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THE 42ND FLOOR

Rub of the green. This idiom, in the parlance of golf, conjures the karma of the fairways, the luck of the links. A flubbed shot ricochets off a tree. Onto the green. Toward the pin. Into the hole. Ker-plunk. Or a flawless drive kicks into the rough. Down a slope. Toward a pond. Into the water. Ker-plop. Rub of the green.

I am well acquainted with the capriciousness of the gods of golf, the sudden confrontations with miracles and mortifications. My most poignant memories do not concern my exploits as a player, but rather my life as a caddie, and how that life came to such an astonishing end.

The scene: Acacia Country Club, near Cleveland, Ohio. The time: the summer of '65. The protagonist: me, a high school kid. At the risk of sounding boastful, I must admit I had a knack for toting the sticks, a sixth sense of the mystic inner workings of golfer and ball and course.

I took to golf as a player at age 10. A couple years later I was caddying, saving my earnings for college. Slowly, relentlessly, I ascended the caddying hierarchy.

Acacia divided all caddies into an A list and a B list. Caddies A-1 and A-2 would accompany the first foursome of the morning, each carrying two bags (doubles) for 18 holes (a loop). Caddies A-3 and A-4 joined the next foursome, and so on. The B's weren't assigned until later in the day, often to singles, sometimes for nine holes.

Caddie ranking was ruled by a ritual as intricate as the minuet. Length of tenure counted. So did consistency of signing in, predawn, at the caddie shack. So did the grading cards golfers filled out at the end of a round. But a caddie's fate was also inexorably linked to the whims of the caddie master.

Our caddie master was a red-headed wise guy in his early twenties. I had always given him a wide berth, respectful but not sycophantic. By the summer of '65, in my fifth year at Acacia, I had ascended to the near pinnacle of the A list--A-5. Tote early and tote often, that was my mantra. On good days I caddied three loops. Popular with the players, I offered sage golfing advice, which was reciprocated by generous tips.

Then came my rub of the green. Early one morning, trekking up a steep hill toward the caddie shack, my head in the clouds, I heard a smash of glass, followed by a shout of profanity. I hurried forward to investigate, only to finds shards of a whiskey bottle outside the shack. Without a tincture of savvy, I picked up some glass, finding myself face-to-face with the caddie master, wisps of smoke seemingly curling out his ears. Though innocent, I spoke incoherently. A one-minute trial took place. Guilty, I was sentenced to demotion: from the top of the A's to the tail end of the B's. Like a golf ball rolling downhill, I was ineluctably on my way to the bottom.

An abundance of free time was mine that summer as I awaited the possibility of an early evening loop. I read voraciously. Given my lingering mood of nihilism, I turned to the French existentialists. Camus. Sartre. At Acacia Country Club, I was a stranger with no exit.

Came early September and the club championships, and I received a reprieve from caddie purgatory. Mrs. Silverman insisted I tote her clubs. The caddie master could hardly refuse; she was outlandishly wealthy.

Mrs. Silverman, who bore a striking resemblance to Eleanor Roosevelt, was always attired in the dowdiest of golf outfits: paisley blouses, black orthopedic golf shoes. But she was a woman of great enthusiasms and not a half-bad golfer either, though far from a favorite to win.

The match play tournament of 64 golfers began, and what a team we were: Eleanor Roosevelt and the club's lowliest caddie. But lo and behold, Mrs. Silverman was about to sustain the highest level of golf in her life. She was the epitome of confidence: crackerjack drives, precision iron play, uncanny putting. We soared into the final four; we pounced into the championship match. During this glory run, Mrs. Silverman had questioned my low profile that summer, and I confided my troubles--very reluctantly, not wishing to sour her sparkling mood.

The title match was tied after 18 holes; we entered sudden death. On fairway number one, a brisk wind blowing over the course, I told Mrs. Silverman: "You can get home with a six iron, hit it all out." She caught the shot perfectly, but short--snagged by a sand trap. I cursed my misjudgment, the ill will of my loopy summer seemingly unending. Then Mrs. Silverman stubbed her sand wedge, the ball took off like a shot, struck the flag stick with a bang and careened miraculously into the hole. Ker-plunk. Club championship.

After the celebration, Mrs. Silverman handed me my tip: a thick stack of hundred-dollar bills. "For college," she said. I walked away from Acacia forever that summer of '65, my existentialism jettisoned, my career as a caddie ended, my future bright as I thumbed a stack of fresh bills--a most delightful rub of the green.--Tommy Ehrbar


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