Editor’s Note: This short fiction story is one of a collection that appear in the book “Lessons from the Golf Guru: Secrets, Strategies, and Stories for Golf and Life,” a unique compilation of lessons and stories for the game that provide help with more than just the number you put on the scorecard.
“I do not think, comrades, that I shall be with you for many months longer, and before I die I feel it my duty to pass on to you such wisdom as I have acquired. I have had a long life, have had much time for thought as I lay alone in my stall, and I think I may say that I understand the nature of life on this earth as well as any animal now living. And it is about this that I wish to speak with you.”
— Old Major, Animal Farm by George Orwell
I first met him at Riviera in 1994, the historic club in Pacific Palisades, California that has served as host site of PGA Tour events, numerous major championships, and probably most notably, the 1948 U.S. Open won by Ben Hogan.
He wore a plain white jumpsuit similar to what you see on the caddies at The Masters, a pair of old sneakers, a faded green cap with the club’s signature “R” on the front of it, and had a dirty white towel hanging out of his back pocket.
He stood apart from the rest of the caddies, mostly younger men in their twenties, who were milling around awaiting their assignments and ribbing each other about their potential draws for the day. At first glance, he appeared to be in his mid-fifties, but as I walked closer, the picture became less clear.
He wore a patchy, closely trimmed beard that partially concealed a scar on his left cheek and just the hint of an old-school Afro peeked from the adjustment loop at the back of his cap. The aloofness I first mistook as a measure of respect from the other caddies, as well as a sign of his comparative advanced age, was now contrasted by a lean, muscular physique and youthful eyes that left me unsure whether he was fifty-five or closer to thirty-five. He was not quite six feet tall, but for some reason I had the feeling I was looking up to him even though I was at least 2 inches taller.
He was standing near my bag, which had been brought down from the parking lot by the valets, and as I approached, he looked up from a small notebook that he had been writing in. He had a slightly gap-toothed grin that’s warmth all at once put me at ease, yet left me feeling strangely deferential.
“Name’s Major,” he said in a low velvety baritone that immediately brought to mind images of Barry White or Don Cornelius. And at first, that was all he said. He let it hang there like he was going to say more, but suddenly, remembering my manners, I realized the pause was a respectful space left for my reply.
“Frankie,” I said as I reached out my hand, followed haltingly by, “Nice to meet you. Are you…”
He cut me off as I stumbled for the right words to the question I didn’t exactly know how to ask. “I’m your man,” he said, returning my handshake with a grasp that was firm enough to suggest a level of self-assuredness one wouldn’t expect from a man who carried someone else’s golf clubs for a living.
It was a warm June day and I was playing the prestigious club near Los Angeles for the first time with my roommate Clark, a club professional whose boss had arranged the opportunity. I was 25, not yet ready to grow up, and chasing the dream; at least that’s what I typically told people as I bounced from mini-tour events, one-day qualifiers, local pro-ams, and Q-School every fall in between stints tending bar or serving time behind the counter at any local club willing to hire on a vagabond, wannabe touring professional who was not yet willing to give up on his ability to play for a living. Even when pretty much everyone else had.
And while I had attempted to play on and off since quitting college a few years earlier, I’d never had anyone but a buddy actually carry my bag, so I was somewhat unsure about how things were supposed to go down, as well as a little intimidated by the atmosphere of such a historic venue. I definitely didn’t want to appear as if this was my first rodeo.
I reached for my bag to pick it up when Major said, “Allow me sir,” in a way that was polite, but more command than request.
“Oh, I was just going to the range,” I said. “We don’t tee off for about 40 minutes still.”
“I know,” he said, again letting it hang there as he picked up the bag and turned to walk in the direction of the range, which was down the hill a bit from the large clubhouse that was perched on a bluff overlooking most of the course and the practice facilities. He didn’t look back, but when I hesitated for a moment, he called back to me over his shoulder.
“Coming sir?” he asked in a way that woke me from the slightly self-conscious state of apprehension I had found myself in since our arrival.
I hurried to catch up with him, deciding I should get to know this somewhat enigmatic man who would be toting my bag for the next four to five hours.
“How long you been at Riviera, Major?” I spat out as I struggled to keep pace with his long deliberate strides, hoping to get more than a two- or three-word sentence out of him.
“A fair spell,” he said, continuing the pattern of conserving his words. His voice, while exceedingly deep, had a hint of the genteel Old South beneath the surface. It was a tone that suddenly seemed befitting of someone in his profession, and of the sport, but one you’d more expect to hear in South Carolina, not Southern California. I decided he must have been just another one of the millions of transplants that LA seemed to attract annually from small towns around the country like migrating birds looking for warmer weather.
“Ever carry for any of the guys on tour?” I continued, figuring that considering his age and the fact that Riviera had been a regular tour stop for years, he might have had the opportunity once or twice.
“No sir,” he said, but then he continued, “unless you happen to be on tour.”
“Me, no, well, not the actual PGA Tour yet anyway,” I said, chuckling self-consciously, assuming he meant it facetiously, but he gave no hint of a smile.
“I do play professionally,” I continued, suddenly wanting him to understand that I had game and wasn’t just another chop whose bag he was going to be carrying while doing his best just to stay awake during the round.
“I’m working at it, and my game’s getting close. Now if I could just figure out now how to get out of my own way and string together more than a couple of good rounds…” I said as if that explained everything. “Was hoping you might be able to help me out with that one, Major,” I added somewhat sarcastically and with a slight smile as I glanced in his direction.
“Mayyyybe sir,” he said, surprising me with his earnestness and drawing it out without any hint of humor in his voice. “As I said, I haven’t caddied for any of the guys on tour,” he continued, “but I did work a spell on the ladies’ tour many years ago, carrying for Kathy Whitworth.
“Wow,” I said. I knew Whitworth had won, and won a lot back in the ’60s and ’70s, but at the moment it didn’t occur to me to consider how unusual it must have been to have a minority caddy at the height of the civil rights movement. Instead, my mind switched back to my earlier conclusion (about his age), and I decided my original impression had been correct. He was probably in at least his middle 50’s, if not older.
“She won a lot of tournaments back then,” I said. “Quite a few majors too, if I remember correctly. Is that how you got your name?”
“Well … something like that,” he said with a bit of a faraway look. “Ms. Whitworth and I did string together quite a few, but the name was given to me long before that Mr. Frankie…”
“Here we are,” he said abruptly, cutting off that line of conversation by handing me my sand wedge. “Let’s start with the small stuff. A man who can’t be bothered with the little things can’t be trusted with the big things.” He suddenly boomed out with emphasis, “It’s all about the little things.”
We went through the bag rather quickly, with him handing me a new club every five or six balls without me asking and so I didn’t question the commanding, yet strangely calming presence next to me. All the while, he shared little doses of wisdom and what sounded like famous quotes without attributing them to anyone in particular. It was strangely reminiscent of a tape I’d once seen of John Wooden running a basketball practice at UCLA, rather than anything I’d ever experienced with a golf coach, let alone a caddy.
“Every good shot’s like a small win, Mr. Frankie, even on the range.”
“We need small wins before we can get the big wins.”
“Remember the small wins, Mr. Frankie.”
“More magic in all those small wins than all those heroic shots.”
“Every challenge is a chance to build more confidence.”
“It’s a game of confidence, Frankie, and confidence is a verb, it’s an action you take.”
He kept at it, and I kept hitting it pretty well, wondering if he was impressed or not, until we got to the driver. The first one looked like a topped shot, but I could swear I hit it on the face. The next veered wildly off-course to the right, more like the wicked slice of a 30-handicapper than someone who claimed to play for a living.
“Where’d that come from?” I said, wanting to laugh. But with my confidence suddenly a bit shaken, I just teed up another. It was no better, only this time it hooked sharply left.
“Over-corrected, I guess,” I said, muttering the lame explanation, while fighting back an unexpected sense of panic that was beginning to wash over me. I quickly teed up a fourth, and then a fifth, sixth, and seventh, and watched as shot after shot veered wildly in a different direction.
“What in the world is going on?” I said, almost shouting. Less than five minutes ago, I had privately wished Q-School was a mere three or four days away instead of months, and now I was looking around nervously to see who was watching this embarrassing display. I was glad that the range was empty aside from Clark, who had taken a spot three or four stalls away along with his caddy but had his back to me.
“Dammit, Frankie!” I did shout after the next one, slamming the club on the ground as yet another ball flew wildly from the face of the driver that I had sworn was my salvation not a round ago. I had thought I had finally found a big stick I could trust, one I had developed some confidence in, yet in the space of three minutes it had abandoned me like a scorned lover.
“Confidence is a fragile thing, Frankie,” Major interrupted, “especially if one chooses to make it conditional. Holds up much better if it’s an action you take, rather than being reliant on results.” And in that moment, I realized he had been silent throughout my onslaught of errant drives and the resultant fits of temper I was displaying. He had stopped offering the subtle encouragement or the little pearls of wisdom he had been serving up only moments before. He reached for my driver, and I gave it to him, almost too eager to get rid of it, like someone who had reluctantly agreed to handle a large snake for the first time.
He took the club from my hands, raised the face of it up to his eyes, and inspected it for a second, then asked me to take a look. There it was, as plain as day. A crack running all the way down one of the scoring lines. I had caved in the face of the club, and only at this angle could I now see that the face of the club was slightly concave, something I couldn’t perceive looking down at it from above.
“The important thing to remember is that whether or not we are confident is a choice we make, and it shows up in the actions we take in every moment. It does not need be tied to results,” he continued, but the sudden wave of relief that had come over me was so complete that I hardly heard him. The realization that the wayward shots I had been hitting weren’t the result of some sudden flaw in my golf swing, but rather a broken club, left me feeling effervescent, and the embarrassment I had been feeling only seconds before seemed suddenly silly. These feelings were quickly followed, however, by the realization that I wouldn’t have a driver for my first-ever round at Riviera, one of the longest and most demanding courses on tour.
“A 4-wood’ll be just fine, Frankie,” Major said, interrupting my thoughts matter-of-factly as if I had been speaking them aloud. “You hit her a good 240. That’ll be enough.”
“I guess it’ll have to be,” I said, reaching for it to hit a few more shots just to reassure myself the swing was still there. “Let’s go chip and hit a few putts, Major,” I told him as I turned instinctively to put the 4-wood back in my bag. “We’ll be up before long, and I want to get a feel for that famed Kikuyu grass I’ve always heard about.”
“Allow me sir,” he said, taking the 4-wood, picking up the bag, and turning to head in the direction of the practice green all in one motion, once again without another word or a glance back. Only this time I followed without hesitation…