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Caddying for “Red”

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So here we are at the dad-gum 2005 US Senior Open. There was no advance plan to offer my caddying services to Red should he qualify. In fact, it was somewhat unexpected that he got it around his home course, Norwood Hills C.C., with a low enough score to grab one of the two spots available. Make no mistake, Red can really golf his ball.  He’s played in 8 US AMs, 3 US Mid-AMs, and has won numerous “major” amateur events in Missouri. Still, as one of only a handful of amateurs among the professionals attempting to grab 2 qualifying spots, Red faced long odds. I was out there briefly on qualifying day to root him on.  But after watching him bogey his 2nd hole from 5 feet (trying to jam in a slippery downhill putt for birdie, watch it roll completely off the green, miss the come-backer), I decided to leave him to his work and thus reduce his gallery from 1 to 0.

The bargain was struck a few days later in our 19th hole while settling up at our regular Saturday game—and most certainly after a few beers. “You sure you’re up for  this caddy thing?” Red drawled. I said that I was, but confessed that a secondary motive was the chance to visit family back in Ohio during our time at the NCR CC South Course in Dayton. “OK, let’s go to Ohio and have some fun,” he said. “You won’t accidentally kick my ball, fall into a bunker, or have another heart attack, will you?”

Day 1  Practice Round

Red and his wife Sandy had been in Dayton since Monday of tournament week. I arrived at NCR at the appointed hour for Red’s Wednesday practice round.  Sandy, Red’s sister Sheryl and niece Wendy made up his “gallery” and support group before the event got underway. Wendy caddied for Red during the first few days of practice, as we “professional” caddies require no time at all to get to know the course and master all of the yardages and course subtleties. A small gallery at the start, but by Friday afternoon Red had made a lot of friends and developed quite a following. And why not?—as we shall learn…

Out in the NCR parking lot, Red handed me my caddy badge and proudly noted that our badges gave us unlimited clubhouse access for tournament week. “JJ, all the food is free, and all the beer, too” he said, eyes widening at the prospects. More later on tables piled high with food and rivers of beer…

A steady rain was falling that Wednesday morning, so we killed time in the clubhouse and ventured onto the practice putting green a couple of times  when the rain let up for a few minutes. Finally, the sun broke through, the driving range opened, and we hurried over there to hone our swing a bit more. (Note the use of the “caddy we/he.”  Usage stipulates “we” when a birdie is made from a correctly read putt– or when any other good thing happens during a round where the caddy could claim to have helped. “He” would be the player, and the caddy bears no responsibility for any of his own damned mental or physical errors.)

It was more humid than hot after the rains, but nothing out of the ordinary for us Missouri boys. Red is not a particularly devoted beater of golf balls—nor is he known for embracing any sort of golf “fitness” that seems to be all the rage these days. But this was a big deal, and we wanted to be prepared.  As one might expect at a USGA event, the range was first class: A volunteer got our name and dutifully installed Red’s   very own player sign behind his spot on the range. I got a bushel basket of brand new Titleists and a really nice towel. It was tempting to slip a few of those  pristine beauties into our bag to put in play back in St. Louis. However, out of consideration of my advanced age and declining health, Red was thoughtful enough to bring a small Sunday  bag that had little room for extra eggs—or much of anything extra, in fact.  This was disappointing, for I had brought the full arsenal of caddy gear in the hopes of impersonating an experienced  looper  well  prepared for any eventuality. We had sunscreen of 3 potencies, lotion in case we didn’t get the screen on in time, aspirin, cough drops, lip balm, toothpicks, a deck of cards. athletic tape, electrical tape,  a small wind gauge… You get the drift. I was so loaded down we could have taken an extra bag just for my caddy stuff… (I did manage to pilfer the towel, but that’s expected at these big-time events.)

We got settled in at our appointed range “stall” and worked through the bag in a crisp practice session.  Red had a good lather going even before we got to the driver. I had a good session, too. Cleaned the clubs up beautifully after their use, occasionally made insightful  comments  about  a particularly well-struck shot, and got the towel and water to Red at precisely the correct time between club changes and when it appeared he was on the verge of  passing out.

Then, disaster struck. Tom Watson, Missouri’s own Thomas Sturges Watson,  showed up about three spots down from us. It was clear early on that Mr. Watson was there to hit driver. And Red just happened to be on that club, too. I could see it in his eyes, and, sure enough, before long we had us a good old driving contest going, though I’m quite sure Tom didn’t realize he was in any sort of competition. Red’s good ones were carrying to the front half of a large target green, and Tom’s were going about 25 yards farther to the back of same green. Both players have a quick pace about them and were getting into the sort of rapid-fire cadence one can experience with a driver and an unlimited supply of golf balls. Red was soon dripping wet, making  sporadic  weird guttural noises upon impact, and really firing those babies out there at about  3 per minute.  He never got one to fly back to where Tom’s  were landing, but did catch a couple flush and got them to at least roll within an acceptable distance. Mercifully, Tom quit after about 30 drives and so Red slowly wound down the artillery barrage from our side. I was able to get him to hand me the driver before it melted, and fetched him another bottle of water before we had to call out the medics and get him on an intravenous feed.

The range had gotten crowded as the afternoon wore on, and the stands were getting crowded, too.  The range exit was a narrow walkway, and now there were spectators lining the ropes to get autographs. We had to stop when a player ahead stopped to sign, and before I knew it here was Red doing his large, loopy “John Hancock” for anyone who wanted one. Some poor kid handed Red an official tournament flag already filled with notable player signatures—Crenshaw, Kite, Irwin, Watson, Norman, and the biggest name—Arnie. So our boy, without hesitation, puts his huge and illegible “JH” right next to Palmer’s! One can only imagine what that kid’s Dad might have said upon seeing Red’s signature.  “ Son, who the heck is this ‘Donald Easter’ guy and why did you let him sign this flag? You’ve got six legends and this mess of a signature next to Arnie’s.”

Day 2  Tournament Round 1

As a “field” player, we knew we were going to get an early tee time one day and a late one on the other day. Making the cut was not a very realistic goal– trying to avoid shooting  “a million” was.  NCR-South was laid out in the early 50’s by Dick Wilson, a well-known and highly regarded architect, and is consistently ranked in the Top 100 courses by Golf Digest.  It is hilly and heavily wooded, so one rarely gets a flat lie from the fairway.  The set-up was “fair”: wider on the par-fives, progressively narrow from the longer par- fours  to the shorter ones. The green complexes provide the defense for the course. They were re-worked a few years before the Senior Open—bunkers pushed up close to the greens and deepened, and some greens altered to achieve  more slope and contour. Red’s game is to drive it straight, hit the irons close, and try to make every putt he looks at. He’s gone to the long putter (a really ugly and heavy model) after a serious and lingering bout with the yips, and has done okay with it. All in all, seemed like a course and a set-up that we could handle…

Our early time was Thursday on 10 tee. We had a nice breakfast and a good warm-up. The 10th hole at NCR-South is a par-five with an extremely wide fairway. At the tee we met our fellow competitors, Steve Pinger and Terry Florence. Both are club pros—Steve from Cincinnati  (just down the road from Dayton), Terry from South Carolina. Steve had a sizeable gallery of Cincy friends, we had Red’s wife, Sheryl and Wendy,  and a few people who were lost and probably didn’t even know they were on the back 9.  Everyone has first tee nerves, but we weren’t unusually uptight or nervous. Red’s a pretty cool customer and has “been there, done that” in national events.  So, it was “disaster, Part II” when his first tee shot went knuckling off the club looking like a defective bottle rocket  zooming all over the place. Since the fairway was at least 50 yards wide, we got away with it and I chalked it up to a slight miss-hit and first tee nerves—or a defective golf ball he had fished out of a pond  back in St. Louis and thought was “new.”

But when the next several drives also behaved crazily, it seemed he had a problem. It’s not very common, but one can “cave” a driver clubface and thus render the club useless. After missing several fairways by a wide margin, I thought it best to gently suggest to Red that we had probably caved the driver the previous afternoon trying to hit one past Watson. “Let’s bag this broken driver and hit the 3”, I said.  (I’d somehow not noticed that we had no three wood in the bag, but rather two utility clubs with exactly the same loft—19 degrees.) Red seemed amused in seeing my reaction to the absence of a three wood, and anticipated  my question concerning the absence of same.  He said, and I’ll never forget the answer: “JJ, that one hybrid goes high, that other one goes low–and I’m hittin’ ‘em both great.”   Okay, pards.Yikes.

Our first 9 was a blur of wild drives, spectators scrambling to avoid being hit, gallery ropes down on 12, 14, 16, 17, 18… But he was making the best of the mess and scrambling his ass off. I was slowly losing my  composure as  I  tried to alert the spectators  to Red’s wild drives. He was, for that miserable couple of hours, what one  calls “unguardable.” Drives high left, low right—you name the shape and direction, and we were hittin’ it.

17 was a classic. Short par 4, could have hit one of the hybrids,  but  noooo, we sent a  drive screaming low and “left of Earth” that tore through the oaks and maples, leaving a swath of downed limbs and leaves in its wake. Desperate to avoid a major gallery injury, I disgraced the caddy profession by replacing the customary “fore left” with a loud and unprofessional “LOOK OUT LEFT! GET DOWN!” Walking through the forest, we apologize to the spectators who had to dodge this missle as it pin-balled through the trees. We  finally arrive at his ball. It’s up against a medium-sized oak—and I mean right next to the trunk.  I scramble down there with an iron and try a couple of mock practice swings where I can hug the tree and still get a club on the ball right-handed and theoretically chip it back to the fairway. Now we’ve got all of those Pinger followers down there with us listening in and talking amonst themselves  about what they would do to minimize the damage. Our boy Red, drawing on his years of experience in “big” events, knows that one must resist the natural “panic” impulse when in trouble and speed up to avoid bringing things to a dead stop for those behind us.. He looked down the incline at my mock swings, took a swig of water, and reflected on his plight for a moment. He then declared emphatically,  and to the great amusement of those within earshot:“JJ, I’m too fat to hit that shot.”  So he grabbed his 7- iron and clambered down the incline. He turned the club over left-handed  and hit a beautiful  chip up the slope and back to the fairway. He clawed his way back up out of the ravine to the fairway, arriving out of breath and redder than usual, never thought about asking me for the yardage (which I would have “professionally” provided—as well as wind direction and speed),  grabbed  wedge and almost holed that sucker.  A quick tip of  the cap to acknowledge the cheers from  Pinger’s gallery, and we moved on to tap that baby in for another routine par. About 20 yards from the green, he gave me a little wink and said: “You’re getting pretty good at crowd control, huh?” Playing along, I said “Yup, Stevie Williams is my hero. He’s got that really affirmative ‘stand still’ thing going with the gallery when he and Tiger are trying to get back on the golf course. Speaking of which, this thing we’re walking on is called a ‘fairway’, you know?”

Red  finished his first  9 at 41, making double bogey on his 9th (18) after another wild and crazy drive. The back 9 was better, as we made 2 birds and shot 38. Not great, but not all that bad—especially considering the broken driver and 6 fairways hit for the day. We had one more memorable incident on the 5th, the first of back-to back par-fives on our second  9. We were feeling pretty good after birdies at 2 and 4, and I’m thinking maybe the round could be saved.  The area where 5 tee, 6 green, and 7 tee converge is a natural amphitheater and a popular spot for the gallery to gather. They could get pretty close to the players and see a lot of golf.

Red had the honor on 5, but there was a wait caused by players still in the fairway waiting to go for the green in two. Number 7 tee had two groups waiting to play, but 5 fairway cleared first, so Red was up. I knew he was going to hit that accursed driver again, as it would have  been  an  embarrassment  to hit a hybrid on a par-five—and, of course, we had no 3-wood. One hits out of a chute on 5, and there is a steep slope framing the fairway on the left. Red hit this “neck- job/ moon shot” up the left side that appeared to have a real chance of missing the slope entirely and going way left to what was sure to be a very dark place. We both gave it our best lean to the right in an attempt to influence ball flight. The ball hit on the apex of the slope and miraculously bounced to the right and rolled sideways, or maybe backwards, down onto the fairway.  I turned to get the driver from Red– only to see him in the final phases of his version of the famous Chi-Chi Rodriguez “sword wave and back in the scabbard” move.  There was an audible gasp from the multitudes, then applause mixed with laughter. One of the pros, Jim Colbert, turned to a fellow pro and said, in a pretty loud voice, “Did you see what that guy just did?!!” “ “You should try walking with him for 5 hours on a golf course”, I thought. You’ll see some things that will make your eyes water…

That drive on 5 barely went 200 yards, so it wasn’t a long walk to get there. Pinger, the pro from Cincy, (who played “Ping” clubs, of course)had absolutely killed his drive and was at least 130 yards in front of us—or rather him. I subtly pointed at Pinger’s ball with raised eyebrows, though it was a mere speck in the distance.  Red knew where I was going with that gesture, and whispered, in his best mock-serious voice, “JJ, that swing  of his will linger, but it won’t last.”

One of the first things a caddy is taught, after the mandatory “show up, keep up, shut up” caddy oath, is to pay attention to the condition of the player’s ball. Clean it after it’s marked on the green, and offer to replace it with a new one every so often. Early in our round I noted, with some amazement (and panic), that we had exactly 3 golf balls in the bag—including the one in play! “Wonder if anyone, in the long history of  USGA events, has ever been DQ’ed for not having a golf ball to put in play?”, I thought.  My concern grew as Red’s wildness off the tee continued, but we kept finding those wayward drives.  However, that golf ball was taking a serious beating from the constant banging off trees and skidding on cart paths. It was getting harder and harder to keep it clean and reasonably white, yet Red resisted all offers to tee up one of our two remaining eggs. “Aw, this’un looks fine,” he kept saying. “We’ll use it today and put us a new one in play tomorrow.” I swear, by the end of the round that ball would have been rejected by the lousiest driving range in the land. It featured multiple black cart path scrape marks and gouges, and even a shard of tree bark, I think oak, that had pierced the cover during one of its wild rides through the trees of NCR. The bark shard was imbedded in the ball—and that’s hard to do. Had I thought to bring a pair of pliers, we maybe could have removed  all of the bark– as one might use tweezers to remove a splinter… As it was, I had to bite off as much protruding bark shard as possible and thus restore the ball to some semblance of roundness. I thought the ball should go to the USGA Museum. He thought we’d just put it back in the bag for use in a lesser tournament back home.

We got to the house with a 79 that looked and felt like 99, retired to the bar and the endless supply of food and, more importantly, beer. Red continued to deny the evidence that we had a defective driver, but finally, after enough suds, gained  some perspective on the past 5 hours and agreed that we had to retire it. “Do you have another driver with you, or do we need to go shopping at Crazy Larry’s Golf Mart tonight?, I asked. “Yup, brought another, but I’ve never hit it”, he said. “Well, I don’t think we have a choice” I said,” as you obviously caved that clubface.  And I promise you that if that driver is in the bag tomorrow, I will not be on the bag…” “I got ya’, he said, “but that’s my ‘big tournament’ driver and I have a lot of confidence when it’s in the bag.” Oh boy, now we’re into “favorite” clubs, I thought. What’s next, we gonna get out the Elmer’s and repair our “favorite” purple tee that snapped in half on our last drive?

I drove to Columbus that night to see family. Red and Sandy had some of that free food and drink in the clubhouse , and I gather they (mostly Red) enjoyed a great time that evening  drinking and storytelling with a bunch of club pros—and a couple of “name” pros who shall remain anonymous.

Day 3  Tournament Round 2

We met up back at the course late on Friday morning.  The first stop was Red’s car trunk to get the new driver and consign the broken one to eternal darkness. (I slammed the trunk lid mere seconds after the exchange was made, then half-sat on it in case our boy had a change of heart.)  The new stick still had the price sticker and bar code on it, and I sure wasn’t going to remove it if Red didn’t find it necessary to do so. It stayed on the whole round—and, knowing Red, is probably still on there. The gal doing the Darrell Survey  (“what ‘s in your bag?”) on the first tee could barely keep a straight face upon seeing the price sticker still on the driver. Many adjectives can be used to describe our boy Red, but “pretentious/stuffy” isn’t one of them…

A quick lunch, a bit of work on the range and putting green, and then it was “go time.”  We had one of the last tee times, and it was getting pretty warm out there. Our front 9 was a fairly uneventful 39 with no wild drives or “outside the ropes” incidents—thus confirming my plea for a replacement driver. He made frustrating bogeys on both of the par-5s on the front as he went pin-hunting with 3rd shot wedges and got burned both times.  We noted somewhere late on the front  that while the Cincy pro was not scoring well, the guy from SC was only a couple over par for the tournament.  We made nice pars on 9 and 10—and then, what I later came to call “the meltdown” ,began.

11 is a tough driving hole that sweeps right to left and uphill from the tee.  Red hit a low hook “double-cross” way left, not the sweet fade he was attempting.  The ball headed for the border of what looked like The Ardennes Forest. He played a provisional, as we got no signal at all from the marshall/spotter sitting in a lawn chair up the left side. Red cracked up the group with “I think that guy up there is asleep. He hasn’t moved.” So now all 6 of us tromp through the deepest rough on the course over to where it ends and there’s just tree roots, moss, rutted dirt, and the homes of Lord knows what sort of prehistoric forest-dwellers.  I’m thinking, but not saying, we should just give this a quick look, declare it lost, and go hit our provisional. Red plays by the rules, with a capital “R,” and clearly intended to take the full 5 minutes to search. At about  4 minutes, I’ll be darned if he doesn’t find that thing. The 2 pros and their caddies beat a hasty retreat  back to the golf course. I go up the hill to get the bag—but can’t find it in the 8 inch rough! (Is there a penalty for “lost bag”? Not sure…) After a couple of panicked jogs through the gunch,  I find it and scurry down the hill into that dark place where Red is camped out, having a smoke, and pondering his options. The ball is nestled down, way down, in some sort of evil looking multi-colored combination of moss and mushroom. I look at it, look back at him, and hear,  “Yup, I know you don’t like the play, but I’m gonna try to hit this.” A couple of slashes later, with plant life flying everywhere, we get back close to civilization and allow our fellow competitors to resume playing golf. Red makes a downhill 25-footer for double bogey that would have gone back down off the green if it doesn’t go in, apologizes to the pros for taking what felt like an hour to play the hole, and we move along to 12.

Now it’s really getting HOT and the breeze is gone.  I’m sweating through my shirt, Red’s face is turning a deeper “red” by the minute, and we have no shot at making the weekend. Perfect. Twelve is arguably the toughest hole on the course. A long par-4 with a narrow landing area guarded by a menacing bunker as the hole moves gently right to left. We hit a solid drive that gets a bit of an unlucky bounce and crawls into the front of the bunker.  I get going ahead of Red, put the bag down, and start pacing off  yardages from a couple of sprinkler heads in an attempt to triangulate a good yardage to a couple of logical lay-up areas. We have a so-so lie on a slight downslope off the front lip. I turn back to the bunker from my math/yardage exercise only to find my player already dug in with one of his 2 identically lofted hybrids. I guess it was the heat, but I broke caddy rule #23-2 (“always remain positive with one’s player”), when I firmly questioned Red’s club selection. “Would you mind telling me the plan here with that hybrid?”,  I queried. “Do you not see the lip on this bunker and that fat oak right there?” “I know, I know,” he said, “but I’m just gonna  hit me a low hook off  the right and chase that baby  up on the green.”  “OK, well  give me a minute to get the bag and get out of here before you hit. This is not safe for you or me” (I can see a sizzler that ricochets off that tree that hits me square on the forehead and lays me out once and for all. See’ya, good night. No medics needed, just get this guy in a bag and off to the morgue.

Of course, his shot hits that oak absolutely flush and the ball goes about 50 yards behind us in the fairway. Third shot goes way left, fourth is a chunk that bonks softly off another tree and we once again retreat. He makes another long one for a miracle double and we stagger onward. Halfway down 13 he sees that I’m still out of breath and sweating like crazy. “You doin’ okay, pards?” he asks.  “I’ll make it, but it sure would be great if we could just keep going forward on these holes. I think we turned that last hole into about an 800 yarder. Advance, retreat, advance, retreat.”  We both cracked up, and I’m sure the pros wondered what the hell was so funny.

One final adventure, of my creation, came on the home hole… Terry from SC was sure enough right on the cut line through 35 holes. He played 2 shots to the par-4 18th to the back fringe and had about a 30-footer he needed to 2-putt. He left the flag in and rolled a beauty up there to about a foot. I strolled over to remove the pin—only to find that it wasn’t coming out.  After a couple of increasingly firm tugs I looked up to see the blood draining from Terry’s face as he stood there in the heat waiting for this moron caddy to remove the pin. I was beginning to think I might pull the whole cup out of the ground when it blessedly gave way and Terry could tap in right “on the number.”

We had a nice cool down in the clubhouse—even sat next to Ben Crenshaw and Jay Haas for a while. From our appearances, they probably thought we were part of the grounds crew and had snuck in for a quick beer—but they didn’t  report us, so all was good.

I called Red from the road on Saturday to see how his drive back was going. “Aw JJ, I’m still here. Eating lunch at NCR and gettin’ ready to go hit some balls. My pass is good for the whole week, and all the guys are out on the course so the range is wide open,” he said. He excitedly told me a few days later that he got a quick lesson that day and all was fixed. Apparently he spotted Johnny Miller ( part of the tournament TV broadcast) on the range chatting with the players in the last groups to go off. And so when Johnny was leaving the range to go start the broadcast, our Red says: “Hey Johnny, can you come over and take a quick look at my swing?”

A memorable three days with a true “piece of work”—and quite a good player, thanks very much. I’m not sure I could have broken 180 playing from where he’d had to hit 2nd shots from– and yet he managed a smooth 160, not  even close to “DFL.” And he tried his best from first drive to last putt. But more importantly– he had fun.  The people following our group had fun, the bartenders and waitresses, the bag room staff, the kids seeking autographs… Red left them all smiling and feeling  just a little bit better about themselves,  and life in general. And I’m pretty  sure I had the most fun of anyone… Got to spend a lot of time with a skilled amateur who defied the odds in qualifying, and honored this great game through his efforts at NCR– just as it has honored him when his results warranted. “Isn’t that the point?”, I thought.  Try hard, fight the nerves, call on all of your past experience, and put your game and your ego on the line and out there for all to see. Yes, there’s  a  two day total. But there’s  so much more that’s not on that scorecard, as we all know.  Well played, Red, well played.Red cartoon- final

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The Missouri Golf Post is a monthly digital magazine that “celebrates the people who play the game.” Each monthly issue contains several “feature” stories on golfers, golf courses, and/or major tournaments of interest statewide. Each issue contains a number of regular departments on topics such as Tournament Summaries, Fitness, “The Superintendent’s Corner,” Instruction, and Rules.

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