Twenty years ago (ouch), I ran away to join the circus, or tried to anyway. It was a different PGA Tour then. Now the game is awash in money and glamour. Two decades ago when Brad Faxon was nice enough to give me a caddie tryout at the 1985 Honda Classic, the overriding emotion on Tour was lust for the game and desperation to find a way to stay in it. At least that's how it seemed to me. ¬∂ I think of 1985 as the final year of the old Tour. In '86 the Bing Crosby tournament became the AT&T; Jack Nicklaus motivated a million middle-aged people to take up the game when he won the Masters at 46; and Greg Norman nearly won everything, setting himself up for birdies with long, straight bombs with a metal driver. Nabisco had made a big play in golf, and in '86 the purses started to fatten substantially, and as they did, more players brought out relatives and college friends to caddie. The Tour's core of older, black, migrant caddie-foils--Golf Ball, Killer, Bebop, dozens of others--started to fade away. Two weeks ago at the Honda, at which Faxon and I had a low-key 20th-year reunion, I saw only one African-American caddie. In practice rounds caddies now carry compasses (to establish prevailing wind directions), altimeters (to determine elevation changes) and range finders (to measure distances to the yard). I believe most of them have degrees from MIT.
Brad was 23 and I was 24, but I felt as if he were older, and still do. We're friends and have little catch-ups at Tour events, but generally I'm slightly nervous around him. It's all rooted in this: He fired me after a week, for cause. He could have fired me after a day. In '85 when we--we?--made the turn on Thursday morning, all Brad wanted was his scorecard, his driver with the headcover off, a new ball, a banana and his sweater put away. I was juggling all this stuff when Brad looked at me and said, "Your hands are too full." Walking off the 10th tee, he asked Greg Rita, who was caddying that week for Mike Donald, about which tournaments he could work for him down the road. I found work with other players--Donald's friend Bill Britton, Steve Elkington, Al Geiberger--and wrote a book about my fast year as a Tour caddie called The Green Road Home.
The kids, like Faxon, playing the Tour 20 years ago all had heroes: Nicklaus or Watson or Trevino. Now they don't. They're good, they know they're good, and they want to do it their own way. A similar thing has happened in the writing game. In '85 I sent my bagger manuscript to four gods: Dan Jenkins, George Plimpton, James Reston and Herbert Warren Wind. They all blurbed generously. Now, with the Web and all, you can start your own career. Mentoring is not a growth industry.
I'll always be grateful for my early help. In '86 Golf Digest ran an excerpt from the book, the part about Faxon's sacking me. That bit has legs. At a U.S. Open a couple of years ago, somebody looked at my press pass and said, "I know you. You're that guy Faxon fired. What have you been doing since then?"
Faxon's career is more well-known. He has won seven times on Tour, been a Ryder Cupper, served on the Tour's policy board and developed a reputation as a good quote, an all-world putter, a golf-course buff and a player on an endless quest to solve golf's enduring riddles. He hasn't done all he hoped to do, not so far, anyway. He was the college player of the year coming out of Furman in '83, and the practice putts he holed on afternoons 20 years ago were to win U.S. Opens. He hasn't actually faced such a putt, not in real life. Still, he's 18th on the alltime money list, having won $15.5 million. More than that--and in this he's lucky--the game still absorbs him.
Anyway, who can say they've done all they hoped and hope to do? Not Faxon, not I, not anyone I know in his mid-40s. Faxon once said to me, "Would you ever try to learn everything you can about writing in a week?"
"Golf's the same way. You simply keep at it, trying to get better."
That's when I realized that making a living from a typewriter or from a set of golf clubs is about the same thing. You can't fake the results in either. You're on your own. The writer and the golfer, they both know, deep down, whether they're getting better or not. At 43, 44, you're young enough to hang on to that useful phrase, so far. It pushes you. But you're old enough to feel the pain of passing time and lost chances and buried dreams. I'm not being gloomy. I can't be: The writing life, like the golfing life, is rooted in optimism. I'm only trying to be truthful. Now it's our children with the sun in their hair, their skin slippery with ocean water. In a wave you lose all sense of time.
Faxon and I couldn't figure out what happened to the 20 years. A blink. "You were wearing a blue alligator shirt, too small for you," Faxon said. He had just finished the first round of the Honda, and we were sitting in the players' dining room. Nobody was looking to chase me out. It's embarrassing, the things other people remember. I haven't worn a shirt with a logo in years. "Thursday was windy and hot," Faxon said, "and on Friday you were red and crispy." It's a painful memory, all the way around.
In March 1985, in my first month with the circus, I met one other person who left an enduring mark. You probably won't know this name: Chuck Will, the longtime golf director for CBS, producer Frank Chirkinian's righthand man. Will is a legend to Tour denizens but not to the public. I met him at the '85 Players Championship. I didn't have a bag, and I went to him because CBS hired out-of-work caddies as spotters, getting clubs and yardages for the announcers. Will was in his trailer, surrounded by chaos.
"Michael Barnblatt?" he said, reading a name off a slip of paper in his hand.
"Michael Bamberger," I said.
"If I wanted you, Bamberger, I would have asked for you, you a------."
Over the years we became close. Not that we ever did much together. A few games of golf. (He was a scratch golfer.) Some lunches. Conversations here and there, at Tour events or in Philadelphia, where we both live. We were close because--many will not get this--we loved golf the same way. Two things, really: the click of a well-struck shot and the kooky lifers the game attracts.
I joined Sports Illustrated in 1995. My first assignment centered on Ben Wright, the CBS announcer with the BBC accent. A woman reporter for The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., had written a piece about Wright, quoting him saying inane, homophobic, sexist things about women's pro golf. ("They're going to a butch game," etc.) His little riff caused a ridiculous modern-media firestorm. (A New York Post front-page headline read the boob on the tube.) Trying to get out of a jam, a perspiring Wright went on national TV and essentially called the reporter, Valerie Helmbreck, a liar. My job was to find out where the truth lay. The final was Helmbreck 10, Wright 0. He said the things she said he said. The story ran, and CBS fired Wright, not for his comments, but for trashing the woman to save himself. I have never lost a minute of sleep over anything about the story except for this: Will and I talked shortly before the story ran, and not since. He felt I had wronged his guy. I felt I had nothing to apologize for.
Will spends his winters in South Florida, in a condo near the oceanfront par-3 course in Palm Beach. I figured enough is enough. We had met 20 years ago, and stopped talking almost 10 years ago. Too much time had passed. I checked into a hotel down the street from him and called. I wanted to be able to say I was in the neighborhood. His wife answered, and Chuck came right to the phone.
His first words were "I thought you died." We then spoke for 90 minutes. We talked about Faxon, Donald, Britton, various caddies. The list of people we know in common is long.
In his CBS days nobody ever knew how old Will was. He looked ageless. He retired at the end of 1998, he told me, at age 72. I had no idea. He's older than my father. He sounded just as he did 20 years ago.
"You know, I stopped getting the magazine because I didn't want to read what you wrote," Will said. Candor was never a problem for him. "People would say, 'Why aren't you friends with Michael anymore? He took the job there, and they made him write that story.'"
I told him that was absolutely untrue. I said the story was important for only one reason: The man with the power, with the big job at the national network, was willing to squash the woman he saw as vulnerable. If I didn't want to write stories like that, I wouldn't want to be a reporter at all. I think Chuck got that.
I asked him if I could come by during the Honda week, take him out for lunch or breakfast. "No, no, no, we're not going to do that," he said. He asked about my wife and children, then talked cheerfully about his final plans. "I've instructed Kathleen, my beautiful bride who remains 29 years younger than I, to buy a first-class ticket to San Francisco, carrying my remains in a box or urn. I want her to get in a car, drive south to the Seal Rock lookout, to that little parking spot there and, with Cypress Point right behind her, distribute me into the Pacific, with the barking seals." When he's not using profanity, that's exactly how he speaks.
I said, "Can I take you out for a cup of coffee?" He had always lived on black coffee.
"No, no. No," he said.
"I used to call you the Hatchet Man. Your name would come up, and I'd say, 'You mean the Hatchet Man?' But all the times I said that, it didn't mean I didn't love you." We fell silent for a moment.
"Why can't we get coffee?" I asked.
"You and I need more time," Will said.
More time. He said we would play golf in the spring, at home, after it gets warm.
"I stopped getting the magazine because I didn't want to read what you wrote," Will said. CANDOR WAS NEVER A PROBLEM FOR HIM.
Photograph by Nina Bramhall
After his first tournament as a caddie, at the 1985 Honda Classic, the author was fired by Faxon.
COURTESY OF MICHAEL BAMBERGER
Faxon was 23 in '85 but seemed older.
Two weeks ago at the Honda, the author (far right) and Faxon (left) had an opportunity to catch up and compare notes.