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Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Mr. X, Links Master

by Jono Walker

In the mid 1960’s, the absolute ruling monarchs of Longshore’s weekend golfing set in Westport, Connecticut was a single foursome of men who played together just about every weekend from Memorial Day through Labor Day. The men didn’t pal around with the other morning regulars. They were far too classy for that raucous crowd. Each one took a caddy of his choosing, arranged in advance with the Caddy Master to meet with them on the First Tee before their round. They all drove slick cars, wore expensive looking polo shirts, and walked up to the starter’s window carrying huge golf bags stuffed with enough gear and personal effects to fill a hotel suite. They had low single-digit handicaps and were far more serious about their game and the money they gambled on it than any of the other men who took caddies. Playing a $10 dollar Nassau and goodness knows how many side bets meant serious money was at stake. After accounting for sandies, greenies, and the inevitable press towards the end of the round, there could be as much as $100 on the line—per guy—which in those days was about the price of a reasonably serviceable used Lincoln.

On the greens these masters of golf crouched down from both sides of the pin to line up their putts. When they weren’t sure about an out of bounds stake, they looked to the back of the scorecard for clarification, and they faithfully observed all the correct rules about direct, lateral, and casual hazards. The idea of a mulligan never entered their minds, and no gimmes of any length were ever granted on the greens. Caddying for one of these guys was the ultimate honor. They were the coolest of the cool.

Throughout my final summer as a Longshore caddy I was one of lucky kids anointed to go out with these guys. Everything was perfect until one weekend halfway through the summer when for some reason they couldn’t make their usual morning tee time and had to suck it up and go out in the afternoon. They took carts and went out late in the day. I had finished my morning loop and was up in the woods that bordered the Second Hole tending to my golf ball business when they rolled up to the tee.

The Second Hole at Longshore is 150 yard par three. In those days the trees and underbrush on the ridge along the left side of the fairway were allowed to grow deep and thick. In the long hot and humid afternoons, after getting in from my morning loop, I used to hide in the woods and wait for golfers to pull their tee shots into the trees. That was the first step in my vertically integrated enterprise. The next step was to build the inventory which led to the sales operation that I set up on the Third Tee, offering barely-used top-sleeve golf balls for a quarter. I had very high ethical business standards. I absolutely never picked up a ball in the woods or the tall grass that curled around the left side of the green until after the guy who hit it had given up looking for it. From my perch deep in the shadows up the slope and behind some rocks I had a clear view of the golfers teeing off. On average, there’d be at least one golfer per group who’d rattle one into the trees, especially during the weekend afternoons when the skill level of the golfers was generally lower than those who booked tee times in the early mornings.

Looking down from the ridge, Longshore’s finest foursome looked odd to me.  It was so strange seeing them driving in carts with the late day August sun bearing down on them just as harshly as it did on ordinary golfers. The first three guys put their seven irons on the green, but the fourth guy, we’ll call him Mr. X, pulled his tee shot into the tall grass over the left side of the green. I could see exactly where his ball landed but knew, because the golfer was blinded from that section of deep rough from the tee box, it would be extremely difficult for Mr. X to find. I sat hidden, waiting.

Mr. X jumped out of the cart to look for his ball while his partner and the other two guys parked on the other side of the green near the next tee. He swished his wedge haphazardly through the tall grass. As I had suspected, he wasn’t looking anywhere near where the ball was actually buried. I thought he was probably wishing he had a sharp-eyed caddy in tow when I saw him reach into his pocket and drop another golf ball into the rough in a spot just before the grass got really tall and where he would have a relatively easy chip onto the green.  He then continued to give the impression that he was looking for his ball and after a few moments of this charade one of the guys he was partnered against walked up behind him to help out.

“You playing a black Titelist?” he asked.

“With three blue ink dots?” Mr. X replied.

“Yee-up, here it is you lucky bastard …”

I felt sick, but excited too. I mean, this was front page Caddy News. Not only had this exalted master of the golf links cheated, he cheated with such sly forethought, with such convincing effectiveness without a moment’s hesitation or the slightest glimmer of guilt that you knew he had to have done this sort of thing many times before. This man wasn’t just a one-time opportunistic cheater, he was a finely tuned expert. When they all finished putting and were walking off the green, I slipped out of the woods and retrieved the ball that nobody else had found. Mr. X was a serial cheater all right, and I had the irrefutable proof.

As they rode in their carts up to the Third Tee, I ran after them with the intention of setting up my usual sales display even though I realized that this group of purists would never be in the market for used golf balls. While they were hitting their drives I carefully arranged the dozen or so balls I had found in a straight line along the railroad tie at the edge of the tee box right next to their carts. I put Mr. X’s black Titleist right smack in the middle with his three signature blue dots turned up for everyone to plainly see. I knew that these guys knew my modus operandi. Everybody was aware of the racket. They’d see Mr. X’s ball and would know exactly what had just gone down. This was going to be really, really sweet, but then, for reasons I can’t quite explain, just before they turned from the tee markers and started making their way in my direction, I snatched Mr.X’s ball away and put it back in my pocket.

The four came over and paused for a look at my display, and while some patronizing jokes were flying around about what sort of rascal had the nerve to sell golf balls back to the sad sacks who had just lost them, Mr. X and I made eye contact. I’ll never forget that look, with a hint of raw terror behind his eyes and traces of red creeping out from the corners of his usually perfectly composed face. I knew that he knew I had seen what he did behind the green, and I knew that he knew I had the incriminating evidence hidden on me somewhere.  Mr. X sat sullenly in the cart waiting as his partner struggled with getting his head cover back on his driver. The delay must have been agony. It gave me time to reconsider and to come out with the ball, but instead of blowing up their scorecard and ruining Mr. X’s reputation, I let the man escape.

I sat on the railroad ties and watched as they rode into the distance up the fairway with Mr. X’s golf ball burning a hole in my pocket. They had all hit good drives and from best I could tell they had all gotten their next shots onto the green. It would likely be another push, just like on the previous hole when Mr. X managed to chip up and sink his putt to halve it. From behind me the sound of the next group making its way up to the tee roused me from my thoughts, and before they came into view I took Mr. X’s ball out of my pocket and threw it into the woods as far as I could.
The shame of it was safe with me.

Jono Walker is a writer and book review blogger who moonlights as an advertising executive and marketing consultant. He lives in Pennsylvania with his wife Julia, their big weedy garden, a couple of poorly behaved dogs and his trusty fly rod.

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