Several of the better golfers at the club try to compete in amateur tournaments. To play in such regional and national events, you first have to get through qualifying rounds.
The members bring caddies with them to these qualifiers, in order to have someone at their side they know and trust.
A couple of years ago, I had to caddie for a member named Dick Strussel in a U.S. Amateur qualifying tournament.
The assistant pro, Sandy, had asked if I wanted to caddie in an Am qualifier. I said yes, without thinking about which golfer I would be working for.
When I asked Sandy, he looked down at his desk and said, “Uh, Strussel,” then turned and walked off in guilty haste.
The qualifier was on a Monday, at a North Shore country club.
Sandy said that Strussel would give me a ride up there.
That morning, I rode my bike to the club, then sat in the shack to wait for him. His car was already in the lot.
He came into the shack, saw me sitting there reading, and said we should get going. He glanced around, sniffed loudly and said, “Smells like a fucking hamster cage in here.”
Mr. Strussel has tan, pebbly skin and a face that, for many people, can be best described as “reptilian.” He wears a gold chain around his neck, slicks his hair, and walks with a very slight limp. He has the soothing, baritone voice of a television news anchor.
He works in insurance, he’s in his late forties, and he drives a manual transmission, Audi luxury sedan.
On the drive to the qualifier, Strussel put Rush Limbaugh on the radio. Limbaugh was talking about something the Democrats had tried to sneak into the health care legislation. Strussel raised his hand, made a frustrated gesture, and said, “Why doesn’t this stuff ever get out?”
I asked Strussel if he had played in the Amateur before. He said that he has qualified four times, and one time reached the quarterfinals of the match play round, losing to a young Phil Mickelson.
“It’s in the New York Times,” Strussel said.
We got to the club by ten. Strussel’s tee time was at 11:15.
I carried his clubs up to the driving range. Strussel came over and took from his golf bag an organic energy bar, a banana, and a water bottle. He stretched and slowly ate his snacks, impassively looking at the other golfers up and down the driving range. Then he took off his gold watch and handed it to me.
There was rain in the forecast and the air was humid. Strussel already had drops of sweat squeezing out from his forehead.
He hit his wedges first, then his short irons, then the long irons, and finally the woods and driver. This is how Jack Nicklaus said he warmed up on the driving range, before tournaments.
When he finished, Strussel wiped his face with a towel, and said we should go to the putting green. He told me he was worried that his shirt wasn’t going to breathe properly for the kind of heat we were in.
The putting green was hushed and solemn—a group of men with their heads down, their shirts tucked in, their shoes polished, all of them stroking golf balls like a pendulum marking a very slow and serious beat.
Our time was called and we walked to the first tee.
Strussel was in a group with two other players, each of whom had young caddies from the country club carrying their bags. One of the caddie’s hands was bandaged, which was stained with dried, brown blood.
Strussel went to shake the caddie’s hand without noticing the bandages. He saw the blood just as their hands were about to touch. Strussel jerked his hand away and snapped, incredulously, “What do you have? AIDS?”
Another caddie and I looked at each other and rolled our eyes.
Strussel chatted with another golfer as they waited to tee off. The golfer asked him if he had a family. Strussel said he had three boys in high school, and a 47-year-old daughter.
“They grow up so fast, don’t they?” the other golfer asked, sarcastically. Strussel shook his head and rolled his eyes.
The three men teed off. As they walked down the fairway, Strussel explained to one of his playing partners what Rush Limbaugh had said that morning about the Democrats and the health care bill. He asked, with the same exasperation as before, “Why doesn’t that stuff ever get out?”
On the first green, Strussel had a short putt to make par, but he pushed it too far to the right. He snapped his head back and shouted, “Oh C’mon!” as if pleading to a god who he usually bossed around.
On the next tee, Strussel took a deep breath and said to himself, earnestly, “OK. Regroup.”
For the rest of the front nine, Strussel played very well.
On the ninth hole, he made a birdie and went to one-under par. One of the golfers in the group, another middle-aged man, gave Strussel a pat on the back as they walked off the green.
“Nice playing, Dick,” he said, happy and impressed to see a man of his age doing well enough to compete with the college-aged boys who usually dominate the Amateur.
On the tenth hole, I gave Strussel a poor read and he missed his par putt.
“It’s OK,” he said, calmly, without looking at me, as we walked to the next tee. I felt ashamed and didn’t say anything.
The eleventh hole was a par five. Strussel’s second shot ended up under an oak tree. A branch was blocking his approach to the green.
We stood there, waiting for another player in the group to hit his shot.
Strussel started flinching, jerking his head and arms. He staggered away from his golf ball and beat at his shirt and at the air around him.
“Bees!” he shouted.
I stepped back. Wasps had come out of a hole in the ground near Strussel’s golf ball.
He struggled with the wasps for a while, eventually taking off his collared shirt and swatting at the bugs, then heaved the shirt down onto the ground like a bundle of evil.
The other players and caddies in the group, along with a rules official, walked over.
When the wasps lost interest in Strussel, the rules official asked him if he was OK. Strussel said he should get to move his ball, without penalty, because of the nest.
“Decision 1-4/10 Dangerous Situation; Rattlesnake or Bees Interfere with Play,” Strussel said, gasping.
The rules official agreed. Strussel put his shirt back on and moved his ball away from the nest, and also away from the branch that was blocking his approach to the green.
Strussel hit his shot. His ball finished six inches from the hole. He made a birdie and got back the shot I had lost him on the previous hole.
On the next tee box, Strussel was flummoxed by the wasps and hit a poor, hesitant drive towards a pond.
It was late in the summer and the pond water was low. We saw his ball in the mud, in the bank. If Strussel wanted to hit the ball, he would have to take off his shoes and socks and stand in the dark water.
He took off his shoes and socks and waded in. He swung at his ball. There was a wet, vaguely sexual, plopping noise; the ball jumped ahead to the fairway; a wave of mud exploded onto Strussel, into his hair, onto his face, over his golf shirt and Bermuda shorts.
As he wiped himself with his towel, I could hear Strussel mutter, “Fucking dignity…”
He made a bogey and lost the shot he had just gotten back on the wasp hole.
By the final hole of the round, Strussel was still in contention. If he made a par four, he would have a chance to be one of the three men—of the ninety contenders—to qualify for the Amateur.
He hit his drive into the fairway. He hesitated on which club to use for his approach shot. He went with less club and hit his ball into a sand trap, short of the green.
He needed to get his ball out of the sand, and to make the putt.
He hit his shot. Strussel gasped, “Oh no!” He knew what he had done.
A great wave of sand flew up and onto the green. The golf ball did not fly half as far and remained, humiliatingly, inside the sand trap.
Strussel made a double-bogey six on the hole and ruined his chance to qualify.
Strussel hung around the scorer’s tent for only a few minutes. I saw him talking to some other players and officials that he knew. I saw him shaking his head in anger and dejection.
He paid me in the parking lot, giving me $100—a single hundred-dollar bill—for the round. He said I did “good,” and to not to tell the other caddies at the club what he paid me.
On the way home, we stopped at Portillo’s and he bought me a cheeseburger, fries, and a Coke. He got himself a combo, fries, and a Diet Coke.
He dropped me off in the parking lot, near the caddieshack and my bike. As I got out of the car, he stuck his arm out the window. We shook hands as he said, “Thanks again. See you out there.”
I got on my bike and went home