One recent Saturday, a young and famous and highly ranked pro from the PGA Tour came to play at the club. Mr. Webb had invited him, as they were on the same golf team in college.
Only a few holes after they began, a violent thunderstorm blew in and the lightning alarms sounded—alarms that sound like the shrill klaxons of hell—and everyone had to come in from the course and take shelter.
It was a busy day and the shack was packed with dozens of kids. Both the bolts of lightning and the proximity of a celebrity wound up many of the caddies. The older boys were forcing the younger ones to have “rake rumbles” and wrestle each other on a soiled mattress. There was a lot of whooping and cheering.
Mel, the assistant pro, jogged down from the bag room. He barged in and flipped the lights off and on several times.
“Hey turds, Lou the Pro says you need to keep it down,” he said.
He looked at us, then removed a folded piece of notebook paper from his back pocket.
“So I’m going to read you a story.”
Several caddies groaned and sighed, a few whined, “Not again.”
Mel cleared his throat.
“This is based on a story that Lou the Pro told me. I call my version, ‘The Queen of Clubs.’
“Now, back in the 1980s, before many of you were born, and before I began working here, Lou the Pro was here. As you know, gambling is illegal at the club, and anyone caught doing so loses his membership. But back then things weren’t so strict.
“There were a few members who liked to gamble and who brought out guests to join in their matches, which were played for high stakes at least several times a year.
“There was a junior member in those days named Billy Hermann. He was an options trader who worked at the Board of Trade, and who lived alone in a modest apartment in Chicago. He very closely resembled, and imitated, the Bud Fox character from the film Wall Street.
“Now, Hermann would always play with, or at least walk alongside, the gambling groups. But, despite being an excellent golfer, a scratch handicap, he never, ever, gambled himself.
“It was a common joke to point out how stingy Hermann was, how he would pack his own lunch to eat on the course, or how he would deduct from a caddie’s tip the precise amount for each golf ball that was lost.
“When the other golfers would hassle him to just make a small bet, a closest-to-the-pin-for-a-dollar, anything, he would frown and say, ‘Better safe than sorry.’
“Those who knew Hermann said all he worried about, all he talked about, was ‘The Number,’ or how much money he had to make to quit his job, retire, and move to Florida.
“One day, as Hermann was walking with a foursome that was playing a big match, a fellow junior member, Mr. Daley, told a story about his grandmother, Bernice MacRae, who became a nationally famous golfer in the 1920s.
“Bernice MacRae’s nickname was ‘The Queen of Clubs,’ for how she would often, as a joke, have a procession of three or four caddies trail behind her, each carrying a bagful of clubs.
“Mr. Daley said that one time his grandmother was down in Austin, Texas, playing a mixed match with Chick Evans, Harvey Penick, and Vola Mae Odom. It was a public event, but Bernice got a private bet going against Vola Mae, who was an heiress to a cattle rancher.
“Bernice became too excited and too nervous when betting was involved and she lost $20,000 in that match. Her husband, Daley’s grandfather, who was a Vice-President of the U.S. Steel Corporation, said he was not going to bail her out.
“Bernice became frantic and went to talk to an old Scottish pro who worked at Austin Country Club. His name was Shivas and he was known as a mystic, a visionary, and, despite his humble lifestyle, he was also known to be squatting on a great pile of cash made from the Austin real estate boom.
“Bernice pleaded with Shivas and he took a liking to her. He said she should go win the money back, and he would make sure it happened. He showed her an old Scottish secret, the ‘finger tip grip,’ that lets a golfer make every putt she sees, but for one round only.
“Bernice played double-or-nothing against Vola Mae the following day and, despite her shaking hands and throbbing heart and irons that flew too far, she made all her putts, and won the match.
“Now,” Mel said, as the storm was calming down outside, “Hermann was very keenly listening to this story. Hermann had no interest in God or religion, but he wasn’t above superstition. He couldn’t help but fantasize about getting that secret and winning his ‘Number’ and retiring to live off the interest in Florida.
“Hermann asked Daley if his grandmother had told the secret to her kids or her grandkids. Daley said absolutely not. Bernice was stingy and thought her children and grandchildren were spoiled, dissipated, and undeserving.
“At the time Daley told this story, his grandmother was 81 years old. She owned a chain of golf shops throughout the Chicagoland area called Queen of Clubs. She was a cranky and wealthy and restless old lady who liked to oversee her stores and hassle her employees.
“Several days later, Hermann was driving back to Chicago from the club and took a different route than usual. He wanted to stop at a grocery store before getting onto the expressway.
“He parked his car and noticed that there was a Queen of Clubs shop in the same shopping center. He couldn’t help but think of the story Daley had told, and to be aroused by the stirrings of greed and desire.
“Hermann quietly entered the store and saw Bernice, the shriveled Queen herself, sitting in a canvas-backed director’s chair behind the register, looking with disgust at the shop’s ledger.
“‘No. No. This is awful,’ the Queen complained. ‘Sarah! Stop what you’re doing and come over here and explain this to me. Sarah! Now!’
“Sarah was a girl in her mid-twenties, not much younger than Hermann. She was the manager of that Queen of Clubs shop and an executive assistant to Bernice. She wore her hair pulled back into a ponytail, she didn’t wear make-up, and she wore baggy, unflattering Bermuda shorts and golf shirts. She looked harried, lonely, and like she had never once been drunk with desire.
“Hermann looked at her, at how the Queen bossed her around, and he left the shop without being noticed. He had a smirk on his face and a wild look in his eyes as he walked to the grocery store.
“He had a plan.
“A week later, Hermann returned to the Queen of Clubs shop. Bernice was nowhere in sight. Sarah was at the counter and Hermann began talking to her using very clichéd, golf-related flirtations.
“‘Do you play golf?’ he asked her. ‘If your swing is half as pretty as you are I’d think you’d be a pro.’
“Sarah avoided his eyes and evaded his questions.
“Hermann returned to the store several times, shopping for things he already owned. He began secretly leaving anonymous scorecards for Sarah filled with steamy, golf-related sonnets.
“Sarah warmed up to him. She had never had a suitor before and was unfamiliar with the exciting, vague, tender visions she found herself having day and night.
“Hermann felt the plan was coming along well. But the next phase, the crucial phase of getting the secret out of the Queen, was soon approaching.
“Hermann went to a gun store and bought a pistol. He started carrying it with him in the trunk of his car, as he would need it for when he encountered the Queen.”
As Mel said this, and as the caddieshack had become quiet with attention, the club’s storm sirens blew once, twice, and then three times. This was the all-clear signal—the lightning had passed.
Mel interrupted his story. He looked at his watch, then out the window to the bag room, where several golfers were waiting for play to resume.
“So what happens? How does it end?” several caddies asked, upset.
“Well, uh, the Queen dies, and Hermann sees her ghost one foggy morning on the golf course, and then there’s this match with a PGA tour pro who’s a big gambler, and Hermann begins dating Sarah, but then, well, then there’s the match and it’s like a duel, you know, and a nasty storm blows in and somebody gets struck by lightning and, oh, oh just forget it.”
Mel put his head down, folded up his story, and slipped it back into his pocket. He walked out and jogged through the parking lot to the bag room.
We filed from the caddieshack, picked up our golf bags, and trudged back out to the course, feeling cheated by a half-told tale that couldn’t fit into the brief space allotted it by the thunder of God and the schedules of men.