A Dad, A Son, And A Dream
A father's journey to become his son's caddie, from Maine to Scotland to Texas
Adapted from Walking With Jack and published by arrangement with Doubleday, an imprint of the Knopf Doubleday Group, a division of Random House Inc. Copyright © 2013 by Don J. Snyder, 336 pages. Hardcover, $25.95; e-book, $12.99.
I was 57 years old in the winter of 2008 when I left my home in Maine and went to St. Andrews, Scotland, to work as a full-time caddie, to learn as much as I could from the veteran caddies there so that one day I could meet a promise I had made to my son almost two decades earlier: If he ever became good enough at golf to play on a pro tour, I would be his caddie. It was a promise I kept reminding Jack of during his teenage years, when he seemed to despise me. And it was the last thing I reminded him of when he left home three days after graduating from high school to work in the bag room at Inverness Club in Ohio, and then again two months later when he made the University of Toledo golf team as a walk-on.
I spent the winter in the village of Elie, where I played myself back into the game and into good physical condition by walking 36 holes a day with rocks from the shore of the North Sea in my golf bag. As winter was ending I presented myself to Davey Gilchrist, the caddiemaster at Kingsbarns, and asked for a job. Davey was struck by my mission. "You'll be one of my oldest caddies," he said. "But if you are willing to work the 187-day season without taking a day off, and if you never say no to a second loop if I need you, no matter how cold or tired you are, I'll give you a chance." We shook hands, and my education began.
It was a steep learning curve. When you're the new caddie standing on a green with your golfer and three experienced Scottish caddies and their three golfers and you proclaim to your man that his putt is going to break two cups from right to left, once his ball starts rolling, there is no place to hide. I made my share of mistakes and took all the advice my colleagues offered me, including that from Kenny, who sent me out on the course by myself at the end of the day to kick a golf ball from the first tee to the 18th green to learn the contours of the land.
After being locked in rooms writing for almost 35 years, I felt set free and blessed, and I learned very quickly that a good, hardworking caddie doesn't complain if his golfer is an ungrateful jerk, or if he's not properly paid, or if it's pissing rain for five straight hours, or if the wind is at gale force and knocks him back a half step for every step forward, or if he spends hours in the rough searching for balls or marching up and down hills to the wrong fairways, or if his bag is too heavy, or if he's hot and thirsty and his back is aching, or if he has finished 18 holes and just rolled a cigarette to relax for a few minutes when he is summoned to the first tee to begin another five hours with cold rain running down the back of his neck, or if at the end of a 10-hour day he misses his bus home by three minutes and has to wait an hour in the pouring rain for the next one, or if he comes in on the 6 a.m. bus for an early tee time only to have the golfer cancel and to be sent home having earned nothing, not even the money to cover bus fare. It is a point of honor to accept the caddie's code with equanimity—that we are out there each day with billionaires, millionaires and the scum of the earth, and that we treat each of them with equal respect. This is how I earned the trust of my fellow caddies and of the strangers I caddied for. And in the end, trust is all that matters to a good, hardworking caddie.
Early on I realized that shepherding my golfer past the hazards to good ground, and believing in him even when he no longer believed in himself, was precisely what I had done with my four children. All fathers are caddies, I suppose.
A SON'S STEADY HAND AT THE CASTLE COURSE
On one beautiful day in July, one of only 17 days that season when I didn't wear or bring my long underwear, I was out with a father and son from California. The golf trip to Scotland was a graduation present for the son, who had just finished grad school, earning his MBA. In a month he would be leaving his father behind in California, moving to New York to work for an investment bank. They were close, best friends. And the father had been knocked down by multiple sclerosis so that he could barely walk. I had to drive him in a buggy around the course, and he had to hold my arm to steady himself as we walked onto the greens. The disease was progressing. He was losing the control of his right hand and could barely hit the ball, though he had once been a college golfer and had played a fine game with a plus-2 handicap. On the fourth hole he told me that he didn't know how he was going to get through each day after his son moved away. His son could hit the ball a mile, like Jack, and we were cheering him on all the way around the course. At one point the father said to me: "I just love seeing my son play the game so well. It was different with my old man—he taught me to play, but once I began beating him, he would never play with me again."