A Buried Lie
Last October, luck finally became a lady. When my birdie putt dropped on the 72nd hole at Qualifying School, I wanted to pump the hand of everyone I saw. I wanted to dance the rookie rumba. I wanted to pass out cigars with pink bands circling them that read "It's a golfer!"
That putt earned me partially exempt status on the LPGA Tour. Which translated into seven or eight sure entries into tournaments, with possibilities the rest of the season for last minute openings or success in the crapshoot called the Monday qualifying rounds.
But fewer spots opened up this summer than I'd expected. So just recently, I caught myself hoping a couple of the regular players would fall ill. Not fatally ill, maybe a light case of chicken pox, or measles or even poison ivy. Something where they'd be contagious to the other girls and scratching too hard to swing their golf clubs anyway.
Needless to say, when the stomach flu laid out seven of the top twenty money winners the week of the Shoprite LPGA Classic, and they called me to fill in at the professional-amateur tournament, I jumped on the opportunity. My dance card was not full.
A full week's gig situated twenty miles from Atlantic City-oh baby. I could feel Lady Luck's hot breath on my dice again. Even though the pro-am involved two long days of coddling anxious hackers through thirty-six holes of golf, it also translated into exposure, extra practice, and goodwill with my bag sponsor, Birdie Girl. The goodwill was critical, since I hadn't made a dime in my six outings on the Tour so far. Which meant that the Birdie Girl embroidered in fancy script down the side of my golf bag was not an outstanding advertisement for their product. From their perspective, so far the money had flowed in one direction only-to me. Here was my chance to reverse that trend.
I swore I would not bitch about the oppressive heat or the bumper crop of greenhead flies-flying teeth, one of the girls called them. Even if the blood ran down my legs and soaked my white Footjoys to maroon, I would not complain. The first day's outing would give me another look at the golf course where the official tournament would be held. The second day, although not on the tournament course, would put enough cash in my pocket to pay my friend Laura's caddie fees and buy dinner someplace other than Mickey D's.
Drawing Erica LeBoutillier's name as a playing partner-that seemed lucky too. Not that I had anything against men. But they did tend to wear on me, with their macho need to outhit me on every tee, their constant underclubbing based on overestimation of their own abilities, and then their outraged disappointment with the results. Plus, in my previous incarnation as a PGA Tour caddie, I'd lived through a lifetime's worth of boasting, temper tantrums, and worst of all, pinched rumps, from the amateur men.
On the first tee, the pro-am photographer arranged my teammates in a group shot, juggling their placement so the potentially embarrassing height differences were minimized. He put the tall, skinny guy on one end, the medium-sized older man in the middle, and then the roly-poly fellow beside Erica. I noticed right away how he leaned in toward her, and then how she finessed pulling away. She was subtle-tucking in her white Lizgolf shirt with one hand and smoothing her auburn pageboy with the other. But in the end, she'd created a comfortable space between them.
Then I introduced myself and posed for individual photographs with all four-Erica, plus the two physicians and a Ph.D.-all employees of Meditron Pharmaceuticals, I was informed. Clutching enormous drivers, with their free hands draped around me, the men insisted I call them Hugh, Travis, and Roger. I didn't need an advanced degree to understand that this afternoon's informality was a special exception. Besides, I'd never met a doctor who didn't have the confidence of Magellan-I hated to see how that inflated conviction of their own importance would translate into choosing shots in our team event.
A woman, I thought, might be different. Maybe a little less arrogant,
a bit more flexible, and a lot less trouble.
"Nice shot, doctor," hooted Dr. Travis Smith, the short, round man whose face glistened with perspiration just from mounting the steps to the tee box. His own drive bounded into the knee-high rough in front of the left fairway bunker. Finally, Dr. Roger Ranz, Ph.D., the beanpole in canary yellow trousers, came as close as he could to missing the ball altogether.
"Just some first tee jitters," I said, in what I hoped was a reassuring, but not condescending tone. "We'll settle down."
"Your professional today, from Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, Cassandra Burdette," hollered the starter. That intro still gave me a thrill. I belted a textbook drive 240 yards straight out.
"Looks like you'll be using that one," cracked Diana Adams, a Tour veteran who'd be playing with the group behind us. Erica hit her drive without incident from the red tees and we marched to my ball. The next shot should have been, at least for me, a bread-and-butter nine-iron approach into the green, even with a stiff breeze picking up off the bay.
"What are you hitting?" asked Dr. Gladstone.
"Give me the wedge," he told his caddie in an imperious tone.
"Pompous ass," muttered my caddie for the day.
I was not surprised when Hugh's ball landed well short of the green. Then the rest of us hit in what Travis had determined was our lucky order. Still no balls on the putting surface, including mine. Now I had my money on a simple pitch shot from the right rough. Chip up close, sink the putt, and slink off grateful for a par. Instead, both the doctors insisted we attack the green from the ball in the left front bunker.
"It's an uphill lie, pin high, and a lot closer," said Hugh.
"Lie, schmie," said Travis. "We get to place it any way we like. But I agree with you. We can get a lot closer to the pin from a bunker than from the rough."
I assumed they'd heard TV announcers talk about how much professional golfers liked hitting out of a sand trap. Why not them too? Why not? Because the professionals had spent hours practicing in bunkers and the amateurs, next to none. But I kept my mouth shut. We Tour rookies had had a little seminar on handling the amateurs at the beginning of the season.
"It's their day," said the official in charge. "Don't argue, don't criticize, and don't protest if they don't take your suggestions."
"I like to tell them: I can putt from anywhere," said Diana Adams, who was helping run the seminar. "Fact is, we don't know where the pin placements will be during tournament, so what difference does it make which putt you choose? Lighten it up out there and try to help them have some fun. My worst experiences have been with teams who are bent on winning."
Hugh Gladstone took an enormous backswing and picked his ball clean. The shot screamed over the green and whistled past Dottie Pepper waggling her driver on the second tee. He scowled and slammed his club against his bag. Then Travis shanked his ball dead right into the twin trap on the opposite side of the fairway. Finally, Roger Ranz, Ph.D., buried his wedge so deep in the trap, the ball failed to advance at all.
"Come back next spring," said Travis. "That ball might make an appearance after the frosts heave it out." Roger curled his lips into a chilly smile.
Having fun with this crew was not going to be easy.
Erica snickered behind me. "Dodos," she said. "It's a miracle Meditron hasn't sunk under the combined weight of them. Doesn't it make you wonder which year in medical school they teach them the doctrine of infallibility?"
I fought not to laugh out loud.
Erica rehearsed her shot outside the sand trap: weight positioned forward, steep backswing, good follow through. In her practice swing, she looked like the polished amateur golfer she'd told me she was. Then she dug her feet shoelace deep into the bunker, ready to splash her ball out onto the green. But now she was tense, man, forearms like concrete and mind obviously reeling. Watching her freeze up was enough to get my mind off my own problems, of which there were plenty. Problem one being this, my rookie year on the LPGA Tour, and I hadn't made a damned cut yet.
"You can do it," I called out to Erica. "Take some sand and follow through." You could almost never go wrong telling someone to follow through. In life, as well as the golf swing. At last she swung, producing an ugly chunk that sunk deep in the bunker lip.
I marveled at the difference between her practice shot and the real thing. Joe Lancaster, my friend and psychological consultant, would have said Erica did not have her mind on golf. She lost her focus. And silly as it might sound, you simply cannot play a decent round of golf with your brain wound up about something else. You'd have thought she'd be there one hundred percent, her company having spent in the neighborhood of four thousand big ones for her pro-am spot. A fact my own mother found incomprehensible.
"People are spending four thousand dollars to play with you?" Mom had asked. Good old Mom, the human weed-whacker. She could spot and lop off a fledgling shoot of self-esteem without even blinking. "How much of that do you get?"
"None, Mom. It's to give something back to the Tour."
"When does the part come where you get paid? I've never heard of a job where you don't earn anything. You might as well come home and work with me at Littles'. You'd have to start out busing tables, but waitress shifts always open up. And you wouldn't have all those hotel bills to pay, living here at home."
I glanced over at Erica, who remained frozen in the bunker. Her coworkers paced in annoyance around the flagstick. Back down the fairway, I saw Diana Adams' foursome stumping vigorously in our direction.
"My turn," I called out in a cheery voice, and offered her a hand out of the trap. I took a quick swing and plopped the ball onto the green, twenty feet from the hole. With that result, I'd be spending some extra time in the practice bunker later this afternoon. We putted out for bogey and set off for the second hole.
"One stroke over par already," said Hugh. "A team with a bogey on their card doesn't have a prayer of winning."
"Two thirds of the teams that have come through so far made birdie," announced the eager volunteer stationed next to the green. Hugh glared in his direction.
"You should have just picked your ball up," said Travis to Erica. "We're falling behind. We're playing a damn scramble."
"You should have never insisted we play out of the damn trap," she answered. "There's only one professional in this foursome and it isn't you."
I had to agree with her assessment, but I kept my thoughts to myself. My confidence that my luck had changed was draining away. I could almost hear my father's voice. Not the tight voice he used on the bimonthly phone conversations we'd had over the last fifteen years. The voice I remembered as a kid, deep and warm, and always teaching.
"Don't make assumptions about luck," he told me when I was thirteen. "Lots of times I thought I got lucky because something happened. Then it turned out I would have been luckier if it never occurred. Or the other way around."
Looking back, I didn't know how to take that. Things were real bad with him and Mom around the time he passed out this advice. So I had to assume he thought he'd been lucky to marry her and then later he found out different. In which case, as the product of their unhappy union, I was part of the bad luck. Or maybe he meant the head pro job he didn't get hired for, which seemed unlucky as hell that summer. But his rejection paved the way for him blowing town, leaving me and Mom and their miserable marriage behind him.
Roger's scolding brought me back into the present. "Cut the squabbling, children," he said to Erica and Travis.
"All four of you work for Meditron?" I asked, hoping to divert the conversation onto a less contentious topic.
"I work, Roger crunches numbers, and Travis surfs for new porn sites and cures for hemorrhoids," Erica said, sidestepping to avoid the stab of Travis' sand wedge. I noticed she'd left Hugh Gladstone out of her description altogether.
"It's a drug company?" I asked. "Which drugs do you sell?"
"The usual, antidiarrhea, antidepressant, antiemetic, antibiotic. You name it, we eliminate it," said Travis. "Hugh here, though it's hard to imagine with him wearing a silver cowboy hat, is our honcho. Neuroscience Division Vice President."
Hugh gave a regal nod. "I'm the project director," Travis continued. "And Roger's our biostatistician. We'd be lost without him." Now Roger smiled too.
The three men and I hit from the back tees and moved ahead to where Erica waited. I didn't think the tension in her forearms and shoulders was purely a function of playing in the tournament. Maybe related to the pressures of a big job? Clinical Scientist, she'd called herself.
"These guys tell other people how to collect the data, then I tell them what it means," she'd said. They had laughed, but without any warmth. Maybe they'd heard that joke one too many times.
As I'd seen in the sand trap, Erica's practice swing was fluid and flawless. Then she yanked the real drive deep into the tall rough growing on mounds along the left side of the hole. She cursed under her breath.
"What's your company working on now?" I asked as we walked down the fairway.
"There's a whole formulary," said Hugh. "But this team," he waved to include the other three, "has been developing a treatment for Alzheimer's disease."
"Wow. That sounds important."
"It will be huge," said Travis. "If you don't own Meditron stock, you might want to look into it."
Hugh turned toward him and frowned furiously.
"Hey, just a tip from a friendly caddie," said Travis, holding his palms up in an "I didn't do anything wrong" gesture.
Damn, every conversational avenue in this group felt like a minefield. We stopped beside my drive and waited for the players ahead of us to clear the green.
Hugh pulled a cell phone out of his back pocket. "I'm going to call Regulatory. Maybe there's some news."
He listened to a series of messages, his face reflecting their content: annoying, silly, routine, and suddenly, riveting. "The report should be back by next week," he called to the others. "It looks great!"
Erica turned her back to the doctors and with a beautiful, smooth swing her ball arched up towards the green. As she handed her club back to her caddie, she wiped a tear away.
An unusual reaction to an opportunity for a birdie putt, I thought.