If I was to sum it up in a single burst, I'd say that in my line of work, you basically come across two kinds of people -- the ones who remember and those who forget. The forgetful folks are downright plentiful, and they require the services of people like me whenever they wander onto a golf course. I may be a caddy with some mileage on me, but if there's one thing I'm good at it's remembering; once I see the line or learn a distance, I never lose track of it. Let me walk a hole and watch a man play it and I'll know things about him that he doesn't even know about himself. And once I know them, brother, they're with me for the duration.
When you see an experienced caddie, watch him close. You'll see he's got a feel for the land and the game, a sixth sense of what's about to happen when a man puts his club to the ball. I remember one gimpy old bag man the boys called Searchlight; he was weathered and stooped but he wouldn't quit looping. We called him Searchlight on account of his ability to see in the dark. He could read greens like they were books, and he could read them pretty good, even when the lights were turned out. One time, after his lamps got bad and he couldn't hardly see even at high noon, the boys called on him for help. He was just standing around inside the caddie shack at San Francisco Golf Club while a bunch of the big wads were putting for fifty dollars a hole. It came down to the end and the pot was something like $900. They were looking at a ten-footer for all the cash when one of them called over to Searchlight. It was nearly pitch black outside, but old Searchlight went out there, walking real slow, listing as he limped to the spot they led him to. Then he kneeled down and felt the damn green with his fingers. Couldn't see a thing; just ran his hand over the grass, felt it all the way from the ball to the hole. Then he looked up at no one in particular and said in a coarse whisper, "Two balls out on the right."
One of the guys looked at Searchlight like he was conducting a seance or something, then asked him, "How hard do you want me to hit it?" Old Searchlight, he didn't even flinch, just answered him straightaway.
"Gonna take a firm stroke," he said.
They all just stood there looking at him, not knowing whether to trust him. Then he said, "You're puttin' uphill, into some grain with a hint of dew layin' on top of it."
They trusted him then, and one of those boys, he stepped up and gave it a good hard rap, just like Searchlight instructed. Damn ball found the hole, all right. Sucker disappeared like a freight train going into a tunnel.
To tell you God's truth, they aren't all legends like old Searchlight. Some of the caddies I've come across are downright ornery, and if you look at them cross-eyed you're asking for trouble. You take Nitro Duffy, for instance; he was a man who acted normal most of the time, but then he'd just blow like a volcano and start doing things you'd shake your head at. One thing he couldn't tolerate was people who didn't listen to him. Every once in a while, Nitro would find himself looping for folks who could barely remember their home address, let alone how to play the game. For folks like that, you've got to just about tattoo the instructions on their body, or else they'll plum forget what they have to do.
Well, wouldn't you know it, one day Nitro Duffy found himself toting at San Francisco Golf Club. He was carrying for this doctor fellow, a bone man or something, who was so bad that Nitro ended up having to write the distance on the man's wrist. The trouble started on the 1st hole and continued all the way around the course; Nitro would slip the distance to the doc, then the man would pick out a club, waggle it about twenty freaking times, and give Nitro a funny sort of look.
"How far did you say it was?" he'd ask.
Did that on every hole, even the 3-pars. I know Nitro Duffy and I can tell you he was downright insulted by that. I don't think the doc was even listening to Nitro the first time around and if he was, his retention level was pitifully low; he had to pick it all up on the rebound. So there they were, dead in the middle of the 18th fairway, and before the question was even asked, Nitro blew like Vesuvius. He pulled out a leaky Bic pen and scribbled "147 from the crooked branch" on the old doc's left hand. Told him not to forget it next time he played the hole. Nitro said later he thought it was a good way to make the point, but that doctor man didn't exactly cotton to Nitro Duffy writing on his flesh; after the round, he told the caddie master and that was the end of that. Or I should say, that was the end of Nitro Duffy packing the mail at San Francisco Golf Club. Last time I saw him, he was snagging loops at Harding Park, which is a muni course about a mile away.
When it comes to looping, I tend to know what the hell I'm talking about -- and I'd better, considering I've been out here going on thirty years now. I suppose if caddies have a useful function (aside from navigating folks from Point A to Point B), it's that we're able to simplify things. We take the complexity out of your life, at least during the time you're out there on the course, roamin' the gloamin' in search of that something you can't ever quite put your finger on. It doesn't matter if you're all jumbled up with tension, the excitement percolating inside your body like boiling water, because in an instant I can drop the temperature about fifty freaking degrees till the water lies flat. You may be thinking a zillion thoughts, each of them colliding with one another inside your head, when a loop like me will tell you something plain and simple, like "punch five," "hard seven," or maybe just "knock it in the back of the goddamn jar." If you can hit it -- hit it right, that is -- we're in business, and once we open those doors for business the store's gonna stay open all night. It can't hardly get any simpler than that.
Now, I'm not saying golf's a simple game. Anyone who's ever played it knows how freaking complicated it can be. You've got your shaft angle, your wrist pronation, your stance and alignment, your trajectory, your wind, and your own damn self to get out of the way. What a man like me can do for you is erase the doubt, eliminate all them questions, get you to the point where you're picking out the right club, getting ready to hit the right shot. In short, I can set you up to hit a shot that fits both you and the hole you're playing. And if you listen to me and let your natural talent assert itself, well, you're going to do just fine. You may not always pull off the play you want, but at least you ain't going to be fretting and stewing while you're trying to pull the trigger. In the end, I guarantee you we'll have your engine purring like a little kitten.
Of course, it never starts out that way and it didn't for me. The first thing a person has to do is learn the ropes, and I started doing that at Claremont Country Club in Oakland, California, all the way back in the summer of 1965. Got into a beef with my old man, stormed out of the family house, took a right turn up Broadway Terrace and wandered past that big Tudor clubhouse, and my life ain't been the same since.
I wasn't exactly looking for a career that day, but I was looking for a different kind of life. I grew up just two blocks downwind from a shoe factory, a place that smelled mighty peculiar on account of all the tanned cowhide and the vats of glue they kept on hand. My old man worked in that factory, and he pretty much assumed I'd do the same thing when my turn came. You could say he encouraged me to find work, if telling me a hundred times a week to "get yourself a job" counts as encouragement. (I think the exact words were, "Get yourself a fucking job," but I can't say I listened too closely.) Anyway, after one too many arguments about work or money or my long hair or something, I headed out the door with no intention of ever coming back.
I'd heard you could make yourself some easy money up at those country clubs, so that's where I headed, though I can't say my first connection at Claremont was either easy or pretty. Pitiful is one word that comes close, but even that can't do it justice. I walked onto those close-clipped fairways, got assigned to an elderly couple, and spent about five hours breaking my ass chasing line-drive foul balls. It seemed like every time the husband hit to the left, his wife nailed one to the right. Whenever one of them would connect pretty good and send one sailing down the middle, the other would shank the damn ball into a eucalyptus grove.
The first time they asked me to mark the ball, I asked them to lend me a pen and tell me what sort of mark they wanted. They shook their heads and tossed me a coin, which I promptly put in my pocket. Then they explained what marking the ball was all about.
Once, when the man's wife told me to rake a bunker, I told her I was just there to carry the clubs. She crooked her finger, called her man over, and the two of them told me all the duties I had to assume. It sure sounded like an awful lot of work. I had the audacity to make an inquiry.
"I gonna get paid for all that?" I asked.
"You make eighteen holes and you're gonna get paid," the mister said.
They knew I was a rookie, and they knew that meant their tab for the day was going to be pretty economical. But when I look back on it, I have to confess they were pretty fair about things.
I was wearing a heavy wool sweater, which was all right in the early going. There was a fog hanging over the course and the sweater kept the chill off my bones. But once that fog burned off, I burned up. After seven holes, I had the sweater hanging off one of the bags, my tongue hanging out of my mouth, and I was red-faced, breathing heavy, and ringing wet. Puddles of sweat grew outward from each armpit.
By the time we completed the round, I must have dripped away ten pounds. I took the clubs to the bag room, cleaned them off, and returned to the pro shop window to collect my money. The assistant golf pro, who doubled as the caddie master, reached into a drawer and handed me five bucks.
"That's for putting up with Mr. Bates," he said.
Then he smiled and handed me ten more.
"That's for putting up with Mrs. Bates."
Now I have to tell you, I had a funny feeling about it all. Here I was, a know-nothing nobody, outside in the sunshine, walking through a pretty good park, getting entertained by some sideways shotmaking, and they laid fifteen bucks on me for the effort. It was like being a paid spectator at a Chinese fire drill. I was thinking that it was a pretty good deal. In fact, it was better than a good deal; it was like stealing.
I reckon by now you're wondering just who the hell I am. Well, my name, for the record, is Riverbank Tweed. I'll tell you right off that Riverbank ain't exactly something you're going to see on a birth certificate, and you sure as hell won't see it on mine. Harrison Gideon Tweed is what it says there; the Harrison is for one of the presidents from back in the old days, and the Gideon I've never understood, since my folks weren't much for either thumping the Bible or blowing a trumpet. For most of my schooldays they called me Harry, which became "Hairy" when I let my curls grow shaggy and long. I sometimes tied my hair back in a ponytail, which you didn't see much in the early sixties in Oakland. I don't think I was a rebel; I just didn't like getting my hair cut. I didn't much like rules and restrictions of any kind, which fit in just fine with my soon-to-be-chosen profession.
I took an instant liking to the caddie life. At first, I figured it was just a matter of my being out on my own, with my old man nowhere to be seen. Later on, I realized it was pure fascination that drew me in. I liked the challenge of figuring out the situation, wrestling with the elements, talking with my man about the shot, listening to him, learning what was in his head, then sorting out a strategy. But even more that that, I liked the immediate feedback you get when a man's bag is hanging off your shoulder.
When you're looping, you get asked a question on just about every shot and they grade you on the answers, grade you hard and grade you quick. If you've got yourself a player, you're going to be answering about seventy-odd questions a round; if you're looping for a hack, well, make that about a hundred questions. Answer wrong, just once, and they let you hear about it. Misread the line? That'll piss off your man but good. Hand him the wrong club? Better duck for cover. Laugh when he vomits on a chip shot? Do that and you better start reading the want ads, because you're going to be locating yourself a new line of work.
I think probably it's the walking that makes my juices flow the most. There's a sweet feeling when I'm walking down a fairway, surveying the hazards, mapping the yardage, sighting the landmarks, letting the wind brush against my whiskers. Something free and easy about that. How can a man sit in an office all day, hunched over a desk, poring over a business deal, when he could be doing what I do?
If you're good at it like I am, you're going to see all the work you can handle. Nowadays, when I go to a place like Claremont, I don't go running up to the man asking for a bag; I just wait, because the bags come to me like water flowing downhill. All them ducks over there at Claremont, they know I've got the eye, the experience. That's why they want me.
Sometimes I think they want to rub shoulders with me because they know I've been out there and seen things. Hell, I've seen everything, and them boys know it. It makes them feel like some of that knowledge and experience is going to rub off on their cashmere sweaters if they get close enough. Of course, I play up the experience every chance I get. On a good day, a caddie's reputation can be worth an extra twenty bucks right there, especially if your man shoots himself a good score. (Hell, they shoot low enough with you on the bag, they don't care where you been or who you been with; they just pucker up their wallet and pay you plenty.)
Mostly, I guess, they want me because they know I've got the wits to get them across the choppy water when the boat starts rocking. And when they're playing for a big pile of cabbage, their boat will commence to rocking sooner or later. You can count on it.
By now you've probably concluded I'm a crazy, drunk old bastard, because I told you I'd explain my name and up to now all I've been doing is babbling and I ain't said jack about it. Let me correct that. Let me tell you why they call me Riverbank Tweed.
After I'd hawked a couple of loops up at Claremont, I decided I wanted to branch out a little, get to see some other courses, maybe caddie for some better players. Now, mind you, I didn't have any real experience to speak of. I was just curious to get a glimpse of the game at a higher level, to see if I could actually swim in the same stream as the big fish. So I lied about my experience and skills and shoehorned my way into a couple of local college tournaments, looking to see if I could get in with a good prospect or two. It was in the mid-1960s, and I was hoping to snag a player who knew how to light it up, then follow him downstream and maybe ride along when he shoved off into the big muddy of the PGA Tour, where Palmer and Nicklaus and all them other gypsies were gunning for glory.
At one of the tournaments, I hooked up with a fellow named Dillard Clay, a hot young kid, a sophomore, I think, who had started to make a name for himself playing out of the University of Houston. He was a regular prospect and I figured if we hit it off, he could be my ticket to the Big Show. Mind you, I hadn't ever toted a bag of any significance; I knew my job was to relieve my man of the burden of carrying his own clubs, but I didn't know nothing about yardage, or wind, or reading greens, or how to pick apart a golf course so you can steer your man in the right direction. But that didn't stop me; somehow I wound up with Dillard Clay himself.
And I ain't kidding when I tell you this Dillard Clay was something. I overheard the Houston coach talking to some golf reporter, saying the kid had the best pair of hands he ever saw.
"Wraps his fingers around the club like he was born with a shaft in his hands," he told one guy.
"Betting on him to win the Open," he said to someone else, "is like dropping a dozen Titleists from the top of the Alamo and getting odds on them hittin' the ground."
That old Houston coach, he knew an amateur hadn't won the U.S. Open in over thirty years, but he was picking Dillard Clay anyway.
I was on his bag in a tournament down in the valley somewhere. It was Rancho Verde or Royal Arroyo, some place that sounded like that. Spanish name, real proper as I recall. And they had an acre of water down there, I can guarantee you that.
After the third round, my man was in position, hovering near the top of the leader board, a couple shots back, tied for third place. My instincts told me he was going to go low, make his mark, right then and there. Dillard Clay Wins with 64. I could see it in boldface type right before my freaking eyes.
Me and the old Dill Weed were playing it smart, out with the dew sweepers the first two days, paired with Johnny Miller the third. There was a lot of stick in that field: not just Miller, but guys like Marty Fleckman, Bob Murphy, Roger Maltbie, Hale Irwin. Them other boys, they tried to sprint away from us, but we stayed close, hung in there like a pair of leather-skinned veterans. We were in a crowd, a couple of heavy breaths from the lead, surrounded by one righteous pile of talent. Some said me and Dill Clay was in over our heads, but there we were, a couple off the lead with eighteen holes to play. Anything could happen. Clay knew that. So did I, old Harry G. Tweed, the man the other loopers were calling "Sissy" on account of my hair.
We started the fourth round all nice and loose. Parred the 1st hole like it was nothing, then knocked one stiff to birdie the 2nd. We were still one under after four, but that cluster of players around us was getting thin, spreading out like somebody in the crowd had the measles. The more experienced boys, the ones who could play and were hungry for the headlines, were pulling away. Still, it was exceptional for a college sophomore not named Nicklaus or Palmer or Littler to play so well under the pressure cooker of a big tournament like that. The real question was not whether me and the Dill Weed were that good or that lucky; it was whether our good luck was going to last, and how we'd react if (and when) it didn't. I've got to confess that I started wondering about that question myself.
I sensed a storm brewing inside my man after he looked up at the leader board on Saturday night. "Damn, Tweedie," he said to me in a whisper as he scanned the names, fixing on his own listed right up there with more famous players, "we're standin' in the middle of some tall timber" -- like I was too dumb to notice the fact for myself. His eyes got large and it was almost like he had to catch his breath on account of altitude sickness.
At the 5th tee on Sunday, everybody's questions about Dillard Clay -- and some of his own -- got answered when the ball of string unraveled, and his ship of good fortune shoved off from shore and started to drift. Worse, once he realized he was lost at sea, he tossed his spyglass overboard and shoved the treasure map into his hip pocket. All them folks who saw it had to be wondering the same thing: Was it the pressure that caught up with him? Or was it the furnacelike heat of the San Joaquin valley that cooked him like a bowl of chili? You ask me, it didn't matter what the hell it was, except to say it was pretty downright awful.
Old Dillard Clay didn't just miss a shot or two; anybody could've done that. My man went four for four: he swatted a quartet of high flies to right field, dumping a foursome of slices into the Stanislaus River, a nasty hazard bordering the right side of the 5th hole at Rancho Wherever-It-Was. The man was so messed up he didn't know what to do; I mean, there were rules officials out there telling him he had the option of dropping a ball where his drive crossed into the hazard, but he kept waving them off. Said he was going to hit that fairway even if it killed him. Well, he never made it to dry land. Just kept swatting them high flies to right field. Dillard Clay was done, as in finished, tapioca, sayonara, adios muchacho. It was a meltdown, the last act, drop the curtain, fat lady singing, all at once.
And one other thing he didn't do, I'll tell you right now, was finish the hole. After that four-bagger of his into the water, he just hitched up his britches and walked right off the course. Hightailed it out of there, leaving his playing partners scratching their heads, and forcing the boys in the plaid coats with the badges on their lapels to hang a big fat "WD" next to his name.
Now me, I was stuck. I was about a mile from the 18th green, my man was missing in action, I was sweating like a damn pig, and I had me a bag full of sticks to lug back to the house. You might wonder what a caddie does in a situation like that. Well, I don't know too many loops who've had to cope with the likes of that, their man quitting on them in the middle of a tournament and all. I decided for myself, hey, if he was gone, then I was out of there, too.
So I sat my tired self down on the banks of the Stanislaus River and sat a spell. Eventually I got to thinking, and whatever was sloshing around inside of my head came to a boil. Who the hell was Dillard Clay to cut out like that? I was so pissed off at him for quitting that I took it upon myself to administer his punishment. I sensed I had the right, seeing as I had traveled that far with him and had been prepared to see him through come hell or high water, no pun intended.
There was only one suitable punishment I could think of at the time, and there was a river that was mighty handy for it. I started slow, but did my duty with great determination: one by one, I tossed Dillard Clay's clubs into that river. Gave them all the old heave-ho, until his bag was as empty as a politician's promise. Then, just for good measure, I threw the trunk in there, too. Sat there watching it gurgle as it sank. Seemed as if that big fat Houston Cougar sewn on the side was gasping for air on the way down.
Players behind us were stopping to watch, and several groups piled up at the tee; what little gallery there was watched the whole stinking display in dead silence. They must've thought it was a funeral or something -- and thinking back on it, I've got to say they were pretty close to the bull's-eye with that observation. I mean, you could have heard a pin drop on a feather pillow it was so damn quiet. After drowning them clubs, I sat on that riverbank a good half an hour before the Pinkertons showed up to escort me off the premises. From that day on, no one ever called me Hairy Tweed, or Sissy, ever again; I was Riverbank to one and all.
My reaction that day meant that I probably wasn't ever going to make it to the PGA Tour as a caddie. I mean, you ain't exactly going to be looping the show if you're known for tossing your man's hardware in a fucking river, for crying out loud. For me, the whole deal was an ugly scar that wouldn't heal. I kept thinking: I should have tried to help the poor guy, chased after him, maybe tried to turn him around instead of just sitting alone, letting the volcano erupt, and then dumping his sticks like that. I've lived with the thought a long time. Still live with it today.
For years after that day in the searing heat, I'd read the papers, combing the obits as well as the sports pages, looking for a clue as to whatever happened to Dillard Clay. I knew something dire was headed in his direction, but I didn't know when or where it would hit him. Sure enough, many years later I saw a story about a golf pro who took his own life down at Kiawah Island in South Carolina. The article said he'd been seeing a psychiatrist for years (it said he'd been under treatment before he set off for college, which meant he was getting his head shrunk long before he ever met up with the likes of me). The paper said he was something called a maniac impressive. Said he'd been gulping down some weird-ass drug like it was applesauce. Got a little too much of the stuff, I reckon, and let the hammer fall on a .38 Special. I knew it was him when I saw the headline, "Golf Pro Putts Out." Somebody could've read me the story without saying the name and I'd have known right off who they were talking about.
My experience with the Dill Weed was all it took to convince me that I didn't want no part of the pro tour, or those college boys who were tuning their forks so they could join it one day. If the college boys were any indication, it was clear to me that professional players had their windings stretched too damn tight for the likes of me. I mean, from what I can see, most of them types are high-voltage wires that can't hold the current; they've got their circuits overloaded from the get-go, and they tend to melt the cord soon as they flip the switch for championship play. That hot Sunday down in the valley with Dillard Clay was all it took to convince me: I saw a man go up in smoke right before my eyes, and I knew for certain that I didn't ever want to see that again.
After that ugly business with Dillard Clay I needed something of a breather, and so I headed back to Oakland, to Claremont Country Club, to a place where I figured I could restart the engine, if you know what I mean. (Claremont had a lot going for it, in my book. For openers, they'd let me in the door the first time around, before I lit out after the Dillard Clays of the world. And for another thing, there wasn't any water on the course at Claremont, which meant that no one had to worry about me pulling one of them college rodeo trunk dunks, no matter how hard the urge was tugging my ear.)
My plan, if you can call it that, was to come back to Claremont and take up where I left off. Looping for the Dill Weed made me realize I'd started too fast. Shoot, I was trying to run before I knew how to walk. Still, I was intrigued by the challenge of it all, and that caused me to give it another try. I was hoping to start over from scratch, catch a break or two, and get me a decent rebound. My real hope was that some of the more experienced fellows would let some of their knowledge rub off on me.
My life took a lucky turn when I hooked up with a man at Claremont who took me under his wing and showed me the proper way to tote the mail. He was the truest friend I ever had, I swear to God.
I'd like to tell you about him -- and the way I see it, the recollection will be good for both of us. Some folks say us boys all live in the present, that caddies only care about what they're doing right here and now. But I've never taken to that notion; for me, stepping back and looking back is a way to take a breather, the kind the old Dill Weed should have taken for himself. It's a way for a man to shake off the cobwebs, get his bearings, replant his feet on firm ground.
I've learned from experience that the best way to start the process is to let your mind drift back to a place where you feel comfortable, returning -- at least in spirit -- to the times and things and places and people you know and trust. And you know what? Every time I recollect a story in that manner, I draw a lesson from it, even if I've told the story a thousand times before. Even if it's a story about some plane going down, there's always a new twist, a new thought to be pulled from the wreckage. So listen up, because I'm not just going to tell you a story; I'll tell you lots of them, and in the process I'll explain how I learned to caddie. Shoot, I'll tell you more than that: I'll tell you how I became the man I am, thanks to the guidance of a friend who led me every step of the way. After a while we were like peas in a pod, hanging together side by side. Doing the same things. Walking the same walk. Talking the same talk. I'd like to say we were the same, but we weren't. For one thing, he was a different color than I was. And for another, he was a whole lot smarter.
Copyright © 2001 by Bo Links
Tales from the Caddie Yard
Riverbank Tweed and Roadmap Jenkins
Tales from the Caddie Yard
Today the Caddie is disappearing from the emerald ocean that is the golfer's territory. He has been replaced by machines that carry us and our bags down concrete ribbons or onto the greensward itself, by radar scopes that give us precise distances to any object, by meters that gauge wind, and by polarized lenses that filter out the sun and detect the slightest hump or ridge. But no machine can read a sidehill putt or sense the fear in a man's eye when he's standing over a short pitch across the water, when the cold facts mean far less than the confidence expressed by a fellowman who says, "Smooth it in there, champ; you got that shot."
Caddies are the griots of golf, the storytellers who carry centuries of lore along with the bags, tees, and headcovers. Bo Links has listened to their tales, and in Riverbank Tweed and Roadmap Jenkins he has created two of the most memorable yarn-spinners you'll ever meet. Riverbank, young Harry Tweed, is a boy searching for his place in the world and for a place to hide; Roadmap, so named for his uncanny ability to read a green (and not, as some surmise, for the capillary tracings in his aging eyes), has found his place on the fringes and in the shadows, where anonymity and invisibility mean safety and survival. Roadmap takes Riverbank under his wing and teaches him the particulars of the profession -- but more important, shows him how golf can be the window into a man's soul. The lessons Riverbank learns are drawn from his experiences in the game, but have applications far beyond the out-of-bounds stakes.
The stories that make up Riverbank Tweed and Roadmap Jenkins take us on a tour of some of the most renowned real estate in golf, including The Olympic Club, host to four U.S. Opens, and Cypress Point, the ultra-exclusive masterpiece where beauty, danger, and imagination combine to create the world's most unforgettable golfing terrain. The matches that take place on these courses range from an enterprising little game between two priests bent on glory at all costs to a variation of golf played under one simple rule -- you may not touch or replace your ball no matter what -- to a perfect round, played on the perfect golf course, in the most imperfect conditions imaginable, by a player who cannot hear the sound of the barriers he is shattering.
By turns comic, thought-provoking, moving, and entertaining, Riverbank Tweed and Roadmap Jenkins will forever change the way you look at the game of golf, and at the men who walk with you while you plumb-bob its mysteries.