When the golfers pull into the parking lot, the caddies have to go to their cars and take out the golf bag and bring it to the first tee.
When a caddie knows whose bag he’s carrying, he’ll wait for the golfer to drive into the lot and then, depending on whether that caddie wants to embrace servility or reject it, will jog or strut to fetch the clubs.
When an unknown car comes into the lot, the older caddies will say, “Bag shag. Bag shag,” and force a rookie caddie to spring forth and run for the bag.
Some of the golfers give a nod or a wave to the caddies when they step out of their cars. They greet us with a pleased oblivion, unaware of the constant and total scrutiny to which we subject them.
What follows is what we’ve collected about three members of the club:
Every Thursday morning is a 9:30 a.m. threesome of—let’s call them—Mr. Work, Mr. Play, and Mr. Sleep.
David Work always arrives first, an hour ahead of the tee time in order to properly stretch and hit a bucket of balls at the driving range and practice his short game on the putting green. He pops his trunk right away and asks his caddie what the weather will be like, if he needs extra layers or should leave the umbrella in the car and so on.
Jerry Play arrives next. He comes forty-five minutes before the tee time, but not to practice, just to have a luxurious breakfast and to chat with the bartender. Once Mr. Play parks he looks for things in his car, as if he’s unsure where he is and what he’s doing. When he does pop the trunk, he and his caddie have to comb through it to locate the inevitably scattered clubs and balls and tees.
Steve Sleep arrives last. He comes fifteen minutes before the tee time. He usually spends a few minutes talking on his phone after parking, trying to get in a little more business. He always asks his caddie if there’s enough time to head to the driving range, which there never is. Mr. Sleep then goes into the pro shop and the bar to say hello to everyone and only has time to hastily warm-up.
The three men are some of the newest members of the club. They’re all from the North Shore of Chicago and became friends at the University of Illinois in the early 90s while pledging the Alpha Tau Omega fraternity.
All three of them were in the College of Commerce. David studied finance, Jerry accountancy, and Steve administration.
None of the three particularly liked their classes, but studying business just seemed like a solid, smart thing to do. They spent most of their free time watching Fighting Illini games and attending the enviably well-funded ATO social calendar.
At the U of I all three men had felt at home, that they were each getting to be who they really truly were. Those best years of their lives, unfortunately, were limited to 120 credit hours.
After graduation, the three men moved to Chicago and lived together for a few years in the Lincoln Park neighborhood.
They all did quite well for themselves. David became a partner at the Chicago Trading Company. Jerry got his CPA and eventually started his own consulting firm called Avantra. Steve got an MBA from Northwestern and is now the COO of Molex, a leading supplier of connectors and interconnect components.
All three married, had children, and moved somewhere in the vicinity of the suburbs from which they came.
For all three men—now approaching 40-years-old—the golf course was suddenly the place where they felt most at home, where they could say that they were really truly themselves more than at any other moment in the grey routines of their day-to-day lives.
So why did they all feel such relief and anticipation every time they got into their luxury sedans and drove to the club?
For David Work, golf was a chance to reach for something shining and perfect, to push himself to the edge of athletic grace and spiritual intensity. It wasn’t winning that mattered to him, but perfection. And perfection in golf came rarely, maybe once or twice a year. But its presence left a ringing in his ears that sounded at all hours, especially in those moments in which perfection was categorically impossible—like at work or with the kids or in the bedroom with his wife.
For Jerry Play, golf was the one thing left in his life in which he could still have fun. He could smoke cigars, drink in the daytime, pee on trees, spit. He could laugh out loud at insults both dealt and received. He could safely tell jokes about people of a social category other than his own. He could focus on having as good a time as possible without worrying about losing a client or traumatizing one of his kids or making his wife not want to have sex with him.
For Steve Sleep, golf was the best way to relax, to take it easy. It was a chance to get some fresh air and exercise, to bask in what for him counted as nature. Golf was so objective, so straightforward. At the golf course nobody gazed at him demanding decisions or attention or love. Golf had none of the messy ambiguities and delicate emotional scenarios inherent to running a business or raising kids or being a husband.
For David Work, the experience of playing golf was like what one feels in an ice-cold shower.
For Jerry Play, a steaming Jacuzzi.
For Steve Sleep, a lukewarm bath.
David Work played golf the way Captain Ahab chased his whale. His excesses were those of passion, of the ascetic man, of giving too much of a damn and working too hard.
His most memorable round at the club was during the semi-finals of the Classic Cup. It was September and raining, windy, and cold. The other members were talking about rescheduling. David insisted they play. He didn’t miss a shot and he and his partner won by the 14th hole. The other players and caddies hurried in while David finished the round, carrying his clubs himself. He played holes 15-18 two-under par. He then caught pneumonia and was in bed for the next week, replaying in his fever dreams the great shots of the round.
Jerry Play played golf the way Henry Miller enjoyed his prostitutes. His excesses were those of pleasure, of the hedonistic man, of not giving a shit and having too much fun.
His most memorable round at the club was during the Member-Guest tournament, in which he invited his best friend from high school to be his playing partner. The two rented a cottage at the club and gorged themselves on bacon and eggs at brunch, then smoked cigars and drank beer during the round, then ate steaks and drank wine for dinner, then took a taxi to a suburban strip club at night. After returning, they took off their clothes and streaked the golf course, bringing seven-irons with them to play the par-3 10th. They slept through their tee time the next day due to their crippling hangovers.
Steve Sleep played golf the way George Babbitt sold his real estate. His excesses were those of comfort, of the mediocre man, of caring enough to not goof around, but not working hard enough to be a serious player.
His most memorable round at the club was one day in mid-October, when the sun was out but not very strong and the temperature made you feel like you were wrapped in a fleece blanket. The looming winter made the other members more sober and serious than normal. People were light-hearted, but no one was goofing off. Yet nor was anyone trying too hard or too worked up, since the Club Championship had been finished two weeks before. Steve played right to his handicap, shooting an 80 and making a moderately challenging par on the last hole to even the bet he’d made with his partners.
And so golf—and the Thursday morning tee time—was what Mr. Work, Mr. Play, and Mr. Sleep looked forward to each week. If asked when young what would be the most exciting part of their lives when middle-aged, none would have said golf.
But yet here they were, men of leisure and luxury, with caddies by their sides to carry their clubs and read their putts and peer at their lives.