“I think it is slightly straight, sir.”
Caddie to his player who is about to putt.
Austin, Texas, 1993
The Parkland was a cheap motel, the type commonly found just off secondary roads on the outskirts of almost any town. Named in honor of the rundown children’s playground across the street it boasted two spindly Douglas Firs straddling the small cement porch of the check-in office. The chipped tile and the faded curtains told the story of an older couple’s dream turning to dust. Eight bare rooms, an unrepaired icemaker, and a dirt parking lot made for low overhead for the smart new owner who knew how to squeeze out a hard buck. It was a haven for tired young families on a budget who happened on it late at night, independent salesmen who wanted privacy, and locals who sought an illicit pairing away from the eyes of town.
It proved perfect for the wallet of Tour caddies. The price was right with no charge for extra roommates. Bag carriers of famous golf professionals earn as much as a family doctor and stay in hotels with room service and dance floors, but the majority of caddies squeeze four or five together at a place like the Parkland and eat in the room or splurge at Benny’s Bar-B-Q Burgers. Four rooms made a temporary home for at least a dozen caddies during tournament week.
The three caddies that shared room six were fringe journeymen who carried for new players or ones that hadn’t suffered enough to call it quits. None of them claimed a regular bag. It was a hard existence, marked by periods of wild spending when their player made the top ten, but more usually a life of sharing sparse rooms, cheap meals and nursing a battered second-hand Oldsmobile over the five or six hundred miles between tournaments. Ted, Tom, and Steven had traveled the roads together from the start of the season and had a well-oiled routine of arriving at the tournament site early to stalk likely looking bags.
The hunting ground sat just outside the locker room where they had to be quick to spot the few unattended golf pros. Dozens of local wannabe caddies swarmed around each hapless player like flies in a feedlot. Tour caddies develop the skills of a cowboy, the charm of a salesman, and the thick skin of a buffalo. When too slow, or shouldered away, they joined a similar scramble the next day to grab an amateur’s bag in the one or two-day pro-am that would at least mean gas money and a couple of decent meals.
Friday night, cut night, was time for celebration or despair. A player takes home a check only if he makes the cut after two rounds. A caddie makes money each day he carries, but makes a living only if he works the full four days and pockets a percentage of his player’s winnings. Ted and Steven’s players had played well. The caddies had shaved, showered, slicked up, and split to find their piece of the Tour’s after dinner pie. Tom’s pro had played as if he hated the game, and added insult to injury by cursing his caddie after each of his eighty-two bad shots.
Tom sat on the end of the single bed in room six and looked across at his image in the tiny mirror on the opposite wall. “I’m too old for this kind of shit,” he said. “My wife walks out taking everything with her and an asshole kid half my age reams me up and down all day then misses the goddamn cut by a frigging mile.” Two six packs and a bottle of vodka on the dresser waited to help him forget everything.
Late that night, there was a knock on his door. The old friends talked for a while, until the visitor pulled out a gun, stuck it in Tom’s face, and fired. The murderer then wiped the handle with a handkerchief, placed Tom’s hand around the gun and let it drop. After a few more wipes with the handkerchief and a quick look around, the killer left.
While it was still night and the air held a chill, his roommates stumbled through the door and into the dark room. Ted tripped over the body lying crumpled on the floor. Ted roughly pulled him up and threw him onto the bed.
The body landed face down, left knee up under the stomach, arms tossed out to the sides. Not a muscle moved. “Flick on the light,” Ted told Steven, “this guy’s wasted.” He pulled on Tom’s arm to turn him over while bending to shout “good morning” in his friend’s face. Instead he fell back gagging. Dead eyes stared through him. There was a gaping hole where Tom’s nose and mouth had been and his shirt and pants were drenched. Ted looked at his hands and only then felt the thick layer of sticky blood. “There’s a gun on the floor!” Steven shouted. Ted grabbed it instinctively as if to stop it from doing any more harm. He felt its heaviness and was instantly sober.
Small pools of blood spotted the floor and more blood smeared on the side of the bed. Pieces of bone and brain on the back wall had become fingers of red and black oozing down the rough gray plaster. Steven and Ted’s eyes, wide open in fascinated revulsion, fixed on what had been Tom’s face. Neither wanted to go to the body and check for a pulse. Both wished he was alive but were afraid to touch him, knowing he was dead.
The ambulance attendants were not so queasy. With quiet efficiency they examined the body. “Did you guys call the police?” It hadn’t occurred to either of them. With a sigh of superiority borne from hauling dozens of bodies worse than this, one attendant casually went to the phone on the nightstand table and dialed the sheriff. While alternately looking at the terrified caddies and absentmindedly gazing at Tom’s body, he described the situation in the officious language of junior authorities and pointedly charged as to how the scene had been disturbed by the two roommates. His immediate duties now done, the white-coated attendant stood guard over the body awaiting the police. Ted and Steven huddled as far from Tom and the blood as they could, by this time looking everywhere except the bed. Ted wanted to wash his hands, but didn’t want to walk past the body.
Within ten minutes, flashing blue lights announced the arrival of the police. Car radio squawking, two uniformed officers marched through the open door, their belts sagging from the weight of guns, nightsticks, bullets and handcuffs. One police officer examined the body and to the relief of the caddies, closed the eyes. His partner asked the trembling roommates for details about Tom.
The officer was polite but thorough. Did Tom have enemies? What had he done that day and evening? Was he depressed?”
“I don’t know. I didn’t know much about him, I guess,” Steven said. “That’s kinda the way it is out here sometimes.”
Kevin’s six-foot frame moved through the swing like a hawk swooping in for the kill. The ball swiftly became a black dot high in the clear desert sky.
“Oh, yeah. That’s sweet, that’s sweet,” Foot said while sitting on the end of the red and white Titleist staff bag.
“A little thin with that one. Not much, though. Not much.”
“Looking nice, very nice. Getting it good.”
“Hell, Foot. I don’t have any idea where it’s going. It’s not any better. For crying out loud, man.” Kevin stopped to wipe the sweat from his brow. Late in the afternoon, the Las Vegas sun was relentless. His light yellow shirt was soaked with sweat as were his pants along the back seam and underneath the yellow cloth belt.
“Come on, Kevin. We’ve got the rest of the day to work it out. There’s plenty of time.” Foot looked cool under the shade of his huge bone white Panama hat. The smooth surface of the Panama contrasted with his bird’s nest of gray hair and out-of-date mutton chop sideburns, stark white against his caddie tan. Foot looked regal, even as his girth flatted the end of the golf bag he sat on. His nose was imperially Spanish, skin tone an Italian cinnamon, with wild Scottish eyebrows from the clan McClelland. His ancestry tracked through half a dozen European countries, not a little of it through royal houses. He wore the requisite caddie tennis shoes, with white socks, gray slacks and a short-sleeved blue cotton shirt; a typical bag-carrier ensemble, at least from a quick glance. Closer inspection would reveal high-quality fabric, expert tailoring and attention to detail. Foot gave a damn about doing things right and cared a lot about his current project, this young Tour rookie who probably was not going to make it. “Hey Kev. Where’s that positive attitude?” he asked.
“I left it in Saint Louis,” Kevin answered glumly. “Along with my ego, my wallet and my golf swing.”
“Hit some more.”
The swing looked perfect. Smooth and rhythmic; finishing high and balanced like the other players on the crowded practice range. Behind Kevin, a high-swinging chorus line of the golf world’s elite belted out balls. Like a circus for grownups, golf had taken over the Desert Inn. TV electronics filled semi-trailers big enough to carry elephants. Enough miles of rope and stakes to raise fifty big tops lined the fairways. There were enough stars and performances to fill eighteen rings.
John, Nick, and Tom: All the big names flew into town this week to chase over four and a half million dollars for this high-end, sponsor-fueled extravaganza. Senior players had been included, even Vin Scully and Lee Trevino were back in the TV booth one more time. It was old home week for the veterans and another chance for a few desperate rookies.
On Tuesday afternoon, some competitors arrived at the airport, others sat at the casino tables. A few, like Kevin Turner, were hard at work on the driving range. Despite the Las Vegas afternoon sun baking everything that didn’t move, hundreds of sweltering golf fans pushed against the thin yellow rope to observe the Tour players ready themselves for tomorrow’s Pro-Am. Men in shorts and shirtsleeves watched through dark glasses. Women in dresses and sun-suits observed from under floppy wide-brimmed hats.
Greg Norman and his solid-as-a-banker’s-wallet swing hit next to Kevin. Farther down the line silky Fred Couples had drawn a large crowd. No one watched Kevin. No one knew who he was and no one cared. Tour rookies, especially those up from the mini-tour, don’t create much of a stir in the big show.
“Am I getting back to my left side?”
Kevin had been plagued all year with a pull hook; missing fairways, missing greens, and missing cuts. So far, he was in the money only once and time was running out.
“You’re getting your weight through. Your tempo is just a little quick that’s all. You’re trying too hard. Swing easy.”
Foot knew what he was talking about. The last eleven of his fifty-nine years had been spent carrying a bag for professionals. It was a strange hobby for a successful businessman, but he loved working under the sky much more than in a stuffy high-rise with sealed windows. Nothing suited him better these days than walking the tree-lined fairways, the muscle ache after carrying a bag four or five miles, and sharing a late night beer with the guys. He also enjoyed nursing young players through the early agonies of the big time. Except this last choice. Kevin Turner the whiner. What at first appeared to be one last player to mold before returning to his far-flung business empire had turned out to be a good-looking Corvette with no gas in the tank. Kevin couldn’t keep trying and failing any longer. This was it. Finish in the money this week or it’s back to work on the driving range on Monday. Foot had considered sponsoring the kid himself, but then thought better of it. He would go the distance for anyone who tried, but Kevin was a quitter. Foot heard the death rattle and knew he was headed toward a distasteful end with his latest project.
“There. You got it, man. Perfect,” Foot encouraged.
“Oh, good. One shot.” Kevin moaned. “That should help get me around the course tomorrow.” Kevin wiped his brow again, his sun-bleached hair matted with sweat.
“Come on man. It’s in there. You just have to find it. Patience, man. Patience.”
It didn’t matter what the caddie said. Kevin was showing all the signs of being beaten by the Tour: self-doubt, quick temper, looking for excuses, a tendency to throw in the towel after an early mistake. Many beautiful swings have turned ugly under the pressure of PGA tournament golf. Kevin had no magic. A good swing, sure. A few good mini tour finishes. So far he had not shown Foot he had the fire. Foot didn’t think Kevin wanted it enough. Looking down the line he saw the winners. David Duval. He sure had it. He’s willing to walk on hot coals to reach the green. Kite. Never quits. An unlikely looking superstar, but for years held the title of greatest money winner in golf history. Vijay Singh, dark, handsome, smooth and made of tempered steel, so tuned into practice that swinging the club has become pressureless. Kevin out-distanced them off the tee, held his own out of bunkers, and stayed even from off the green and on it during practice, yet he came up empty on the course every time. A hard-earned birdie would be wiped out by a six on the next hole. A sloppy bogey on the 36th hole and he would miss the cut by a single stroke, sending him empty-handed down the road again. Whatever fire Kevin may have had had long ago turned to ashes.
“Foot, this is really bad. Nothing’s going to work. No way can I find a fairway, let alone make the cut.” With each day on Tour Kevin’s heart became more twisted. He didn’t like himself, his golf swing, his life.
“Don’t think cut. Think swing,” Foot told him. “We’re not going to quit. We’re here to play, not moan and groan.”
“Shit. I can’t even hit a six-iron.” Kevin threw the club across the golf bag that doubled as Foot’s bench. Foot silently picked it up and cleaned the club with a wet towel before sliding it into the bag. Kevin looked around at the other players. Like him, most of them were working out the kinks before the start of the tournament. A few gunned shots, building up a rhythm. Many took it easy in the heat, strolling over to those nearby to enjoy a glass of ice water and a chat under the canvas canopies that provided the only shade. “Shit,” Kevin mumbled.
Foot raised his eyebrows. He recalled the disasters of the year. Missed cuts everywhere except San Diego, Kevin’s own backyard. He knew the Torrey Pines Golf Course so well he could have played it blindfold, yet he suffered the humiliation of coming in dead last on Sunday. After paying his expenses, he barely cleared three hundred dollars for the week. Kevin had the swing, a very good swing. At the beginning of the year he had a lot of confidence, too. Each week he was humbled, and each week he brought less to the tournament. The big time was too big.
The PGA Tour is the best in the world. Golfers who are one in a million compete against others equally talented only to earn a living far below the level of a backup shortstop hitting .220 for the Mets. A touring golf professional fights hard every year for the privilege of finding his own way to far-flung tournament sites, paying hotel and other expenses, hiring a caddie, and if after two-days play he fails to finish within the top sixty or so against a hundred and a half other touring professionals, goes down the road without even a handshake.
It’s a long journey for most players. During the early days of the Tour in the thirties and forties, the players traveled from tournament to tournament in cars, many pulling trailers, sharing a life much like today’s caddies. In fact, most of these talented old timers learned their trade as youngsters swatting at cut-up balls with discarded clubs in the caddie yard. Life was hand to mouth, following the sun, looking for a match. These men were held captive by a love of competition and just enough prize money to sucker them for another season. A few, like Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, and Byron Nelson, made enough to buy their freedom. Most finished their careers in club jobs while others ended up nursing broken hearts with too many vodkas, having lost their swings and a wife or two along the way.
Nowadays, the cream of players come out of college programs with corporate sponsors to pick up the tab until they make enough to buy their own golf course and start up a design business out of central Florida. Club manufacturers supply equipment and pay big bonuses for playing well enough to merit TV exposure for the logos pasted all over their clothes from hats to socks. Wearing the right visor can mean an extra fifty thousand. Even a lawn mower company throws money at the hotel tab. The guys who mature early, establish a reputation during junior tournaments, and earn a free ride in college, march into an exclusive club with a freshly cleaned red carpet waiting to cushion their sponsor supplied waterproof shoes.
Another group, to which Kevin held membership, was more in the spirit of the old players. He hadn’t played junior golf. Golf was for wimps. No one in his family played. His father was a machinist at Rohr Aircraft near downtown San Diego and played sandlot softball on Sunday afternoons. His mother cleaned house and baked cookies just north of Balboa Park in a neighborhood that didn’t see a family move in or out for twenty years. Kevin and his older brother surfed. Sand wasn’t something in a bunker. Sand was to lie on between sets of waves under the cliffs of the North County beaches.
A rookie like Kevin has to learn how to cope with being a tiny fish in a pond stocked with circling sharks. Most of the tiny fish quickly found smaller, more welcoming ponds at driving ranges or the golf shop in the mall. The competitive pressure of the Tour has crushed a lot of hopes. On the plus side, away from the relentless tournament pressure, are practice rounds and Pro-Ams where business connections can be made, friendships created, and games improved. It is probably the least anxious time of the week for a Tour rookie. For Kevin, the Las Vegas Pro-Am was the beginning of more trouble than he ever imagined.