March 14, 2013

I know my post from the other day about my so-called “breakthrough” round of golf at Toka Sticks sounds on its face a bit over-exuberant, but the fact is, I could have posted a historically low number for me, matching my lowest-ever 94 (at Sagamore Springs on Goodboys Friday two years ago) or even a stroke or two better without not so much as a few extra beads of sweat on my brow – after all, I was hitting the ball fairly well and making as good course management decisions as someone with my abilities (or lack thereof) possibly can.

How do I know that? My caddie Zach told me.

Now Zach wasn’t my official caddie, but he was my playing partner that day. As it turns out, while I was hitting one worm-burning iron, skulled hybrid, and banana-sliced 3-wood after another at the range before my round, it was Zach who was hitting in the stall next to me. As a lefty on the furthest left side of the range I couldn’t see Zach, but I could sure hear his swings and the results – long, towering blasts with his driver, on-the-screw iron hits, one after another – that made me turn to him and say, “youth is wasted on the young!” When it came time for us to tee off, the starter informed us that Zach would be joining me and the two elderly gents I was paired with. He was planning to walk, but halfway down the long par-4, his ball pulled far left, and the temperature already pushing 80, he gladly accepted my invitation to strap his bag on my cart and hop in.

I liked Zach from the start – he’s a typical fifteen year old, medium build and freckled with an easy smile and blond wavy hair, positively fearless and full of himself. The kind of boy you knew the girls at his school gossiped about during the day and dreamed about at night. As we drive over to his ball, he says he’s never not birdied this hole all dozen or so times he’s played, that his low round at “the Sticks” is a par 72 but he usually shoots between 74 and 78. He lives somewhere nearby, so as soon as he’s home from school he prepares for homework by banging balls at the range and putts for an hour or so. Every day. I ask him if he’s on his school’s golf team, he tells me he’s not good enough – yet. Can you imagine? Welcome to the golf in the post-Tiger Woods era.

“I’m Doug, but you can call me The Great White Shank” I say, offering my hand. Zach almost falls out of the cart in hysterics. “I’ve been playing with a group of guys called The Goodboys for the past 20+ years, and everyone has a nickname. Why, if you were a Goodboy, with the name of Zach your nickname would probably be ‘Johnson’ – you know, like the golfer? With a nickname like that, you’d sure be popular with the ladies.”

Zach was too young to get the joke. Good thing.

As we started chatting it became clear Zach was really enjoying our time together. We were both playing OK, and I earned his respect when I beat him on the par-5 fifth. His driver outdrove my 3-wood by some forty yards, but he had to be careful about the pond on our left, so after my absolutely crushed 3-hybrid and his 8-iron, we both sat less than 80 yards from the green. I hit first, my pitching wedge rolling up five feet from the pin, his gap wedge lands twenty feet past and spins back to twelve feet. He misses his birdie putt, I make mine. And from that moment on, we’re both trash-talking in the best Goodboys tradition and we’re caddying for each other – him with his downloaded GPS app advising me around a course I’d never played before, me offering words of advice the few times he actually asked.

Not many Goodboys can claim the privilege of having someone caddy for you, especially one with a higher opinion of your own abilities than you do, but it was a great experience. I mean, Tracey has caddied for me a couple of times, but she doesn’t play golf, and, most especially, she didn’t know the courses I’d be playing from a golfer’s perspective. In this case, I had a real stick who knew the course, could see what I did well and didn’t, and, most importantly, enjoyed yarding me and strategizing my next shot. Could I have still shot my 98 without Zach the caddie? Sure, but it wouldn’t have been as much fun.

Our defining caddie/player moment came on the 18th hole. A straight but long par 4, I had pushed my 3-wood left and then, my ball sitting above my feet on the only mound on the course, over-cooked a 9-iron far short and far right of the green. We drive over to my ball (Zach’s already sitting on the green in two and twenty feet away for brdie) and study my predicament. Instead of hearing what I expected Zach to say, something like, ‘I’m never over here, I’m usually putting for birdie’ or something to that effect, he now goes into his best caddy routine.

“You got this shot, Great White Shank. It’s the same one I probably should have told you to hit on 15 (a 174-yard par 3 where, debating between laying up left of a pond for an easy pitch and two-putt or going for it with a 4-hybrid, I chose the latter and duck-hooked it into the pond, nearly decapitating two ducks on a leisurely afternoon swim). I’ve got you at 118. Good set-up, easy swing, put it right on the slope in front of that trap like you know you can. Let’s take trouble out of the way, then a pitch and two putt for bogey. What have you got?”

“8-iron”, I reply, my eyes squinting into the late afternoon sun as I take a couple of practice swings into the cabbage upon which my orange Wilson 50 lay.

I sense a change in the feel of the moment. The whole world and all its troubles and commotion suddenly seem very far away. Instead, everything seems hushed, unhurried, uncomplicated. I don’t hear anything, think anything, or see anything else. It’s just me, Zach my caddie, the 8-iron in my hands, an orange ball at my feet, and an intended landing spot on a warm Arizona afternoon in front of me.

Zach offers one final word of encouragement: “good choice, now move on it, your swing”.

For a brief moment I feel like I’m playing Augusta on a Sunday afternoon.

I hit the 8 crisp enough, perhaps just a tad thin, but the ball takes a nice easy high flight, dropping to the ground right where we aimed, then rolling a yard or two past, but still on an angle where I can pitch onto the green.

“Now that’s a golf shot!”, says Zach. “Great way to finish up.”

After pitching up to six feet and leaving my par putt inches below the cup, we all shake hands and congratulate each other on an enjoyable round. By the time I get to the cart, Zach has already picked up his bag and is walking over to the putting green, talking on his cell phone. He ended up shooting a (for him) course-worst 80, but his putting is the least of his problems; he’s a great kid with a great golf swing and has the world as his oyster. As I head back to my car I wonder for a moment how Zach’s life will turn out after he grows up – something he’s doing rapidly (his young voice had cracked a couple of times during the day, so he’s growing up before everyone’s eyes).

Here’s hoping Zach the caddie has a great life ahead of him as Zach the human being. Our round of golf together was fun, but the we time spent together laughing, joking, and trash-talking was, at least for me, more than that. Sometimes being around young people can make you feel old, but not this time; after hanging around with Zach I felt a little younger and not a little privileged to have met such a fine young man. Here’s hoping for all the best the world and his future has to offer him.

Filed in: Golf & Sports by The Great White Shank at 12:59 | Comments (0)
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