He quit his job to live out his dream and for the love of golf. He learned four incredible life-lessons through the experience.
In June 2013, I quit my job to become a caddie at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort. I did this for a myriad of reasons—for the golf, for the lingo, for Noonan—but my motivation best boils down to the signature line from “The Shawshank Redemption”: “Get busy livin’, or get busy dyin’.” I was 35-years-old, stuck and stale, my life progressing too slowly as life passed me by too quickly. And my hope was that this experience could work as a sort of turbo button for growth and accomplishment.
Somehow, it did. For one, Bandon was even more magical than I’d imagined. Set along Oregon’s stunning southwestern coast, the resort’s mission statement, “Golf as it was meant to be,” couldn’t be more on the nose, with four courses that rightfully rank among the country’s best. (There’s also a 13-hole par-3 track, which might be the most fun to play on property.)
Golf porn aside, my four months there helped me mature in ways that years on my therapist’s couch hadn’t. They allowed me to take a risk, one that exposed my deepest anxieties, and come out the other side upright. I got to do what I loved where I loved, and I got to do it on my own terms. For once, my life was about what I wanted it to be about.
It’s been over a year since I exited onto Oregon 101 for the final time. Since, I’ve gotten engaged, I’ve gotten a new address and I’ve gotten a new job, and I couldn’t have done any of that without my experience as a looper. Though my white coveralls have been relegated to Halloween costume status, the lessons I learned are still with me, carrying me closer to a state of total consciousness. Here are a few of them…
My caddying career was littered with mistakes. There’s one horrific read I gave on the 17th green at Pacific Dunes that’s stuck on repeat in my mind. People joke in the abstract about confusing “up” with “down,” but somehow I did just that.
Screw-ups happen; what counts is their aftermath. Initially, my instinct was to respond to these mistakes like the standup person my parents raised would: with ignorance. Embarrassed and ashamed, I’d walk alongside my player in awkward silence, dodging eye contact, hoping the breeze would blow my blunder over the Pacific. If I didn’t acknowledge it, maybe it ceased to exist.
For a caddie, credibility is critical. Eighteen holes at a time, someone pays you to tell them what to do and where to go. So confessing to bad directions feels like a strike against your most valuable asset.
But in a way, it’s the opposite. In a way, admitting to a mistake doesn’t bludgeon your credibility; it bolsters it. After all, how does one build trust? By saying as many true statements as possible.
So for me, the equation became simple: my poor advice led to my player’s poor result. I had to own that, not only because it was the right thing to do, but to prove that, going forward, what I said was the truth.
Of course, as I would also learn, “My bads” work on a pitch count. Lob too many, and your advice is no longer welcome.
I’ve always joked of my similarities to George Costanza. We both wear glasses. We both enjoy sweatpants. We both lived at our parents’ house at inappropriate ages.
And as of summer ‘13, we’ve both been fired.
Though I didn’t engage the cleaning lady amid scents of Hennigan’s and Pine-Sol, the fallout was just the same. After working the first 36 holes of a four-day assignment, I was notified that my guest no longer desired my services. I was decimated. It didn’t matter that I’d heard stories from other caddies about getting let go. That was them; this was me.
At the time, I’d only been looping a few weeks, so my knowledge base was limited. This was the guest’s sticking point. Rationally, I understood the logic. But I also understood that—and granted, this sounds petty given the circumstances—the guy wasn’t too good a player. While he had some skill, he’d admitted he hadn’t played much in the previous year, and the rust was evident. His golf ball finished in his pocket almost as much as it did in the bottom of the hole. So there was no way he could tell if I was giving him correct advice or not, because he could seldom execute the shot suggested/required. When your divot flies farther than your Titleist, how do you know you should’ve hit 6-iron instead of 7?
Given that, what difference was a more experienced caddie going to make? And was it a big enough difference over which to fire someone? These were the questions I couldn’t shake. But the more I processed, the more I circled back to another question, the one I always ask when determining my stance on a disagreement:
What would the other person say? My story was that my performance exceeded “fireable”; what would’ve been his?
My guess? He’d agree that I was nice enough and that I’d hustled enough. But he’d also say that he was paying a boatload for this trip, and that he wanted to get his dollars’ worth. Yes, his game was limited, but who’s to say an experienced caddie might not help maximize it? And if the cost of a veteran looper was comparable to that of a rookie, why not?
And I wouldn’t take issue with any of that.
“Hit what you see.”
This is what I told my player whenever they disagreed with my advice. As a caddie, you can give your recommendation, explain your reasoning behind it and strongly recommend it again. But you’re not the one hitting the shot. If the player is convinced he needs to hit it 180 yards instead of 200, or if he wants to chip from off the green instead of putt, there’s only one thing to do: “Hit what you see.”
While these instances dented my ego, I couldn’t help also admiring the person for following their convictions. It didn’t matter that I was the “expert”; they had the confidence to do what they believed was right.
In my previous occupations, making decisions was never a huge part of the job description. Everything was laid out in black and white: In this situation, you do this; in that situation, you do that. Even when forced off script, it was difficult to tell if my choice was good or bad, or if it made any impact. The operations were established enough that they carried on almost in spite of themselves. And me.
This was not the case in caddying, with its constant decisions and instant feedback. Over and over, from one shot to the next, you make a call and watch the results unfold. There is no more exposed state than waiting to see if the putt you said would break six inches to the left breaks six inches to the left. It’s either going to, or it’s not. Right or wrong is presented in make or miss.
For much of my life, decision-making has been my Achilles’ heel, forks in the road my nightmare. They are where seeing both sides of the story becomes detrimental. Instead of using that perspective to reach an informed verdict, too often I remain stagnant, my eyes darting between the virtues and dangers of each path, terrified of what happens next.
But as I look back at my best decisions, they’re ones where I simply made a call and accepted the consequences. No obsessing, no second-guessing. It’s how I found my way to Bandon, it’s how I’ve made it to the top of the wedding aisle, and it’s what helped land me my new job—one from which I’ve yet to be terminated.
Your move, Costanza.
Just a Little Patience
My biggest insecurity as a writer? Speed. It seemingly takes forever to figure out what I want to say and how I want to say it. I tell myself the words will come, that those blank-screen staring contests aren’t wasted swaths of existence, but alas, such perspective falls on deaf ears.
When I got to Bandon, I was prepared for an acclimation process. What I was not prepared for was the longest part of that process being the actual caddying. I’d done it in high school and college, and I’d been playing golf since before telemarketers mistook me for my mother. How hard could it be?
Pretty hard, actually. Links golf is a different beast. Whereas American-style courses are straightforward—here’s the fairway, there’s the green—links layouts can resemble interstate farmland, minus the barbwire. Everything looks the same. Bandon has four courses, which meant four times the confusion in deciphering one par-4 from the next. On my first real loop, I was more concerned with getting my player from green to tee than I was getting him tee to green.
And the wind. Good lord, the wind. I’m from Texas, where it blows a knot, but I’ve never seen anything like this. Heavy, blustery, brutal. During a training round, the caddie I was following quizzed me on how far a particular into-the-wind shot was playing. I undersold it by 35 yards. That’s like bidding $1 in the Showcase Showdown, not to avoid overbidding, but because you think the Showcase actually costs $1.
There was no shortcut I could take, no magic formula for mastery. This wasn’t, “Add water, instant caddie.” I had to walk the courses enough, and experience the conditions enough, and study the breaks enough to become a legitimate looper. And eventually, I did. Eventually I learned that Pacific’s 12th green runs quick and that hitting driver on Bandon’s 16th provides a versatile avenue of approach. What started off as Swahili had come to read like English.
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Photo: Author’s own