When the future broke in on him, Michael Bamberger was 24 and two years out of the University of Pennsylvania with a degree in English. He had a job as a reporter on The Vineyard Gazette in Massachusetts, the newspaper of Henry Beetle Hough and lately of James and Sally Reston.
Bamberger also was a lover of golf. An unrequited lover: the muse of the game didn't love him back by lavishing him with the talent of hand and nerve to be a touring professional. But, the muse said, I'll be your best friend and we can be close that way.
That was enough for Bamberger. He came on the PGA Tour with the lesser but still impressive talents of golf: devotion and joyfulness. He became a caddie. A spell of constructive irresponsibility is good at any time in life, but in your mid-20s it is less one of those blamable moments of crisis than a creative risking.
Since early last year, Bamberger, who is black-haired, rail-thin and a taker of long strides, has traveled week to week working tournaments from Las Vegas to Hilton Head, S.C. He has averaged $200 a week, sometimes more. He earns a few more nickels -- $500 a month -- by ghostwriting instructional pieces for Golf Digest magazine.
Dollars are the last thing Bamberger talks or cares about. "I wish I was a professional golfer. This is the closest I'll ever get to it. The vicarious thrill is enormous. Some weeks I work for Al Geiberger. He is one of the great players in the game's history, the only man ever to shoot 59 in an official PGA tournament. And who puts the club in his hand? Who reads putts for him? And who's in charge of his mental welfare out on the course? It's unbelievably fun . . . What makes for a good caddie-professional relationship? I don't know. The answer is as elusive as the double eagle, or the bald eagle."
At the Kemper Open, Bamberger walked the Congressional fairways for Bill Britton, a Staten Island, N.Y., pro who failed to make the cut. Britton shot a spraying-them-everywhere 76 the first round. It was a weak performance that seemed also to wrench Bamberger. He told of working for Britton Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, "about 24 hours of preparation for four hours of play."
Bamberger confesses to absorbing the tension when his player can't bring it together. "When Billy was playing badly today," he said after Thursday's round, "I hurt -- on every missed putt, on every pushed drive . . . If you're compassionate, and everyone out here is, it gets to your heart."
Bamberger has a natural cerebral side, which is not common among players or caddies. His father and mother are educators, one a teacher of engineering, the other of English. In high school on Patchogue, Long Island, Bamberger was the captain of the golf team. In his senior year, he recalls, "I peaked."
At Penn, he peaked academically with a term paper on Bernard Darwin, the British golf writer whose reporting for The Times of London had a scintillance rarely found on the sports page. Bamberger put his heart into the paper but received only a B-minus: "I don't think the professor was living in the world of golf. I was."
Someone who appreciates Darwin as a college student would be one who savors the refined beauty of Congressional. "I love this golf course," Bamberger said late Thursday while walking behind the first tee on the way to practice range to talk with Britton. "To me, Congressional embodies everything that is great about the game. It's a course that is carved through nature. You have to play the hills, the wind. You can smell these evergreens. You don't have to play between condos and townhouses. Golf wasn't meant to be played that way."
The precariousness of living as a tour caddie -- of being essentially a migrant worker, unprotected by a union or the government, with no health or any other kind of benefits -- hasn't bothered Bamberger. Life isn't as spare as George Orwell's "Down and Out in London and Paris," but often it is a stranger's generosity that carries him back to safety.
"One of the philosophies that you learn very fast as a caddie is that somehow something will work out. For instance, I was in Hattiesburg (Miss.) -- the week of the Masters -- working for Billy Britton. The next week was Hilton Head, S.C. There, I didn't have a bag or a place to stay. I drove over with another caddie. We left Hattiesburg at 7 in the evening and arrived in Hilton Head about 10 the next morning. I got there and George Archer was on the putting green. I said, 'George, you have somebody for this week?' He said, 'No,' so I had a job.
"About an hour later, standing around in the pro shop asking the pro about places to stay, a man overhears me and says, 'You need a place? I have a townhouse.' " Bamberger stayed the week. His host and wife treated him to a cake with candles when they learned he was having a birthday.
On Friday, little at Congressional was worth celebrating. Britton was off the tee at 7:30 a.m. in the rain. Bamberger, staying with an old school chum in Foggy Botton, rose at 5 a.m. to be at the course when Britton needed his clubs at 6:30 to hit balls. The practice didn't help. Britton shot 81.
Caddies use the word "us" when their man plays well and "him" when he doesn't. Bamberger, despite Britton's 76 and 81, was still saying "us" and "we" Friday. He expects to caddie for Britton on Tuesday in New Jersey in the 36-hole qualifying for the U.S. Open. On Wednesday, he plans to meet up with Geiberger for the next tour stop at the Westchester (N.Y.) Country Club. After that, he will try for a bag at the Open in Oakland Hills, Mich.
Bamberger, engaging and reflective, should have expected to respond that way when he came to work on the tour. He knew he was bringing his heart, not merely his shoulders.