The driving range sits in the center of the golf course, circumscribed by the eighteen holes. It’s a big, flat field, a few hundred yards long, with several red flags in it marking distance.
Golfers go there to warm-up before their rounds, to practice, and to take lessons from the head pro, Lou Clemens. Lou’s office is up inside the other little tower of the pro shop, across from the caddiemaster’s tower.
It’s rare that a caddie has to go down to the driving range. Usually the golfers go there by themselves.
Sometimes, however, a caddie will be asked to drive the picker and gather the range balls. The picker is a golf cart with a protective, steel cage built around it, with a contraption in the front that picks up golf balls and tosses them into mesh baskets.
Many of the golfers aim their shots at the picker, channeling an ancient lust to strike at vulnerable, slowly moving targets.
The steel cage protects the caddie’s body, but not his dignity.
Driving in circles on the range, sweeping for golf balls, is rattling, bumpy, and ostracizing. It gives you a chance to think, though, and observe the people around you.
It was a busy Saturday afternoon the one time I was called to pick the range. It hadn’t been picked for a couple of days and the assistant pros were worried they’d run out of golf balls. They called down to the caddieshack and offered that if I worked the picker, I’d get first choice of bags the next day.
I got into the cart and started making the rounds.
Off to the side of the range sat elderly Mr. Simic, shriveled, sweet, and silently resigned as a raisin. He hits at the range every day, bringing a bag of golf balls and a cup of coffee to a spot under a shade tree only slightly older than him.
Simic hits a few shots, then pauses and stares into the distance, occasionally waving at people whose names he rarely remembers, whose faces are blurred into an archetypal mélange of caddie and golfer.
His swing remains a delicate, balanced punch, as if his body knows what to do with a golf club better than he knows what to do with his own, dwindling life.
Also on the driving range were young Mr. Webb and three guests. A caddie once called Mr. Webb’s foursomes, “The Visor Brigade,” since he and his guests often all wear tall visors—the only people on the golf course doing so.
The visors—as well as their nicely-fitting shirts and shorts, as well as the head covers on their golf clubs—bear the logos of the very elite country clubs they invite one another to play at, places like: Sand Hills, Seminole, Shoreacres, Shinnecock. The logos of these clubs are not well known to most golfers, and they’re not meant to be. They’re for those who already know.
These men take pride in playing golf well, and in playing it fashionably.
One time, I was with Mr. Webb at the first tee on a cool, fall morning. He had just put on a cashmere sweater. He looked down at it and noticed several tiny holes. He scoffed and said, “Looks like I just came from Goodwill.” He pulled off his sweater and ran for the parking lot.
The Visor Brigade golfers are very good at hitting me in the picker cart. They often knock fists with each other after doing so.
All the golfers are supposed to hit from one end of the driving range. At that end are the bags of balls, water fountains, and benches. Mr. Strussel, however, drives a golf cart to the opposite end of the driving range and hits his golf balls alone, within a bubble of ostentatious solitude.
Mr. Webb and Mr. Strussel are rivals—each one thinking of himself the better golfer and the better man. When they find themselves on opposite ends of the driving range, they try to hit their drivers at one another. It’s a pathetic spectacle of long-range passive-aggression. If either one really smashes a drive, the golf ball may roll up within a few dozen yards of the other man.
Hitting balls a few spots down from the Visor Brigade is Mr. Leery, a lanky, pale man in his early fifties. He walks around barefoot, wearing a fishing hat, blotches of sunscreen on his face and neck. He plays with a set of ’70s era golf clubs, and often likes to walk backwards for exercise.
He says he plays with such old golf equipment to resist a conspiracy involving industrial manufacturers, the military, and computer science, one that enslaves us to perpetually new and improved consumer products. Whether he’s a Luddite or just nostalgic for the stuff he consumed as a teenager, Mr. Leery also hits his golf balls from the privacy of a psychic bubble, this one made of solipsistic paranoia.
When I drove the picker near him, he stopped and pointed at me.
A couple places down from Mr. Leery is a younger member, Mr. Cotton. He brings his seven-year-old son to the range with him. Mr. Cotton plays golf left-handed, so his son sets-up across from him with right-handed clubs and imitates his dad’s swing.
They also keep to themselves, their shared bubble one of contented domesticity.
Finally, on the other side of the Visor Brigade, in a corner of the driving range, is where Lou, the pro, gives his lessons.
Lou has worked at the club for over twenty years. He’s famous for carrying around a blue notebook, into which he furtively and quietly makes notes.
Lou’s method—for serious students—is to dissect their golf games and their golf swings into hundreds of empirical, discrete pieces; to examine and strengthen those pieces; and then to—somehow—put the pieces back together into a simple, confident, competitive whole.
His students take Cattell 16PF personality assessments; they analyze the patterns in their Respiratory Sinus Arrhythmia to monitor their proximity to The Zone; they study their own recorded golf swings via 3D motion analysis; they perform stretching, cardio, and weight-lifting routines; they monitor their diets; they do pre-round and pre-shot visualizations; they have Swing Thoughts inspired by concepts from Quantum Mechanics and Zen Buddhism; they fill out Mental Game Scorecards; they have golf clubs tailor-made to their bodies and postures.
Such an array of pricey analysis often leaves Lou’s students paralyzed with confusion and addicted to data. They sometimes stand over a golf ball, scrunching their faces in an attempt to compute the latest tweak to their game, unable to swing the club until Lou commands them with a stern, unscientific, “Just hit the fucking ball.”
When Lou senses that a student is getting too fixated on the mechanical parts of his or her golf game, he tells them to go read Walt Whitman’s poem, “When I Heard the Learn’d Astronomer.”
One of Lou’s students—and a former caddie as well—has made it onto the PGA Tour and won over a million dollars each of the past few years. He comes back to visit the club once or twice a year now. Both caddies and members like to brag about him.
Some of the older, less serious golfers at the club have lessons with Lou, not to improve their golf, but more to have an expert gently rub his luxurious knowledge into them, to submit themselves to his ministerial gaze. It’s the same soothing feeling of being tailored, of getting a haircut or a massage, or going to the therapist.
As I drove the picker around, Lou was giving a lesson to the caddie Lorena Manzano (caddies are allowed to take lessons at the club). She was also rattling my cart with one well-struck, tournament-grade shot after another.
So that was the scene on the driving range: myself in a motorized cage, driving in circles, picking up the balls launched out of the privacy bubbles of various golfers; bubbles from within with each person felt comfortable and justified; bubbles from within which everyone else’s bubble surely looked distorted, weird, uncomfortable (too serious, too frivolous, too domesticated, too independent, too old, too young); bubbles from within which these people could greet each other, wave, maybe even chat or play a round of golf together. But make contact? Never.
It took me a couple hours to pick the entire range. Afterwards, I stopped by the halfway house for some saltines and cheese, and to steal a Gatorade. Mr. Strussel was in there, sneaking some crackers himself. As I walked in, he was licking the peanut butter on a cracker as if it was an ice cream cone. We made eye contact, then he turned and walked out.
I walked back to the caddieshack. There weren’t any more bags for the afternoon, so I ran around for a while in the caddie yard, tossing the Frisbee with a couple guys, and then went home.