateral water hazard (a swampy forest) while another sits eighty yards short and right. The fairway itself is hugely wide, but aside from those two hazards it’s lined by both forest and tall grass. Still, for a professional none of those potential dangers exist: the longest club most professionals would be considering these days might be a five-wood, which generally speaking is a remarkably easy club to hit.
Par-fives on the professional circuit, though, can take forever to play because each group has to wait for the previous one to clear the green. We waited next to the ball as the golfers in front of us putted out. And waited. As we did my player debated his options: perhaps he should hit a soft five wood to the front of the green, allowing for a simple chip up to the hole. Or a hard three iron that might chase on to the green itself. The downhill slope and hazard beyond the hole precluded hitting a three wood, though maybe he could choke it up a bit … and so forth. In the event, he chose the five wood. And pulled it into the hazard short and right of the green.
Just barely, however, as we discovered when eventually we found the ball. It was less than a foot inside the hazard line, facing the green, with no obstacles in the path of a swing. Admittedly, the ball was sitting on bare earth, but that also meant that there was nothing to get between the ball and the club—it was, in sum, about as good an outcome as was possible given the previous shot. Which is why it was such a surprise when he bladed the ball (hit it with the leading edge of the club, instead of the face of the club) over the green and into the hazard beyond.
The tragicomedy that followed isn’t worth rehearsing, other than to note that he missed a three-footer to save double-bogey. The tee shot on the next hole, apologetically yet inevitably, sailed into the forest on the right side of the fairway. Yelling at the marshall whose duty it was to find the ball had its cathartic properties, but didn’t help us locate it. The rest of the round passed by in a stew of anger, regret, and ugly emotions that went, in large part though not completely, unexpressed. In other words, it was a like a lot of golf rounds, only with the added spice of being able to calculate precisely how much money got spent by each futile swing.
Afterward, we walked in silence towards the Range Rover (!) that the player used to transport himself. I took a last look at the clubs I’d carried for what had been nearly a week now, checking to make sure there was no grass or red clay of southern Georgia still remaining. There was nothing. I put them into the back of the truck. There was nothing more to do than to get paid. Which was when my player said, “I’m going to have to get your information …”
In the moment, I froze: I didn’t particularly know what to do. I was getting stiffed. Nothing in my experience had prepared me for this: in club caddieing, no matter how much they don’t like you, they still have to pay you something. And the worst of it was that—golf being so individualistic—there would be no recourse. At a club, you can go to the caddiemaster, or the head pro. But in this situation, there didn’t appear to be any higher authority. I thought for a moment.
Immediately after leaving the parking lot, I went to a tour official and told him substantially the story I just relayed. The man I spoke with in Valdosta asked me if I was going to Athens, Georgia, the tour’s next stop; I said I was. He said that if I hadn’t heard from my player by Friday that week I should contact a certain higher official with the professional circuit’s bureaucracy, which I did after I had no word that week. That official told me the tour would be “all over it”—and, in fact, they were. I’ve never met people who were quite so concerned about whether I’d gotten payed properly.
Over the next couple of weeks I got several phone calls from the main office of the PGA Tour in Ponte Vedre, Florida. There was quite some to do about the whole thing; at one point it slipped that the phrase “conduct unbecoming” had become part of the conversation between the tour officials and the player. Apparently the tour frowns on players stiffing caddies—a concern that was really surprising, and not a little touching. It shouldn’t have been, I suppose, since presumably the motive was to protect the tour: if it became a widely accepted notion that professional golfers are not fine and upstanding gentlemen … well, there’s a reason for golf’s self-advertisement as a sport apart from all the others. It was nice of the tour to look out for my interests so rabidly, but I’m not under much illusion that their motives were solely about my well-being.
It was, perhaps more rather than less likely, a part of why, as Tom Wolfe remarks, when it comes to single combat warriors it’s important that “the proper emotion, the seemly sentiment, the fitting moral tone should be established and should prevail.” Part of the role of the single combat warrior is not only performing on the field, naturally, but also (and maybe crucially) performing the act of being the mannerly gentleman—said person must provide the public with “the correct feelings!” Indeed, this might be more important than the on-field part—as perhaps the opposing cases of Tim Tebow (who by all accounts is a perfect gentleman, but whose on-field performance has, on the whole, lacked) and Tiger Woods (pretty much opposite) alternately demonstrate. And my player, whose demeanor already destabilized that balance, threatened it yet further. They were out to get him.
To many, who approached me at various times over the next week, that was as it should be: the tour acted to protect the interests of the majority of, not only its players, but everyone associated with it—all the people whose jobs depend on the seemingly-magical ability of some to put a small white ball into a slightly larger hole in the ground. Others, I suppose, might decry what might be viewed as a kind of interference or intrusion into what is, in mythology, golf’s individualistic purity.
In a recent story about a naval officer who—really—shot down down one of our own planes (an F-4) with an American crew in 1987, but is now up for admiral, the Washingtonian magazine notes that, until recently, the military “endeavored to promote officers whose records were as close to perfect as possible.” “But the effect of the so-called zero-defect culture,” the magazine goes on to say, “was that the services raised up a generation of cautious, risk-averse bureaucrats who were judged on how well they followed procedures and … not for innovation.” The effect of intrusion into players’ affairs is, so the argument might go, detrimental to the tour: it’s no wonder that, as critics have been saying since the 1970s at least, the PGA Tour is full of “mindless drones.” Tiger, you might say, wasn’t right to do what he did—but he did judge correctly that he had to hide it behind that robotic facade.
Tiger’s judgment that, for whatever reason, golfers—and especially him—don’t get to be human, don’t get to make mistakes, ultimately demonstrates just how bankrupt that idea is, in this line of thought: hiding behind such criticism, I suspect, is the notion that there unnameable John Daly-type players who have the potential to WOW us if we’d only let them have the chance. That might, I suppose, be true in some hypothetical sense—but the fact of the matter is that my player, at least, has not really demonstrated that he belongs out on tour, despite the fact that he’s won. Part of the argument against granting people like John Daly second (or third, or sixteenth) chances is that behaving oneself is not a separate thing from playing golf well: part of playing golf well, in this conception, is the ability to continue to play well, which ultimately has to do with not only how one treats one’s body, but also with how one treats others.
What we are left with, in short, is two visions of golf and, perhaps, the world itself: in one vision, each of our skills is separable from the rest of ourselves. In the other, not: we are whole beings, entire to ourselves. Our skills are extensions, or expressions, of our innermost selves—or they are incidental, merely the reflection of time we have devoted (or, as the case may be, not devoted) to their practice. Golf, for the most part, comes down on the former side: “There has always been,” as Jerry Tarde, editor of Golf Digest, wrote recently, “the impression that success in golf was tied to inner character, as in the widespread belief that you can know the measure of a man by simply playing a round of golf with him.” It’s a lovely idea, I suppose. But I suspect that it’s about as far from reality as El Paso from Galveston.
In any case, I just got a check. I don’t know what the tour said to the player, but evidently it worked.