Work Space: Robert Gray
Working on My Distance: Caddie Lessons
Caddie lesson #1: From a distance, golf is stupid.
“Golf is stupid,” non-golfers predictably say whenever the topic comes up. People who cling to this mantra seem to know to the depths of their democratic, all-are-created-equal souls that their belief is some kind of cosmic truth. On the other hand, they may have a point. Golf is stupid, but if you play the game, as I have off and on for almost half a century, its presumed stupidity is beside the point.
There’s probably no way I can convince those who consider it prissy and elitist–and have been ridiculing me for years about playing–that golf is, if not a democracy, at least a meritocracy of sorts. No matter how much money you pay for the best equipment, lessons and courses, you either can hit a ball or you cannot. It’s the simplicity that appeals to me. Access may be based on privilege, but success is based solely on performance. This gives the game an odd purity, since you can’t pretend to play golf without embarrassing yourself.
I also loved the benign sort of class warfare that exists on the links. I’ve been consistently beating the lime green, checked pattern pants off my social and economic superiors since I got my first golf fix as a working class kid in the early 1960s, and even now, in my impending dotage, I still find a guilty, malicious pleasure in doing so occasionally when the opportunity presents itself.
At its purest level, golf isn’t even meritocratic; it’s a fucking Darwinian/Cro-Magnon mashup. The one who wields a club best wins.
Caddie lesson #2: Work could be as easy as recognizing a golf club’s number, but complexity lurked there, too, if you planned to go the distance.
I was 14 years old when I applied to be a caddie at Lake Bomoseen Golf Club, a modest nine-hole resort course on the shores of a Vermont lake near my town. It was my first real job, though “applied“ is an exaggeration. Knowing absolutely nothing about the game, my brother and I hitchhiked six or seven miles to the course early one June morning in 1964 and asked if they were hiring. The pro shop manager/caddie master shrugged and told us to join a handful of other aspiring juvenile delinquents on a wooden bench tucked in weeds just beyond the practice green.
It worked out, but I was terrified when my name was called the first time, wondering how the hell I could possibly do this job when I knew nothing about golf. The caddie master gave me a five-minute training session. He showed me a set of clubs, with numbers on the heads–three through nine for the irons, along with a putter, driver and 3-wood. His instructions were simple: If the golfer asks for a seven-iron, you just reach for the one stamped seven. Otherwise, work on your invisibility. A monkey-brain job, I thought, not realizing then how much it would resemble large swaths of my working life to come.
While our training was definitely of the “on-the-job” variety, the money was sweet–75 cents per bag for nine holes, with a quarter tip if you were lucky. Three or four rounds a day and you were talking big money. Carrying two bags upped the ante. More than once I carried two bags and pulled two carts in that high stakes paradise where child labor and being a beast of burden meshed so well.
Caddie lesson #3: Learn how to judge distance and which way the wind’s really blowing.
By the next summer, I’d become a golfer as well as a pretty good caddie. Everything was easier. Since I played the course now, I knew distances cold and ignored the hump-backed layout’s useless 150-yard markers, which mocked true measurement. Relying upon observation, experience and instinct, I could caution my golfer that those tall trees walling in the second green were no wind gauge, their rustling top leaves just a siren song masking dead air below. Seeing was often not believing.
Caddie lesson #4: “Show up, keep up and shut up.”
The rules of conduct for caddies were clear then and followed a traditional credo of the profession: “Show up, keep up and shut up.” I was really, really adept at all three. Working as a caddie fit seamlessly into the developing thread of my personality as a student and brother/son. Keeping my distance wasn’t even work. I was a natural.
Caddie lesson #5: Calculate the distance between parents & a son.
My mother and father had something in common when it came to judging the distance between themselves and me. They both thought I knew what I was doing and seldom tried to interfere. I did little to dissuade them from the delusion. My teachers must have had similar misplaced confidence in my sense of direction. Did I project that kind of self-assurance? Hard to believe. Or did they just miss the obvious signs? At a certain point, I suppose the distance became simply too vast to gauge, much less bridge.
Caddie lesson #6: Consider the distance between life and death.
“Golf courses and cemeteries are the biggest waste of prime real estate in America,” said Al Czervik (Rodney Dangefield) in the classic golf movie Caddyshack.
Sometimes I drive to the cemetery where my grandfather is buried. I did this last year on one of those beautiful late summer mornings that remind you of being a kid on vacation.
As I walked across the manicured grounds, I started thinking about golf, which was a little weird and inappropriate. The cemetery grass was thick, but as tightly mown as a fairway. I imagined some kind of hellish Mini-Golf theme park there, with crosses instead of windmills, angels instead of clowns; hit Satan in the snoot and win a free game.
Golf courses and cemeteries. It’s hard to think of a cemetery as real estate; the word real doesn’t quite scan, and I couldn’t bring my clubs out there anyway; wouldn’t dare, in spite of the lush carpet surrounding the monuments. Hit a wedge. Take a deep divot. Never know what you might turn up.
I’ve never been the kind of guy who believed that anything but bones were left behind in those holes. If there is a soul — and I’m inclined to side with those who say there is, despite lack of evidence — I suspect it just evaporates in some kind of Immaculate Dispersal covering unimaginable distance.
Caddie lesson #7: How to gauge distance from the edge of a forest to the flag.
Although caddying may have seemed like a monkey-brain job before I started, golf quickly unleashed complexities of its own. In fact, I thought I was screwed as soon as the first man I ever caddied for hit his drive toward the edge of the forest, where the ball trickled into the undergrowth. As we walked together down the fairway, he asked, “How far do you think it is to the green from there, son?”
A long way, man.
A lifetime and then some.
I’m still working on it.
Robert Gray works as an editor and weekly columnist at Shelf Awareness, which publishes two newsletters–one for general readers and one for people in the book business. He launched his book blog, Fresh Eyes Now, in 2004. Gray has written for numerous publications, including Tin House, Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Publishers Weekly and Cimarron Review. From 1992 until 2006, he was a bookseller and buyer at the Northshire Bookstore, Manchester Center, Vt. He has an MFA in Writing and Literature from Bennington College and lives in Saratoga Springs, N.Y..
More from Robert Gray:
Shelf Awareness: http://www.shelf-awareness.com
Book business: http://www.shelf-awareness.com/booktrade.html
Fresh Eyes Now: http://www.fresheyesnow.com/