With Washington taking some R&R this week for golf at the Kemper Open in Bethesda, here is an insider's account of the game that is both sports writing at its truest and travel writing at its sharpest. Last year Michael Bamberger was at Congressional Country Club as one of the itinerant bag strappers who lug the 14 clubs of the touring pros and often carry the weighted responsibilities of psychologist, comforter, and after the double-bogeys, whipping boy.
A Long Islander in his midtwenties who went to Martha's Vineyard after college to work for two years as a reporter for The Vineyard Gazette, Bamberger is a golf lover blessed with more talent as a writer than an athlete. Caddying would be as close as his heart would get to satisfaction.
In six months of 1985, beginning with a tournament in Florida and ending with one in New York, Bamberger worked 22 events in 15 states and three countries. He lucked into bagging for a couple of name players -- Al Geiberger and George Archer -- but most of the walking was with up-and-comings or down-and-goings who exemplified Bamberger's insight that "golf has no minor leagues but scores of minor leaguers."
He offers that appraisal out of sympathy for the athletes he served, and, for the most part, admired. In professional golf, precariousness is the opposition. The players have no contracts, no coaches, no union, no teammates to carry them through slumps, no retirement benefits or insurance. It's only them, a ball and a too-small hole. Get it in or get yourself out. For every Nicklaus, Watson or Trevino, a hundred Tom Lehmans, Brad Faxons and Bill Brittons are beating balls on the practice tees. With expenses as high as $60,000 a year for these migrant workers, an easy dollar is as rare as an easy eagle.
Unable to crack the unofficial guild of high-ranking caddies, Bamberger had no big paydays. A common salary is $250 a week, plus 5 percent of a player's winnings, if any. Bamberger's best week was the $450 he earned working for Larry Rentz at the Tallahassee Open. His worst was $135, which CBS gave him as a spotter during its television coverage of the Tournament Players Championship. For the delights of this nomadic life of penury, Bamberger spent $12,000 and earned about $7,000. He wouldn't have lasted without the $5,000 grubstake he began with.
"Where did the money go?" he asks. "To rented cars, motels, hotels, food, flights, drinks, books, horse betting, and the occasional souvenir hat. I am not frugal by nature, but for those six months I was downright cheap . . . I rented cars for as little as $69 a week, some so shabby I wondered if the brakes were extra." In Endicott, N.Y., Bamberger found a bed and bath at Boughton's Rooms for Tourists for $5 a night. At Hilton Head Island, S.C., Bamberger was put up for the week by a banker and his wife. They had space in their luxury villa off the sixth hole and welcomed their guest as if he were Arnold Palmer.
Bamberger's final tournament was one he played in himself -- the $3,500 Labor Day Caddie Classic at the En-Joie golf club in Endicott. This inmate day at the asylum was on the Monday after the last round of the professional tournament. "In the previous six months," Bamberger writes, "I had learned a fair amount about the game -- about professional golfers, about the structure of tournament golf, about caddies and caddying, about the mechanics of the swing. But I had little chance to apply these lessons to my own game, and I was not sure if they were applicable at all."
Apparently they weren't. Bamberger shot a 95. It didn't bother him. Like Walter Hagen, who believed in smelling the flowers along the way, he writes that "it felt wonderfully liberating to actually swing and play again, and I was looking forward to going home and playing more."
Bamberger did go home, to his parents and the house in which he was raised in Patchogue, Long Island. He went to his room and wintered before a typewriter to produce a piece of sparkling prose that, if words were golf shots, would be a 62 and five strokes ahead of the field.
The reviewer is a columnist with The Washington Post Writers Group and author of "The Pleasures of the Game: A Theory-Free Guide to Golf."