124th U.S. Open

Pinehurst No. 2

Taking Out Beginners

October 11, 2012

Few things quicken nausea in The Hungover Caddie, especially after a late night, like someone who doesn't know how to tee a ball. It's no secret that caddies prefer better players, and in my years I've drawn exactly three true beginners--as in, they had never set foot on a golf course until that day. One was a woman whose husband was introducing her to the game on their honeymoon. Another was a young buck at a corporate outing who didn't know any better than to pair up with his boss. The last was a foursome of Japanese men at the Old Course.

They had taken the train to St. Andrews after a business meeting in London. In their 40s and 50s and in high spirits, they were impeccably dressed in new and brightly colored foul-weather gear. They presented official cards to the starter that showed their handicaps were 19, 17, 16 and 6. (The Old Course maximum for men is 24 and strictly enforced.) Although none had actually played on a course before--the one whose English was best confided to me--all were frequent patrons of a driving range in Tokyo that had targets with electronic sensors. After hitting, one could "putt out" on an artificial green to arrive at an 18-hole score.

Each had been saving himself, including forgoing invitations at home, to fulfill a pact of making their first-ever round, together, here on the world's first course. That this would be quite a way to be initiated, I couldn't disagree. Tamping the turf with his driver, the spokesman laughed and said he was excited to hit off real grass.

With a tee in one hand and a ball in his other, he squatted to the ground like a child in a sandbox. He inserted just the tee. It took a few tries with both hands before he successfully balanced the ball. Back on his feet, he made one practice swing, tight and quick, then struck the ball solidly 220 yards down the left-center of the fairway.

Four first-timers together is as dangerous as it is rare. The difficulty of explaining, with a language barrier, the mechanics of playing a hole simultaneously was offset only slightly by the fact that everyone could hit the ball. That we finished in less than five hours with no injuries is on the short list of my proudest caddie achievements.

On the first green, no one had ball markers. I had coins, but because we'd taken 20 minutes to get there I saw an opportunity to make up time. Winking to my fellow caddies, I demonstrated how with putters it was safe to all go at once. Lines were trampled, balls collided by the cup, but it was laughs all around. We were playing golf.

At the second, a ball rolled into a fairway bunker, and everyone piled in for a photo. This habit of roving as a group to one ball instead of dividing and conquering was something I had to nip in the bud, but the fastest way to get them out of there was to just snap the picture. The 6-handicap took five swings to get out, which was fair considering he'd never hit from sand.

Standing in the wrong places, talking loudly on double greens, marveling at the different heights of grass--it would've driven most golfers into a fit of rage. But I had a realization: First-timers are almost always taken out by a parent or friend or spouse who hovers like a talking rules book. We caddies were the only golf authorities in this group, and we didn't speak Japanese. Perhaps because of this, these guys were having the time of their lives.

With new things like divots, tee markers, movable flagsticks, wind, we forget how complicated and intimidating a golf course can be. When you take out a beginner, your duty isn't to explain everything at once. It's to make sure they have a good time.

On the 17th hole, my player hit his shot of the day: a hybrid from 180 yards that barely rolled to the top level of the swale and, miraculously, stayed. I'd introduced the concept of ball markers a few holes earlier, and even though he spoke almost no English, I reflexively joked, "Better run up there and mark it." He took off in a sprint.