From as far back as I can remember, when my son, Jack, was still putting his shoes on the wrong feet, there was always golf drawing us together, and we were always making one last long putt across the living room floor or one final great shot in the back yard for the Championship of the world. Even then all I wanted was never to lose him the way my father had lost me, and so I promised him that if he ever became good enough at the game to make it to a pro tour, I would be his caddie. Really I just wanted to walk beside him for as far as the game might take us.
When he became a teenager and we began fighting with each other I would sometimes shout at him as he was walking away from me, “Don’t you forget, I’m going to be your caddie someday, Jack!”
Three days after he finished high school he left our home in Maine and moved to Toledo, Ohio where he worked in the bag room of the fabled Inverness Club and made the University of Toledo’s Division I golf team as a walk on. I missed him so much that I wore his size 13 golf shoes around the house as slippers until one day my wife said to me, “Maybe you should learn to be a caddie now.”
I moved to Scotland on Valentine’s Day and spent the winter in the village of Elie, playing myself back into the game and into shape by walking 36 holes a day on the local course with rocks in my golf bag from the shore of the North Sea behind the eighth green. On a morning in late March I signed on as a caddie in training at the famous Kingsbarns Golf Links, shaking the caddie master’s hand and promising him that I would not take a single day off in the 187 day season, and promising myself that I was going to learn the trade so that one day I could be of use to my son.
And so my education began. Years before I had written a book (Of Time and Memory) that took me to Oprah’s brightly lit stage, but that was nothing compared to standing on a green as the rookie caddie, with three experienced Scottish caddies and their three golfers looking on as you proclaim outloud to your golfer that his putt is going to break two cups from left to right. Once his ball starts rolling, there is no place to hide. I made my share of mistakes but with the help of my Scottish colleagues who honored the mission I was on and took me under their wings, I learned how to shepherd my golfer past the hazards to the good ground, which it seemed to me was what I had been trying to do as a father of three daughters and a son.
For a caddie it comes down to trust. You meet your golfer for the first time on the 1st tee. You’ve never seen him swing a club before. You may not even share a common language. But if you care enough, you learn to measure his strengths and weaknesses by the 3rd hole so that you can help him play his best. And because golf is a ruinous game that inflicts misery on everyone who plays, at some point in every round, you learn how to step in when your golfer is struggling, and to help him believe in himself just enough to make the next shot. It is in these moments when you learn to carry your golfer’s clubs, and your golfer as well, that you learn what it really means to be a caddie. You do this round after round, day after day with the heart of a sled dog. Up before dawn to march the half mile to the bus, usually in rain. Then another mile from the bus stop to the caddie shed, soaked by the time you get there. Then out in the cold and the wet for four and a half hours until your face is blue and you can no longer feel your hands or feet. As you come off the 18th green, thanking God, and walking like an elderly man toward the caddie shed for a cup of hot tea, the caddie master appears and points to the first tee where you go out in the storm for another five hours and then walk the mile back to the bus only to see the red tail lights disappearing down the road, which means another hour of waiting in the rain for the next one to take you home where you strip off your clothes, eat a bowl of hot soup and fall asleep in a chair before you can finish your tin of Tennants. Then awake and do it again.
I walked around a thousand miles carrying golf clubs that season at Kingsbarns and another thousand miles for Links Trust where I did my share of loops on the holy ground of the Old Course, and where I fought for every shot with my golfers, always pretending that I was caddying for Jack.
Until I got my chance to finally walk beside him on the Adams Tour in Houston, Texas where I had to pretend that Jack was not my son, but just another golfer because he didn’t need his father at his side, just a damned good caddie.
We spent the winter together on the tour, living for four months in one motel room without killing each other, and falling asleep each night to the sound of each other’s voice as we started out talking about golf and ended up talking about life. In Houston that winter I had the kind of time a father almost never gets to spend with his grown up son, and whether we were playing lousy and missing cuts, or fighting our way up the leaderboard I learned something I had not learned before in my life. I learned to be grateful. Hardly a day went by without someone telling me that they’d never seen anyone do the kind of things Jack could do on a golf course, and asking me if we were going to try to go all the way to Q-School to make the Big Show. I was convinced that we were, and I was prepared to try to raise the money we would need. But my son, who possessed the ability to be brutally honest about himself, had a different equation in mind.
“In this game,” he said to me, “you are either the real deal or you’re just pretending.”
If he had won on the Adams Tour he would have continued on. When we said goodbye to each other after the final event he headed to Cleveland to interview for a management training position with Sherwin Williams, and within a year he was managing a paint store in Cleveland and making plans to marry his girl, Jenna, whose initials he had written on his golf balls in Houston. On Father’s Day he sent me a card and wrote, “Thanks for helping me chase my dream. I love you, man.”
Snyder is an award-winning novelist and screenwriter who lives in Maine.