You'll be relieved to hear this is not another article on the widening wealth gap; about the 'haves' and the 'have nots'; about the grubby souls that Occupy Wall Street and the greasy ones that ply their trade on it (apologies to my Wall Street friends, you greasy sonsabitches). No, this is a short ramble about the spectrum of golfers out there and the skill with which they play the game - or lack thereof.
Now I'm no gun golfer, let it be said up front. For the last twelve years or so however, since emigrating to New Zealand - the Land Of The Long White Cloud But Comparatively Less Wind - my handicap has been, for the most part, under five. (Handicaps are a whole book in themselves, a subject on which I could rant ad nauseum for days - not least about their corrupting effect on the enjoyment of the game for those that take it, in my view, too seriously, or about the farcical manner in which they're held up over here in the US as badges of (dis)honour). On the very rare occasion that I log into golf.co.nz, it tells me that I'm in the top 4% of golfers at my club (Paraparaumu Beach) and in the top 2% of golfers in Wellington and New Zealand. The actual numbers in themselves are of very little interest to me, nor would they be to you. But for the first time in my life I can now relate to them; in a pseudo-scientific way, I can corroborate that the 95% do exist - and that, God Bless them, they are as bad at the game as cartoons and folklore suggest!
Allow me one more quick disclaimer: my intention here is not to badmouth those who started the game later in life than I, those who have had less time to devote to it in the interim, or those who for whatever reason just don't quite have it in them to break ninety regardless of the hours they put in. As long as people enjoy the game and do their utmost to preserve its integrity, they are my brother or my sister. It's those terrible beasts that are both God awful at the game and play in complete disregard for its honourable code of conduct that get my blood pumping. I'm going to do my best not to sound like a pious prick here, but those of you that fall into this category, pick up your bloody act!
Yesterday, at the club at which I have the privilege of caddying this summer - one of the most revered golfing institutions of the American northeast - four unlucky souls had the misfortune of my company to guide them around the links. It was one of dozens of outings the club hosts each season, on this occasion as a fundraiser for the local Guild Hall. In my group was an old Senator from out west - a wonderfully aloof chap donning a bright orange trucker hat emblazoned with the words, "Dude, that's my bird!" - a bright, friendly young businessman who spends his weekends out here, and an older couple who are either retired or close to it. All very nice folks, I say without a word of a lie; but - the husband aside - absolutely horrendous golfers all the same. The manner in which they scrapped around the course yesterday is indicative of the standard of play (and knowledge of the rules) which I've experienced out here in my first few weeks; and so I'll share a few anecdotes to paint a picture for you of the 95%, nay, "the-average-visitor-to-this-club".
The Senator, bless him, was the worst (golfer) of the lot. Notwithstanding that the day's format was "best ball" (of the four), he continued to plug away on 'most every hole, at times clocking up more than a dozen strokes before he reached the dance floor. I will say, however, that this quietly spoken, light hearted gentleman took it all in his stride, ambling cheerfully up the fairways and after his doomed balls into the most inhospitable of places. He was a pleasure to be with and never once let his dismal play get him - or perhaps more importantly, his playing partners - down. That doesn't change the fact though that on eleven of eighteen holes he had to drop up at the fairway after topping a ball into the deep stuff or, worse, into the pond. A well struck 5 iron might travel a hundred yards if it was lucky; a poorly struck one might - often did - travel less than five. There was the odd air shot and the not-so-odd beaver pelt dug out of the fairways. Invariably behind his companions, the gentleman once he'd dropped up on the fairway would utter a faint, almost pathetic cry of "fore" before drawing back his club, eternally conscious of the fact that he "didn't want to hurt anyone" (but apparently not of the fact that he couldn't hit the ball far enough, or with sufficient velocity, to do so!). No doubt in the political realm the man is a self-assured, decisive and tremendously competent man; but like many others out here, in my hands, he was a lost lamb and hung on my every word of counsel.
The young businessman had it in him to hit golf shots, but seldom did. He was something of a special case in that he'd only taken up the game a year or two ago - and so much, if not all, of his chopping must be forgiven on this account alone. (Though why he'd decided to take up the game left-handed bewilders me today as it did yesterday, not least because it played tricks on my brain when I was reading his putts and trying to tell him which side of the cup to aim for!). Here was a man that evidently had some natural talent that was trying to emerge. He may have been - or still be - skilled in other athletic pursuits. His golf swing was not altogether terrible, which is a little perplexing given how dire the results were that it produced. In typical American fashion - forgive the sweeping remark, but I stand by it - this evidently intelligent man found it difficult to compute the fact that an oncoming wind will tend to knock the golf ball down, requiring the player to take a longer club than he would in comparably calm conditions to reach his target. I might tell him "we've got 140 to the stick, but with the wind and elevation it's playing 170", to which he might reply, "give me the eight, I hit it 140 yards." Erm, no - "the wind, sir...". Fifteen foot putts would rush ten feet past; ten foot putts would fall six feet short; and while a couple of the greens out there could cause problems for even the most seasoned of golfers, they are on the whole fairly straightforward (and rather sluggish at that). Clubbing y'er man was no easy task because his distance range with a given club might be ninety yards; if he mishit the six iron it may travel only fifty yards, but if he got hold of it, the ball might sail a hundred and forty. The weight of responsibility hung heavy, because he'd ask before nearly every shot - even from within fifty yards - what club he should hit. My tentative suggestions at first were enveloped in caveats, sewn up tighter than a well drafted legal document, but by the end were offered solemnly and with the clear subtext that it was all something of a lottery.
The wife, cheerful enough as she was, troubled me the most. This was not on account of the quality of her play - which, incidentally, was largely diabolical - but rather on account of her utter disregard of the game's etiquette and rules. (Who knows whether it was complete ignorance, wilful blindness, or intentional diregards - but being the hardliner that I am, I hold them all on equal standing, at least for someone of her vintage). On just about no tee box did she tee her ball behind the markers - something I just cannot bring myself to understand, after it's happened more than once or twice (which may be forgiven at a push). Nor did she have any intention of counting air shots in her score - something I took the liberty, against the counsel of my fellow caddies in the pub later, of correcting her on. (I'm standing firm, and would do it again, even if I have to every day of the rest of the summer, which I hope I don't!). If there were other players on the course, behind us, she showed no awareness of the fact; and was in no rush to tee off despite my gentle urgings that "we might need to pick up the pace a little, we're falling behind ladies and gents". As a role model for a son or a daughter that's taking up the game, she could scarcely have been any worse. I'm sure this lady is delightful off the course; a devoted wife; a good mother; competent in her job; a friend to many; and charitable to others - but on the links, on this day, her conduct was Reprehensible.
The husband, mercifully, had a little more golfing ability and - more importantly - a sense of how to behave out there. But because I was spending so much time tending to the needs of the others, I hardly had the chance to say a word to him out there.
This motley crew, as incompetent as they sound, could no longer be considered an outlier in my estimation (as they could have a month ago). Last week a bewildered soul whom I was carrying for got into a green-side bunker at the second hole. He tiptoed in with his lob wedge, turned back to me and asked "how do I hit a bunker shot?" Six holes later, on a short par three, I told him it was one thirty five playing one seventy - and to hit a four iron (doubtless the right club for him in the conditions). Fast forward a couple of seconds and I've turned to his playing partner, who's whispered something in my ear. At the millisecond before my man draws back his club, I turn back to him and something doesn't quite look right; the club in his hand appears to be more lofted than a four; but it's too late to say something. Y'er man swings back and through, striking his best ball of the day so far. It sails high and straight, before ducking into the ghastly marram grass on the dune between us and the green - seventy yards short of the pin. He'd misread the "A" on a club as being a "4" and hit his approach wedge (his "attack wedge" as he called it) instead of his four iron. At no point in the thirty seconds between pulling the club and pulling the trigger did it occur to him that something might be not quite right. Fortunately, this young banker - who like many visitors to this club are fiercely competent in their day jobs, and equally fiercely incompetent at this game we call golf - saw the funny side of it, bantering about the debacle for the remainder of the round. I myself wasn't sure whether to laugh or cry - or to accept some of the blame.
Yes, the 95% do exist. Being a passable golfer myself with a deep passion for the game I suppose I've tended to play over the years with kindred spirits - who happen to be better-than-average at golf themselves. This has clearly distorted my perception of "the average golfer", a distortion that's well and truly been reset, corrected, blown to smithereens in just a few weeks of caddying at one of the world's great clubs. I only hope that my constant observation of these poor souls doesn't somehow carve channels in my brain that reset how I play the game myself - descending down to those depths would finish me, well and truly, although I'd like to think that, even if the worst case eventuates, I'll still hold dear to those rules that the founding members of The Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers scribbled down, those that the Royal & Ancient Golf Club have developed, and the etiquette that has grown organically in parallel to these great achievements of mankind. To lose my grip on the rules and the etiquette of golf would not only mean catastrophe for my 'golfing self', but for my soul more generally - and no doubt for the standard of my behaviour in every other sphere of life. As far as I'm concerned, the pious prick that I am, this stuff matters.
Here ends the reading.