It’s a grand claim to make, but let’s risk it: The literature of golf is unrivaled in American sports. The fine-grained prose in the golf essays of John Updike, the polished golf reporting of Herbert Warren Wind at the New Yorker in the 1950s and ’60s and the current lucid work by Michael Bamberger in Sports Illustrated are unmatched in the literature of baseball (a close second perhaps) and certainly not in football or basketball.
The excellence continues. If the new books about caddying by Don J. Snyder and John Dunn were evaluated solely on the basis of effort expended — never mind the fascination of the stories told — they would still be impressive. Snyder estimates that he walked at least 2,000 miles, while a pedometer on Dunn’s leg would have run up much the same mileage.
At the age of 57, Snyder, whose other books include “A Soldier’s Disgrace” and “The Cliff Walk,” took to the hardpan fairways of courses in and around St. Andrews, Scotland, to learn the art of caddying. He did so to help his son Jack, something of a hotshot college golfer, who dreamed of making it on the PGA tour. If that happened, Snyder wanted to be primed to caddy for the son he loved. Snyder arrived in Scotland in March 2008. After taking his first footstep he realized that the job entailed more than being a bag carrier.
In fact, parental love came at a cost. During his two spring-to-fall seasons in Scotland, Snyder pined for his wife back home in Maine, lived on “a monk’s budget,” spent no money in the pubs, had no TV or car and dined on “soup and hard rolls six nights a week and splurging the seventh with a hamburger.” Much of his caddying was for American tourists, as generous with their tips as they were humbled by the berms, humps and swags of the Scottish courses. Snyder easily bonded with his fellow caddies, most of them seasoned vets, including one who told a group of four surgeons from Los Angeles about to tee off in St. Andrews: “Gentlemen. Just remember. You’re not here to have fun today. You’re here to play golf.”
November 2011 found Snyder in Texas, caddying for newly turned pro Jack in what became the first of several tournament rounds in a mini-tour ending in February 2012. Jack debuted with a 90, his worst score since high school. Several tournaments later, marred by three-putt greens, double bogeys, sprayed tee shots and some missed cuts, Jack’s game teetered between the frazzled and frayed. “This isn’t easy for me to admit,” Snyder writes, “but the truth is we are not working together. We’re miles apart. Today by the 7th hole I would have taken a year splitting rocks in a quarry rather than caddie another round for my son.”
It didn’t come to that, but both father and son saw the writing on the wall as clearly as the bogeys on the scorecard. Jack gave it his gutmost, but it wasn’t enough. After the final tournament, he and his father drove north out of Texas: Jack to Cleveland to apply for a job with Sherwin-Williams and Don to his wife in Maine. “I am going to remember all of it for as long as I can,” he writes about Jack walking off the 18th hole of the final tournament. “The quick embrace. And the walk to the parking lot when Jack said, ‘That’s that, man. It was real, wasn’t it?’ I was a step behind him. ‘Yeah, Jackie,’ I said. ‘It was real.’ ”
If only John Dunn had a doting father like Don Snyder. Instead he had a doubting father, one who thought his college-educated son should have loftier goals than the nomadic life of a caddie. Throughout his stories of heavy lifting at some of the country’s wealthiest clubs — including Stanwich in Greenwich, Conn., Augusta National, Shinnecock Hills on Long Island, Olympic in San Francisco and Sherwood in Los Angeles, plus a season at St. Andrews — he is shadowed by the acridness of a father who, Dunn sadly writes, viewed his son’s vagabond ways as self-indulgent “escapist frivolity.”
The traipsing began in 1993. In well-crafted and often conversational prose, Dunn is part sociologist, part storyteller and part adventurer as he observes the ways of his fellow caddies — some of them lifers, many likable eccentrics — and the rich, big-tipping members who often paid hundreds of dollars per round and the occasional stiffers who paid the minimum $90. At Augusta National, Dunn looped four rounds for Bill Gates, a new member grateful to be mentored by a canny, greens-reading caddy. Between shots, the pair, both voluble, gabbed about everything from the Microsoft antitrust lawsuit to AIDS in Africa. Dunn writes of Gates: “It was probably refreshing for him to have someone by his side who wasn’t kissing his ass or trying to get something from him. In fact, the opposite was true. I was providing for him, helping him play well and feel at ease among his golfing friends. And that’s all he cared about for those two days. By the end of the first day we were fast friends.”
In his final pages, Dunn tells of his father’s death in a Connecticut hospice from pancreatic cancer. The son, a prodigal, returned home for the final months. The two had reconciled.
WALKING WITH JACK
A Father’s Journey to Become
His Son’s Caddie
By Don J. Snyder
Doubleday. 336 pp. $25.95
A Caddie’s Twenty-Year Golf Odyssey
By John Dunn
Crown. 279 pp. $25