A couple of weeks ago I found myself in Long Island staying at a country club. It was a prosperous, old fashioned sort of place surrounded by acres of woodland and a beautiful golf course. I was the guest of a member who generously organised for us to stay in a cottage just a few metres from the first tee. We arrived on the Thursday afternoon and used the rest of the daylight hitting buckets of balls on the practice ground. I spent an hour with a wedge drilling balls at a pin about 90 yards away and as the shadows lengthened and the temperature dropped enough for me to put on a sweater life felt pretty sweet. The practice ground was an old polo field and it was surrounded by a green wall of woodland and behind me on a rise stood the big old clubhouse the size of a hotel with tall white pillars squaring up in the direction of Europe and behind the clubhouse and hidden but strongly, silently present was the memory of Manhattan 45 minutes drive away. My friend and I had spent several days among all those people squeezed into towers and underground, and we had walked its illuminated pavements after dark and now there was nothing to see except for oaks and lawn blueing in the evening light and the sky darkening over the woodland and creeks and the sea.
I moved onto the putting green which was as smooth as silk. I stood just off the green and pitched balls at the holes and the speed took my breath away. After a while I worked out what to do, which is as little as possible.
“Let the club do the work” my grandfather used to tell me and as he’d been a scratch golfer I listened carefully.
And that was the stroke. Just break the wrists to take the club head back the diameter of a tea cup and then let it swing down and under the ball and pop it up into the correct patch of air and from then on it’s the ball’s turn to do the work: it had to land with a ‘thu’, not a ‘thud’ or a ‘thudd’ but a ‘thu’ and it needed to land onto a piece of grass the size of a grapefruit and if I’d made the stroke the ball would pause, and then roll itself forward as if there was a magnet in the hole and so perilous was the journey and slippery I’d watch the ball steer its way across the break feeling like Mission Control willing Apollo 11 back through the earth’s atmosphere.
In the evening we ate dinner at the club’s beach property with a long view across the Sound (we could see the lights of jets climbing away from JFK). The barman mixed a mean gin and tonic; we drank pinot noir and chose from the fixed menu. Our fellow diners were east coast old money – they looked old and jolly and one supposed they had each had a pretty good life. Then we drove home and watched the Vice Presidential debates on the television. The debate ran for 90 minutes and Joe Biden played the old silver back and grinned foolishly and showed off a set of brand new teeth and Paul Ryan looked a little small for his suit jacket and he gulped down three American sized tumblers of water so that I began to worry for his sake that he might need to visit the bathroom before the debate was over, thus creating a memorable piece of US political television. It was a vice presidential experience.
Although I smoked several cigarettes while we watched the debate and we drank another bottle of wine I managed to get up early enough the next morning to go for a run. It was chilly, especially when I stopped running and walked instead while I talked on the phone to my colleagues back in London who were a half day ahead and busy working while I picked my way back towards the club house where bacon and eggs, toast and a pot of coffee waited for me. Our tee off time was 9.10 and it was on the first tee, while I loosened up with a three wood, that I met Al.
“Hi, I’m Al” he said and shook me by the hand.
“Me too” I replied and we both shook hands again feeling pleased with the coincidence.
Al had unhealthy looking blond hair which he pushed back off his face. He could have been 48 and he could have been 58, or rather he looked 58 but was probably 48. Either way he had a sort of taut, deeply lined face. But this fall morning in the sunshine Al was smiling and he was good to go in a pair of tennis shoes and sports socks and baggy white shorts, his legs smooth and brown after a summer out on the course. On his top he wore a t-shirt, a sweatshirt and a club-issue bib with a deep pocket along the front in which he kept a range finder.
“I’ve got my range finder” he said, and took it out to demonstrate how it worked. It was bronze metal and looked like an oversized cigarette lighter and there was a little bit of magpie in Al’s demonstration, and just enough wariness to tell you that he had experienced more hurt than the average American middle aged man. As I pushed a long and beautifully varnished wooden tee (as many as you wanted available from the Starter’s Hut) into the sandy soil of the first tee I wondered whether the look on Al’s face would be easier to come by in a generation; America not being what she was …
Anyway, as I addressed the ball and stared down the throat of the fairway Al had already made about two hundred yards on me and was still moving forward in a sort of shambling jog that I bet he could have kept up for days. He stopped and turned to watch and I hit a three iron a little left but straight and it passed him just and he held his arms stretched wide either side of his body.
“That’s a bit harsh” I said to my friend.
“It means your ball is fine.”
My friend hit a wood high and a little right.
We had a buggy and my friend drove us down the fairway.
“So who’s Al?”
“He’s like a caddy.”
“You mean a caddy if you have a buggy?”
“That’s about right.”
“Do you know him.”
My friend shook his head.
“I haven’t played here in a year.”
Al was standing by my ball, the range finder held to his left eye.
“You have 157 yards to go. Green left to right. Shoot for the pin; there’s plenty behind and a rising bank to keep you safe. Traps short and left.”
And then he was running up the side of the fairway to watch my approach. I hit a nine iron too heavy and ended up short and left but out of the trap. After I chipped over the bunker, hitting the ball sharp and too far and leaving myself a putt from the back of the green there was Al blocking my way and holding in front of him my putter so there was no need to return to the buggy. It was a nice touch but I was already missing the walking element of a round of golf and I would have happily covered the distance to the buggy and back again. But never mind, I told myself. I was in JFK’s Rome; here was cornucopia and still unrivalled power and a certain way of doing things and I must abide by imperial rules.
“I’m thinking the line is right to left; a ball’s width on the right ought to do it.”
We played on, and as we made progress and played erratic golf, Al grew in confidence. He advised us on club selection, he ran forwards to spot our drives, he rooted out our wayward shots into the rough, he held his range finder to his left eye and uttered more advice. Everything he did implied that getting us both around the woodland course in good order was a big deal for him.
When I nailed a pitch Al walked quickly towards me and put an arm around my shoulders.
“Nice touch, Al”.
He handed me the putter.
I took the putt.
“Get in the hole!”
The ball found the hole.
“Nice put Al!” And we fist bumped on the sixth green.
Sometimes Al ran on, sometimes he climbed into the back of the buggy and rode with them down the fairway.
“Where are you from?” Al asked.
“London! My boy went to London. He liked London.”
“How long have you worked here?” I asked Al.
“Well, I worked here as a boy. Been back a couple of years. This is just a retirement job for me. I just turn up when it suits me. Great exercise!.”
“Do you live nearby?”
Something happened to Al’s face.
“Used to. Grew up just down the road from here. Not any more.”
Around about the turn some black weather blew in off the sea.
“Temperature must have dropped two degrees” said Al. It started to rain.
My friend told Al that he should run in to the clubhouse to shelter.
“You look frozen”.
“Aw, I’m fine” said Al. “Look, I’ve got three layers on”, pulling out the neck of his t-shirt under the sweatshirt. The third layer was the blue club bib he wore which was no protection at all.
“You sure?” I asked.
“Why don’t you pick up a jacket?”
“Aw, I’m fine. I’ve got three layers on.”
Al had a tip to pick up and he wasn’t going to jeopardise it for anything. As we walked down the 10th I saw it. Well, really I saw nothing except an the emerald green fairway and in the distance, 176 yards away, an elevated green backed by a row of tall Scots Pines and shambling towards this careful ensemble a scrawny wild haired man between middle and old age who was waiting on two young men and blowing smoke up their asses for as good a tip as they might give him. But what I imagined or maybe pictured was a dirty sink and a bottle of booze and the brown face split with rage and despair and tears in his blue eyes and the fussing of his hands one with the other as awfully serious considerations were made in his hearing but out of his control and there was a boy’s face, frightened, and a woman’s face – laughing, scorning, bored, scared – all those things and none of them mattered anymore because I guessed she’d gone by now and all Al had was a trailer on a lot somewhere and photos of his boy and the hard body of a 48 year old underneath the face of a 58 year old.
We played on. I felt the cold. Al jogged ahead, waited for us to catch up and then took off again.
Standing on the 18th I took my driver and plugged it 250 yards down the fairway. Then I took an 8 iron and punched the ball onto the back of the green. As I marched onto the green Al handed me the putter and rubbed me on the shoulder and whispered “take it away” and I rolled the first putt past and I missed the putt coming back and I bogeyed the last hole.
My friend and I and Al shook hands. Then my friend, who was in charge, told Al they’d see him by the Starter’s Hut, just as soon as he’d parked up the buggy. Al jogged away and my friend stopped the buggy outside the cottage and told me to go and freshen up and said that he would straighten up with Al. I gave him some money to add to Al’s tip. I showered and sat waiting on the veranda of the cottage. My friend walked up onto the veranda, and moments later Al ran up.
“Hey” he said, his voice a little frayed.
“It’s $60 minimum. It went up at the beginning of the year. I get $80 for carrying …”
“Hey Al, that’s not a problem. I just need to get some more cash.”
“There’s an ATM in the Men’s Locker Room.”
Upstairs in the dining room we sat down to order lunch. On the deep green carpet the initials of the club repeated in bright gold. I ordered smoked salmon and a burger and a pint of English beer. We fell to discussing business; both of us over-ate. Afterwards we went back to the cottage to pack. There was a buggy with a couple of men inside it heading out down the first fairway and up ahead, waiting for them, stood Al.