“C’mon out to Butterfield with me. You’ll like it,” Johnny says.
After school, we amble down to 47th Street at the north end of town and stand on the corner with our thumbs out. Can’t predict who’ll stop for us, so we thumb everyone.
Butterfield is four miles out of Westmont–a big green world , in a sense a million miles from my little town with its northside shops along Cass Avenue and its southside spray of empty lots and alleys, my world.
Mr. Dinwoodie, a short plain spoken man with gray temples, the caddy master, issues me my provisional badge–red with a pin on the back, my number and class printed on the front. Nobody starts out higher than C, but you’re only provisional while you’re getting two rounds under your belt. Then you trade in the red for a green. I’m number Red 94 C.
We lounge around the pro shop expecting any minute to see Dinwoodie motioning for one of us to come over. “Get Mr. So and So’s clubs out,” he says.
Johnny and I are picked at the same time. A twosome has come out for a quick round after work. We get their bags from the pro shop and head down to the first tee.
At Johnny’s suggestion I unzip the pocket where the balls and tees are stowed, fish out one of each, slip the grass stained orb into the slot in this wooden-handled-scrubber-thingee that I work up and down almost as if I was home alone in bed with my hands under the covers..
Johnny preps me. “You look stupid. Sling the bag over your hip and rest your arm over the clubs to hold them in place. If you want to look dorky, put the strap over your shoulder and hold on with your hand, like you just did.”
There are three 9 hole courses at Butterfield, Red, Blue and White. Most men start on the Red.
“Your guy always hits with the driver off the tee. So, you take the cover off the driver, and hand it to him before he asks for it, so he sees you know what you’re doing”
“Which one’s the driver, John?”
“Okay, you blew it right there—the long club with a sock with the number one on it, stupid.”
“How am I supposed to know?”
“Never mind. One thing,” he said, “if it’s a short hole, forget the driver. He’ll hit an iron off the tee. You won’t know which iron. So, just wait and let him choose. Never, never hand him the driver on a short hole. It’s like handing your dad a pair of pliers when he asked for his ball-peen hammer.”
You can’t play golf at Butterfield unless you have a caddy. At lesser courses like Midwest CC guys come out in Levis and T shirts, and pull their bag around on a hand cart, or who knows, dork city, even sling it over their shoulder.
At Butterfield golfers look like golfers should look. Members drive a Buick or something, and stroll up the flowered path to the clubhouse, passing Dinwoodie along the way, wearing good pants, serious looking club shirts, and if it’s a little chilly a bulky yellow sweater with buttons down the front.
They come in all stripes at Butterfield . They sell cars at dealerships they own–come up to the table and greet dressed-up diners at swank restaurants they own–run department stores or night clubs, or they’re one of the men in a suit and a briefcase, waiting mornings beside the tracks for the 8:03 to Union Station in Chicago. Priests play golf at Butterfield. My Dad can’t. He doesn’t play golf. Even if he did, he couldn’t. He doesn’t seem to miss playing golf at Butterfield, but then I never asked him about it. I knew what he’d say.
We wait on the first tee, I’m nervous not scared. Don’t want to be a dweeb. What could possibly happen? Johnny has stories: the dork who was out on the practice range shagging balls and lost sight of one that came down on his head. Or, on the first tee your guy hits his ball and you walk off with all the rest of the party, but to the wrong ball. Never walk to the wrong ball. Worse, never move his ball so you can see it’s his.
“Keep your eyes peeled. Your guy is paying you to walk straight to it no matter where it goes. You need to find it fast. Stand there like a Pointer until he comes up to you and shoves his club back in the bag. Wait for him to choose the next club. Except. Except when you reach the green. You do know what the green is, right?” Johnny asks.
“I’m not that stupid. It’s where the hole is. It has a pole sticking out of it with a flag.”
“On the green, he always uses the putter for the next shot. So, you hand him his putter before he asks for it, stupid.”
“I’m not stupid, John.”
Caddies do not stand on the green. Stay off it, unless your golfer is putting.”
“I’ll never remember all of this, John,” I say.
“Bull. Now, if your guy is a long way from the hole, he will want you to tend the pin.”
“What does that mean?”
“Step onto the green, careful not to make a dent in the grass or walk in the line of any of the balls. Grab hold of the pin, and be ready to jerk it out of the hole if your guy says to pull it. If it’s windy, you keep the flag from flapping. Don’t want to destroy your guy’s concentration.”
“Cool it, they’re not going to burn you at the stake or something.”
“On doglegs give your golfer his driver, and hightail it out to a vantage point where you’re sure you’ll see where his ball lands.”
After the first nine holes, everyone in the party stops at the snack hutch. Our golfers get us a hotdog and a Doctor Pepper. It’s only right. They couldn’t stand munching one of their own without getting us one.
“At the eighteenth green, give your golfer the ticket you got from Dinwoodie. You’ll get two bucks for eighteen holes plus tip. Typical tip–two bits. A buck is excellent. Zero shits. If you get a measly quarter, resist the urge to hand it back with a wise crack. It’s better than nothing.”
Johnny was a life saver in the beginning, but by the end of that first summer and into the next, I was thumbing my way out to Butterfield alone. My badge number went steadily down as I got more experience. Soon, I wore a white badge #13.
Golf is a genteel game—a game for men whose hands don’t get dirty when they work. It’s a game that meshes with the rest of their life—an extension of who they are. It’s a game that rewards confidence, consistency and coolness.
When they take a cigarette, they don’t let it dangle out of the corner of their mouth with a curl of smoke snaking up their cheek and into their eye as they might if they were bending over a lathe or something. No, they take a drag, and cup the butt between their thumb and middle finger as they stroll up the fairway to their ball.
They address it, nudge it with the head of their club to improve their lie, formulate a strategy for their next shot, take another drag, drop the butt onto the grass in front of them, let the smoke out slowly as they take a practice swing, then whack the ball—snick—sharply, efficiently. They hand over the club, bend to pick up their smoldering butt, and stride off down the fairway.
Even if they don’t know what they’re doing, they act like they do. They know the days ahead will carry them up on a never ending escalator. They don’t talk about the Bears, the White Sox, how Joe Louis barely survived his fight with Billy Conn before knocking him out, or even about money or business. They talk about their game in the lingo of golf. “You peeked a little there, Charley,” they say, after their partner shanks a nine iron into a sand trap, meaning he took his eye off the ball and nearly whiffed.
Sometimes you form a little bond with your golfer–because you remind him of his son—or because he wishes he had one. Sometimes he includes you in his banter as he strides up the fairway. “Whitey’ll be on that ball, like stink on shit.” I’m Whitey. It’s because over a whole summer of looping, my hair has bleached out. To give me a nickname is a testament to my dead-on ball finding ability.
Sometimes you can feel an affection your golfer has for you as a boy in his own image–‘the kid who works’ he used to be long before he started his own car business. There was this man, this car dealer, whose bag I carried in the best ball tournament of 1952, Mr. McFaul. We were coming up the fairway of the last hole. He wasn’t feeling well and because of that, he and his partner were not going to advance in the tournament the next day. I was feeling sorry for him and it must have showed on my face. “Well son, looks like I washed us out” he said. “ I wanted you to win,” I said. “I know you did,” he said.
Women play golf too—women who do not look like my mother. They wear shorts and a short sleeved shirt, spikes that look like the saddle shoes high school girls wear, a visor to keep the sun off their face, a white patch between their eyebrows to keep lines from deepening, and socks cut off below the ankle. Their legs are brown and smooth. They tug on their glove before every shot, and do not smoke cigarettes. They handle their clubs lightly, barely touching the grass when they address the ball. They swing without exerting any effort. They never grunt.
The ball travels 100 yards, tops, making it ridiculously easy to find. Women do not sweat, and so they only play nine holes.
They have few clubs in their bag. What’s the point of having fourteen clubs when all of your shots look the same, a weak blooper? A caddy can carry two women’s golf bags. Women are terrible tippers. Two bags over nine holes gets you $2.25. Going around the course, women talk about the stupidest things, like their middle son went to the prom in his blue tux and looked so cute.
Not all females are terrible golfers. At a women’s tournament I carry a bag for a girl who is five or six years older than me. She swings like she means it. Her drives are straight and carry two hundred yards. She is within shouting distance of the top of the leader board at the end of the first day. The second day is a rainy Sunday. I stay home and live to regret it. The third day I am dismayed to see that she is still near the top, but I have forfeited any claim I have to being her caddy. If you’re going to caddy, then caddy. I wouldn’t have melted in the rain if I’d gone back out to Butterfield Sunday. Be a pro.
Insiders call caddying looping. Looping has its satisfactions. I know when Dinwoodie calls me up to get my ticket he has chosen me because he knows I know what I’m doing–that everybody concerned with this transaction will be happy when the round is history and the clubs are safely back in the pro shop. I will hang around the caddy shack until Dinwoodie comes along with his cash purse. I’ll hand over my ticket, signed, sealed and delivered, contemplating how much I’ll net after splurging on an Orange Soda and a Snickers bar.
I meander out to the gate past the groundskeeper on his tractor spreading the scent of fresh clippings in the air. Take a seat on the pedestal of the brick lamppost. Lean back.The money feels good in my pocket. It’s my money. I spot a cigarette butt on the ground and light up ignoring the spit someone else left on it. I see a car approaching, stand up and thumb, and look the driver straight in the eye. A woman Ma’s age pulls over. I ditch the butt good kid that I am. In Westmont, at the corner of Cass and 47th, I climb out, but not before the nice lady reminds me I should have thanked her.