"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Golf, or The Three Stooges–My Caddying Days


“Atta boy, Joe”, said Andy Squillacote, as the ball sailed skyward, straight and true.  Up it went down the narrow fairway alley between the river and the elms.  Suddenly it started to turn right, not a slow, gradual bank, but an abrupt shank, spinning around like a boomerang; and, before its eventual splash into the water, almost coming back to the 10th tee.

“Oops”, said Andy.  “Little fade you got there.  That’s OK.  Tenth tee.  Take a mulligan”

Joe Tortolani teed up another ball.  Pressure time.  No margin of error.  He placed the driver behind the ball, looked down the fairway, and when it looked like he was about to take the club back and begin his swing, he started the yips.  He did a little dance with his feet to get a better grip in the turf.  He waggled the club head back and forth, and at the same time raised and lowered his head, looking down the fairway.  More shifting of the feet, more waggling of the club, more peering, lining up, waiting for the feel of calm confidence necessary for the samurai Zen swing, the pure will and force of the club against the immanent and resident power of the ball.  It never came.  Once the yips take over, there is total paralysis and the impossibility of a golf swing.  There is only the panicked hack, the out-of-control, ferocious swing that God willing will take the place of the normal graceful, balanced, timed ballet of golf.

There was a solid thwack as the club hit the ball.  Maybe, just maybe all the wrongs of the swing – the little cribbed arms, the arthritic hip thrust, the flailing hands, the upturned head – might all turn into one big right and the ball would sail down the fairway straight and true.

But again, after the mighty contact with the club, and the first, hopeful soaring flight up into the blue sky and down the fairway, the ball, as if pulled by an invisible wire on some great winch in the river, shanked even more sharply than the first ball, and spun and twisted its way farther upstream than anyone thought possible. 

“Wow”, said Tony Grasso.  “It landed behind us, for Christ’s sake.  Did you see that?”, he said with admiration. 

It went on that way for all eighteen holes.  I was the caddy for two of the foursome, carrying “double eighteen”, two bags for two golfers.  Now, if you carried for two golfers, it was an easy round.  Both hit their shots straight and true, and both landed within a few yards of each other on the fairway.  If you carried for duffers, like the foursome of Grasso, Tortolani, Squillacote, and Pozzi who sprayed balls left and right, never in the same spot on the fairway - if they hit the fairway – and usually in the woods, the rough, the sand traps, or the water hazards.  On a course that measured 7000 yards I easily walked 14,000 or almost eight miles; and these duffers, to make up for their shitty play, bought the most expensive hand-tooled leather golf bags, embossed with brass buckles, heavy-duty zippers and stud bottoms; and loaded them up with the entire complement of the 14 clubs allowed by the PGA, a pocket filled with the best Titleist balls, plus an assortment of tools – telescoped ball scoopers for retrieving errant balls out of the water, wire brushes for cleaning fairway irons clogged with the wet sod that they always took with each shot.  Those bags must have weighed at least 40 lbs. each – the weight of a well-packed suitcase.

So, in addition to catching up to the few balls that landed in the fairway, most of my work was finding balls in the deep rough, in the woods, or in the water.  And these guys were stubborn.  Each stroke of the 100 or more they took to get around was important, and no one was willing to give up on a ball and take an extra stroke unless they had looked for a good fifteen minutes. 

“Didja see where it went?”, said Tortolani after his ball had banged and ricocheted in the woods by the 14th.

“Nope”, said Squillacote, “but it’s got to be there someplace”.  Following the etiquette of golf, the foursome plus the two caddies started the search.  Finding a ball under these conditions was nearly impossible.  There was a different sound to a ball hitting different trees – pine sounded different from oak, for example, due to the softness or hardness of the wood; but when the ball knocked three or four different trees, it was hard to pinpoint; and the ground cover of the New England woods was always thick and soft with pine needles, dead leaves  and twigs. 

“Well, guess you gotta take a stroke”, said Grasso, starting to walk towards the fairway.

“OK, just a few minutes more”, echoed Tortolani from deep in the woods.  Not even one of his impressive high and spinning shanks would never have made it that far; but we could hear him hacking away, clearing brush like a ranch hand.  The other golfers gave a few, final, desultory pushes at some low bushes and gave up.

“Better play it safe”, said Grasso to Pozzi as he lined up his tee shot, practice swinging his driver like a shillelagh.  “Use an iron.  Lay it up”.

“Nah”, replied Pozzi. “I can make it”.

What he meant was that he was sure that he could drive the ball over and past the brook that crossed the 15th fairway.  If you laid up, using a long iron, you had an easy five iron to the green.  If you drove it past the brook like the pros, you had an easier chip or at worst a nine-iron.  Either way, it was never worth the risk of hitting it in the water.  But these were not pros, not even good golfers.  They were duffers; and they all had a wildly exaggerated vision of what they could do.  The water hazard on the 15th was the duffer’s challenge.  Getting across it looked so easy.  The fairway at that point was wide and inviting.  You could hook or slice and still be in the fairway once you crossed the brook.

For once Pozzi’s drive went high and straight and did not hook or slice.  It was probably the best-hit ball of the round.  “Way to go, baby”, shouted Grasso as he admired the swing, and the high arc of the ball.  Nevertheless and inevitably, as the ball lost its upward momentum and started its drop to earth, it fell directly towards the brook.  “Come on baby”, shouted Pozzi.  “Give Daddy a break”; but the ball mercilessly dropped into the water. 

Despite the pocketful of Titleists in his bag, Pozzi insisted on dragging for his ball.  He got out his new, but well-used telescope scooper and headed straight for the point where we all saw the ball drop.  “Gotta calculate for drift and current”, advised Grasso.  “Go downstream.”  The brook was clear and fast-running.  It babbled and crested over the rocks and stones, and went on its way down to Martha’s Pond a few holes up-course.  By the time the golfers got to the brook the ball certainly had made its way many hundred feet from the point of impact.  None of this deterred Pozzi, and again, given the rules of golf etiquette, we all poked around the reeds and bulrushes to take a desultory look. 

Pozzi, like Tortolani in the woods on the previous hole, strayed far from the rest of us, so far that we had to holler to get his attention.  He kept expanding the telescope handle of the scooper to reach far into the stream.  Nothing.  Not even other golfers’ balls, for they too had made their way down to Martha’s Pond where the local kids just waited for them, and sold them at 25 cents apiece (1960 prices) at the 18th hole.

Putting was another drama.  The standard rule of golf on a Par 4 was on in two and two putts; but none of this foursome had ever made two putts in many summers unless by some freak of the golf gods, one of their errant iron shots had made it to the hole.  They always misread putts, going to the high side of the hole when the low side was called for.  They hit their putts with the power of a croquet send when a tap was required; and they piddled their ball in four putts when one confident shot would have done the trick.

Of course they did the pro thing, and lined up their putts forever, crouching at the green’s edge, shielding their eyes, squinting down the tunnel vision to the hole.  They would get up and get a line from the other side of the green, careful not to score the path of the other golfers’ balls with their cleats.  Then came the wiggling and waggling over the ball, the same up and down jerking of the head from ball to hole, the same shaking and wiggling of the legs; and the final moment of truth – the badly struck, errant, wild putt.

I loved to caddy, especially for this foursome.  Despite the extra miles (for which I was tipped handsomely), it was one hilarious four hours on a beautiful golf course in a perfect setting.  I never learned to play golf well.  How could I have, caddying for these duffers? Mainly it was because I never had the temperament to play golf well.  To have patience, to forget the bad shots and concentrate on the next, to master the seeming hundreds of factors that went into the perfect swing.  I preferred to watch, to laugh, and to enjoy the camaraderie of my duffers.

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