“I do not think, comrades, that I shall be with you for many months longer, and before I die, I feel it my duty to pass on to you such wisdom as I have acquired. I have had a long life, I have had much time for thought as I lay alone in my stall, and I think I may say that I understand the nature of life on this earth as well as any animal now living. And it is about this that I wish to speak to you.” – Old Major, Animal Farm – George Orwell 1945
I first met him at Riviera in 1994, the historic club in Pacific Palisades that has served as host site of numerous major championships and probably most notable, the 1948 U.S. Open won by Ben Hogan.
He wore a plain white jumpsuit akin to what you see on the caddies at Augusta, a pair of old sneakers, a faded green cap with the club’s signature “R” on the front of it, and had a dirty white towel hanging out of his back pocket.
He stood apart from the rest of the caddies, mostly younger men in their 20’s, who were milling around awaiting their assignments and ribbing each other about their potential draws for the day. At first glance he appeared to be in his mid-fifties, but as I walked closer the picture became less clear.
He wore a patchy closely trimmed beard that partially concealed a scar on his left cheek and just the hint of an old-school afro peeked from the adjustment loop at the back of his cap. The aloofness that I first mistook as a sign of respect from the other caddies as well as a sign of his comparative advanced age, was now contrasted by a lean, muscular physique, and youthful eyes that left me unsure as to whether he was 55 or closer to 35. He was close to 6 foot tall, but for some reason I had the sensation that I was looking up to him as I walked closer, even though I was at least two inches taller.
He was standing near my bag, which had been brought down from the parking lot by the valets, and as I approached he looked up from a small notebook that he had been writing something down in with a slightly gap-toothed grin that’s warmth all-at-once put me at ease, yet left me feeling strangely deferential.
“Name’s Major.”, he said in a low velvety baritone that immediately brought to mind images of Barry White or Don Cornelius. And at first that was all he said. He let it hang there like he was going to say more, but suddenly, remembering my manners, I realized the pause was him leaving a respectful space for my reply.
“Michael”, I said as I reached out my hand, followed haltingly by, “Nice to meet you. Are you…” He cut me off as I stumbled for the right words to the question I didn’t exactly know how to ask.
“I’m your man.”, he said, returning my handshake with a grasp that was firm enough to suggest a level of confidence and self-assuredness one wouldn’t expect from a man who carried someone else’s golf clubs for a living.
It was a warm June day and I was playing the prestigious club near Los Angeles for the first time with my roommate, a club professional whose boss had arranged the opportunity. I was twenty-five, not yet ready to grow up, and chasing the dream; at least that’s what I typically told people as I bounced from mini-tour event qualifiers, local Pro-Ams, and Q-School every fall in between stints behind the counter at any local club willing to hire on a vagabond wanna-be touring professional who was not yet willing to give up on his ability to play for a living even when pretty much everyone else had.
And while I had attempted to play on and off since graduating from college a few years earlier I had never had any backing and anyone other than a buddy actually carry my bag, so I was a little unsure about how things were supposed to go down and I more than a little intimidated by the atmosphere of such an historic venue and didn’t want to appear as if this was my first rodeo.
I reached for my bag to pick it up which lay in the remaining space between us when he said, “Allow me sir” in a way that was polite, but more command than request.
“Oh, I was just going to the range.” I said. “We don’t tee off for about 40 minutes still.”
“I know.”, he said, again letting it hang there as he picked up the bag and turned to walk in the direction of the range which was down the hill a ways from the large clubhouse that was perched on a bluff overlooking most of the course and the practice facilities. He didn’t look back, but when I hesitated to follow for a moment he called back over his shoulder, “Coming Sir?”, in a way that awoke me from the slightly self-conscious state of apprehension I had found myself in since our arrival.
I hurried to catch up with him, deciding I should try get to know this somewhat enigmatic man that would be toting my bag for the next 4-5 hours.
“How long have you been at Riviera Major?” I spat out somewhat lamely as I struggled to keep pace with his long deliberate strides, hoping to get more than a two or three word sentence out of him.
“A fair spell.”, he said, continuing the pattern of conserving his words. His voice, while exceedingly deep, I decided had a hint of the genteel old south beneath the surface. It was a tone that seemed somewhat befitting one in his profession and of the sport, but not one you’d typically expect to hear in Southern California, so I decided he must have been just another one of the millions of transplants that L.A. seemed to attract annually from small towns around the country like migrating birds looking for warmer weather.
“Ever carry for any of the guys on Tour?” I continued, figuring that considering his age and the fact that Riviera had been a regular tour stop for years he might have had the opportunity once or twice.
“No sir”. he said, but then he continued. “Unless you happen to be on the tour.
“Me, no, not yet anyway.” I said, chuckling self-consciously, assuming he meant it facetiously, but he gave no hint of a smile. “I am a professional.” I continued, suddenly wanting him to understand that I had game, and wasn’t just another chop whose bag he was going to be carrying while doing his best just to stay awake during the round.
“I’m working at it. My game’s getting close. Now if I could just figure out now how to get out of my own way.” I said as if that explained everything. “Was hoping you might be able to help me out with that one Major.” I added somewhat sarcastically and with a slight smile and a glance in his direction.
“Mayyyybe sir,”, he said, surprising me with his earnestness and drawing it out without any hint of humor in his voice.
“As I said, I haven’t caddied for any of the guys on Tour.”, he continued, “Did spend a spell on the ladies tour back in the late 60’s, though, carrying for Kathy Whitworth.
“Wow,”, I said. I knew Whitworth had won, and won a lot back in the 60’s and 70’s, but at the time it didn’t occur to me to consider how unordinary it must have have been to have a minority caddy back in the 60’s at the height of the civil rights movement. Instead my mind switched back to my earlier conclusion (about his age) and I decided my original impression had been correct as he was probably in at least his middle 50’s if not older. “She won a lot of tournaments back then.” I said, “Quite a few majors too, if I remember correctly. Is that how you got your name?”
“Well,… something like that,” he said with a bit of a far-away look, “but the name was given to me long before that Mr. Michael… Here we are.” he said suddenly, cutting off that line of conversation by handing me my sand wedge. “Let’s start with the small stuff. A man who can’t be bothered with the little things, can’t be trusted with the big things.”, he suddenly boomed out with emphasis. “it’s all about the little things.”
We went through the bag rather quickly, with him handing me a new club every five or six balls without me asking, and me not questioning this commanding, yet strangely calming presence next to me, all while he shared little doses of wisdom and famous quotes, that was strangely reminiscent of a tape I’d once seen of John Wooden running a basketball practice at UCLA, rather than anything I’d ever experienced with a golf coach.
I was hitting it pretty well, and wondered if he was impressed or not, all until we got to the driver. The first one looked like a topped shot, but I could swear I hit it on the face. The next veered wildly off-course to the right, more like the wicked slice of a 30-handicapper than someone who claimed to play for a living.
“Where’d that come from?” I said, wanting to laugh, but with my confidence suddenly a bit shaken I just teed up another. It was no better, but only this time it hooked sharply left.
“Over-corrected, I guess.” I lamely explained muttering, fighting back an unexpected sense of panic that was beginning to wash over me. I quickly teed up a 4th, and then a 5th, 6th, and 7th and watched as shot after shot veered wildly in a different direction.
“What in the world is going on?” I said almost shouting. Less than 5 minutes ago I had privately wished Q-School was a mere 3 or 4 days away instead of months, and now I was looking around nervously to see who else was watching this embarrassing display and was glad that the range was empty aside from my roommate who had taken a spot 3 or 4 stalls down along with his caddy.
“Dammit Michael.” I did shout after the next one as yet another ball flew wildly from the face of the club that I had sworn was my salvation not a round ago. I had thought I had finally found a big stick I had developed some confidence in and in the space of 3 minutes it had abandoned me like a scorned lover.
“Confidence is a fragile thing Michael. Especially if one choses to make it conditional.” Major interrupted, and I suddenly realized he been suddenly silent throughout my onslaught of errant drives and the resultant fits of temper I was displaying. He had stopped offering the subtle encouragement, or the little pearls of wisdom he had been serving up only moments before. He reached for my driver and I gave it to him, almost too eager to get rid of it, like someone who reluctantly agreed to handle a large snake for the first time.
He took the club from my hands, raised the face of it up to his eyes, and inspected it for a second and then asked me to take a look. And there it was. As plain as day. A crack running all the way down one of the scoring lines. I had caved in the face of the club and only at this angle could I now see that the face of the club was slightly concave, something I couldn’t perceive looking down at it from above.
“The important thing to remember is that whether or not we are confident is a choice we make in every moment. It does not need be tied to results.”, he said, but the sudden wave of relief that had come over me was so complete that I hardly heard him. The realization that the wayward shots I had been hitting weren’t the result of some sudden flaw in my golf swing, but rather a broken club, left me feeling effervescent and the embarrassment I had been feeling only seconds before seemed suddenly silly. These feelings were quickly followed, however, by the realization that I wouldn’t have a driver to play with for my first ever round at Riviera, one of the longest and most demanding courses on tour.
“A 4-wood’ll be just fine Michael.” Major said, interrupting my thoughts matter-of-factly as if I had been speaking them aloud. “You hit her a good 240. That’ll be enough.”
“I guess it’ll have to be.”, I said, reaching for it to hit a few more shots just to re-assure myself the swing was still there.
“Let’s go chip and hit a few putts Major.” I told him as I turned instinctively to put the four wood back in my bag. “We’ll be up before long and I want to get a feel for that famed kikuyu grass I’ve always heard about.”
“Allow me sir”, he said, taking the 4-wood, picking up the bag, and turning to head in the direction of the practice green all in one motion, once again without another word or a glance back. Only this time I followed without hesitation…