Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Stream of (Total) Consciousness: 7/31/13

I was resting comfortably in my half-state -- not fully conscious, not fully asleep (and thus, most importantly, not snoring) -- when the announcement came over the sound system, summoning me to the caddie office. I was getting an assignment, and I was getting it right now. Most of the time, these things don't happen like a fire drill; typically, you get some measure of warning, giving you a little grace period to prepare, but that's not how it went down on Monday. It was good I'd brought all my gear in with me -- towel, water bottle, yardage book -- though I'd forgotten my sunscreen and peanut butter and jelly sandwich in the car. I was going to starve and burn.

Moments later, I was walking up to the first tee at Bandon Dunes (that's not just the name of the resort, it's also the name of one of the four courses on property). The course's clubhouse has a camera mounted on the side of it, and through the resort's website, you can log in and see live shots of the first and 10th tees, as well as the 18th green (available by clicking here). Whenever I'm scheduled to caddie there, I let my parents and Emily know what time my group is teeing off, so that they can get on their computers and see the back of my head from an indiscernible distance. I've tried coming up with a signal I can use to let them know it's me -- without making it obvious to anyone else around me that that's what I'm doing -- but this creative process is still in flux. A tip of the cap? The "Hook 'Em Horns" sign? Pulling down my coveralls and shooting the moon (this was a staple of my childhood -- minus the coveralls)? The possibilities are endless, and I want to be sure to select the best option.

My guest for the day was a younger guy, probably not that much older than I am, and he introduced himself as simply, " the letter." I had no idea what that meant or why I've been so lucky to keep getting assigned to guys with unusual nicknames, but given that I was now, at best, in my seven-eighths state, I didn't have the awareness to care. It didn't help that T then hooked his opening drive way left, and when we got down to where it should've been, I couldn't find it. There I was, just moments removed from semi-consciousness, trudging through dew-soaked, ankle-length grass, failing to locate my player's ball on his very first shot of the round. This day had all sorts of promise.

Thankfully, one of the other guests in the group stumbled upon the ball, and I was off the hook. But it wouldn't take long for my shortcomings as a caddie to inevitably surface. On the fourth hole, T played a nice approach shot into the center of the green, leaving himself about 40 feet for birdie. Now it was time for me to read the green and tell him how his putt was going to break. Beyond carrying the bag, locating errant shots, and feeding your player's ego undeservedly, this is the biggest -- and arguably most important -- task a caddie has. For the non-golfers out there, the greens on a golf course are not flat like, say, a pool table; they are complex structures with sweeping slopes and subtle contours that make the ball move in all different directions. So an integral aspect of scoring well is to decipher those breaks correctly. Actually, think of it like putt-putt: you know how you have to figure out which red wall to bank your shot off of or which secret tunnel to send your ball through? It's the same thing in real golf, except the greens aren't made of Astroturf.

Reading greens is not like reading a book; it's rarely straightforward, and oftentimes, it's like trying to read Hebrew for the first time -- does it go right-to-left or left-to-right? And when you throw in Bandon's gusting breezes and the unquantifiable pull of the ocean into the equation (the belief is that the ball wants to break towards the water), it's even more confusing here. Because of that, guests lean on their caddies that much more to read their putts -- the thinking being that, because of the sheer amount of time they've spent on the greens, the caddies know something that the average player does not.

For most caddies, this is a welcomed responsibility, because a couple of good reads resulting in a couple of made putts can translate into a couple of extra bucks at the end of the round. But for me, it's a source of anxiety for a very simple reason: I'm terrible at it. I always have been. I don't know if it's something with my vision or what, but I just don't see the breaks that well. I can look at a putt from one angle and think that it moves one way, and I can then look at it from another angle and think that it moves the exact opposite. And even when I do have a sense of the accurate line, it's difficult for me to take what I see and put it into words so that the player can understand. Not exactly a ringing endorsement for my writing ability, but it's just not something I'm accustomed to doing. My mind doesn't process the information that way, and when I'm playing myself, I simply read it, aim it, and hit it -- all by feel.

And it's much easier to get in touch with that feel when your paycheck isn't dependent upon it.

Putting is the most black-and-white aspect of the game -- you either make it, or you miss it -- meaning the advice you give the player is undeniably clear to judge. This is not the case anywhere else on the course. When a player is, say, hitting an approach shot into a green, you can tell them they need to hit it a particular yardage, and if it comes up a little short or goes a little long, they (theoretically) can't take much issue with what you advised; they just don't have enough command of their distance control to rationally do so. But if you tell them that a putt breaks to the left, and it ends up breaking to the right, it's obvious to even the worst of golfers that you screwed up.

This reality terrifies me, feeding my already overwhelming insecurity. Because of that, I'll often wait for the player to say something first -- "This breaks to the left, correct?" -- so, if nothing else, I can parrot back their sentiment. That way, if it's wrong, we're both wrong. This cowardice tactic is most likely not appreciated by every player, and if you asked the guys I've caddied for what their biggest complaint about me was, my guess is that it would be that I'm not assertive enough.

It's something I've been trying to improve upon, and I was determined to be more confident with T. So on that fourth green, I told him his long birdie putt was going to move quite a bit from right to left and gave him an aiming point to reflect that. When his ball finished eight feet right of the hole, having moved back to the left only a fraction of the distance I'd told him it would, he raised his hands in bewilderment.

"Where was all the right to left movement?" he half-jokingly complained.

"I oversold it," I conceded.

If there's one thing I've learned when it comes to caddying, it's that you have to own your mistakes. It does no good to let a blatantly bad yardage or bad read go unacknowledged. The caddie-player dynamic is like any relationship -- it's built on trust, and admitting to your screw-ups is just one more way to prove to your player that they can believe what you say.

Of course, if you're constantly owning up to being wrong, they're eventually going to never think you're right.

And that's how it went with T. That bad read on four was backed up by another bad read on 10, and I could tell he was starting to tune me out -- and rightfully so. Rock bottom finally came on No. 12, a par-3 down towards the ocean. After looking over his putt from multiple angles, I had no real clue which way the ball was going to move, but in my continued pursuit of Operation: Assertiveness, I gave it my best guess and told him to aim it a little left of the hole.

"Left?" he replied. "I was thinking I needed to aim it out to the right."

This is the situation I absolutely dread: when my (uncertain) viewpoint doesn't match that of the player's. It puts me further out on the ledge, as I'm essentially telling them to trust my judgment over their own -- and my judgment is based on nothing more than, "Well, I had to tell you something." It's at this point when I stand off to the side, my heart turned towards the heavens and my eyes trained on their golf ball, pleading with it to do as I had predicted: "Please break to the right. Please break to the right. Please break to the right."

It didn't break to the right.

As had happened on the fourth green, the ball finished well wide of the hole in the opposite direction of where I said it would. At this point, there wasn't much left for me to do. My credibility was charred, and over the next few holes, T began doing more and more of the green reading on his own -- and looking in my direction less and less. It was obvious that he didn't believe a word I said, and I didn't blame him. I didn't even believe what I was saying. I wanted to continue offering advice, but it felt so unwelcomed, like an annoying imposition, in the same way that it used to feel when I would ask a girl out who clearly had no interest in going out with me. It was embarrassing, it was emasculating, and it was effectively the end of the road.

T was set to play a second round in the afternoon, and as we walked off the final green, I wasn't liking my chances of remaining employed the rest of the day. But I also wasn't sure if he was aware that I'd already been automatically assigned to him (once you're assigned to a guest, you stay with them for the duration of their stay -- unless they choose otherwise). So in hopes of avoiding further awkwardness, I went ahead and told him that my schedule was showing that I was supposed to go back out with him, giving him fair warning and ample opportunity to get rid of me, if that's what he wanted. 

And sure enough, by the time I'd gotten back to the caddie shack, his afternoon round had disappeared from my schedule. It turns out, though, that while he didn't take me, he also didn't take another caddie, either, choosing to carry his own bag instead. It was disappointing to lose out on the potential payout, to be sure, but I'm glad I'd spoken up, eliminating the risk of seeing him walk up to the first tee wearing a "You again?" look on his face.

Maybe next time, though, this newfound assertiveness will help me keep work -- not lose it.

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"It's not a lie, if you believe it." Those were the words of one of my generation's great sages, George Costanza, and the more of life I experience, the truer they ring. And while I still haven't found what I'm looking for, the search for my own personal "truths" is never-ending. Care to come along for the ride?