There's a smell to early-morning golf courses - fresh-cut grass, gasoline, and cigarette smoke. Sound is amplified in the stillness, the clunk and tinkle of golf bags, the faint hum of a nearby highway. Beginning in the crisp mist of late March, I'd sit on the warped, wet wood of the caddie bench, digging a stick into the dirt, watching men stretch, cough and scratch, waiting for my name to be called.
I was a 12-year-old seventh grader when I was first dropped off near the putting green of the LuLu Country Club, a golf course in Glenside that's been around since 1912. My brother Jim, older by 16 months, had started the summer before I'd arrived in 1995. My father had caddied at the course in the late 1960s and had gone over with me the proper way to hold a bag, rake a trap, where to stand. But for most young caddies, the rules are simple:
"Don't lose a club, keep up, and don't lose a ball."
After three weekends of riding the bench with no action, one day around 11 o'clock, when all the veteran caddies were already on the back nine, I was called over by one of the assistant pros.
"Here," he said, whipping a ripped towel at my head. "You guys go off in a few minutes."
He pointed at two carts already in motion toward the first tee, and I sprinted after them. By the time I caught up on the tee box, the group was standing around telling dirty jokes. They were old, my grandfather's age, an age I'd never heard use such language. Unsure of what to do, I stood in the bushes with the towel draped over my arm, like a bathroom attendant.
Finally, the leatheriest of the men walked over.
"You're new," he said, smiling, white spittle on the corners of his mouth. "What's your name?"
"OK, John. Go on."
He pointed, and I ran. The job of a forecaddie, which I was to learn by doing, was to position yourself close to the distance players would usually hit their tee shots so you could find the ball for them. Or, in other words, stand still while old men hit things at you.
Thus began my caddie career.
Before long, I was double-bagging, had tee times in advance, could show up with high school hangovers. The money was good, all cash under the table. Most of us also worked the bag room, caught a loop in the morning, and spent afternoons washing wedges. We got to know each member by face, had prepared one-liners, quick quips about recent rounds. We'd pull dollar tips off the carts, swipe cigar cutters and unopened beers.
A bond develops as you move up the hierarchy of a country club, a respect gained from members as they start to trust you more - first with their clubs, then to read their putts, then to do just about everything except swing for them. You learn, adapt, grow, and develop a whole new language.
Things now had to run, run out, sit, jump, scoot, carry, stay, hold, bite, spin, go, go hard, fly, die, slide, break, get right, get left, get up, get down, get a piece, get a hop, get a kick, get lucky, hang on, one time, right there. There were worm burners and flier lies, things were plugged or sitting down. There were bump-and-runs, flop shots. Clubs were sticks. Cut meant right, so did slice; draw meant left, so did hook, unless you were left-handed, then it was reversed. Putts were rolled, shots were hit. You had a good swing or a nice ball, you cranked it, killed it, bombed it, nailed it, hit it pure, hit it right on the screws. Or you yanked it, shanked it, pushed it, pulled it, hit it thin, hit it fat, missed it, came over the top, duffed it, chunked it, picked your head up. Because you had to keep your head down, legs quiet, arms straight, knees bent, play it back in the stance, choke down, and breathe.
The typical golf course measures four miles if you walk in a straight line, which you don't. And it's hot, and you sweat, and you move constantly, like a squirrel, scurrying, surveying. You're a weatherman, a geologist. Grass is tossed, you squat down, scan treetops, watch shadows. It's mystical, it's witchcraft.
And you're a psychiatrist, a best friend, a comedian, a mistress, a priest. You learn how to deliver bad news, stay positive, offer solutions. I'd hear stories about wives and girlfriends, guidance on gambling and business, insight on sex and strip clubs. Politics, religion, racism, all of it. But, above all, I managed ego, knew how to listen and when to talk.
I grew up at that club, sneaked cigarettes in the basement, played poker with the dishwashers. I noticed it never rained on weekends, never enough to cancel a round. I was taught the difference between making and earning money, saw the insecure pomposity that can accompany wealth. I discovered how men relate to one another, joke, lie, bully, how in the end we were really just a bunch of kids playing outside, together seeking escape, distraction and camaraderie.
We can remember it, how it felt that morning summer ended, that morning we woke as husbands and fathers, when life got more complicated. But we know we will play this game forever, teach it to our children, show them the proper way to hold a bag, rake a trap, where to stand. We will walk beside them, there with advice if they need it, and we will try to keep up.
Sean Carney is a writer living in South Philadelphia.