On the Hill in the Tall Grass off Fifteen

Nonfiction by Joe Oswald

jow-oswaldJohn T. must have noticed me staring past him. He pulled an eight iron out of the bag hoping to run an impossible shot under the low-lying limbs of three successive trees, over a bunker and onto the green. Then, as if the whole day had suddenly become a practice round, he broke from concentrating on his shot to ask me if I knew the guy on the hill I kept looking at.

“Just my dad.”

“Is that right?”

He stepped away from the bag and took a half swing before saying something I prayed would not happen.

“When we’re through, I’d like to meet him.”

*

John T. had begun the second round of the tournament on the leader-board one under par, but by late Friday morning when it became clear he’d have to birdie in from fifteen just to make the cut, I didn’t think my week of caddying at the Greater Milwaukee Open could get any worse. Until I noticed my dad high on a hill in the tall grass right of the fairway.

He was standing all alone. But even if he had been surrounded by the nice sized gallery that had followed our group earlier in the morning—before John T. slid out of contention with bogeys on two, four and five—Dad would have stood out like a sore thumb, an expression he still used.

In his scuffed-up low-top steel-toed shoes, he looked ready for a day on a construction site, which is exactly where I thought he was heading after he dropped me off that morning. A carpenter foreman, he was wearing his favorite work hat, the one with the long bill with the dark sweat mark creeping up the fabric in the front, when he snuck his work car between two barricades meant to slow entry to the clubhouse parking lot. It was a little after six. To my relief no one was around to see me get out of his rusted station wagon weighted down with metal tool boxes and a sheet of plywood that flopped over a buried back seat. The hat was still on his head. It kept the sun off his eyes and up close smelled of the daily dose of Vitalis he used to keep his dark brown hair combed straight back in light streaks indifferent to the wind.

It had been hot all week. Visors and wide brimmed hats, adorned with the name or logo of an area country club or golf course, loose fitting slacks, shorts and knit shirts were common attire. Then there were sneakers or comfortable golf shoes for the miles of walking and standing tackled by the more seasoned attendees. Some brought their own portable chairs and large umbrellas, while others found shade on the ground, beneath the wide oak trees that occupied the many hills surrounding some of the greens like natural amphitheaters.

With the exception of tournament volunteers dressed in tan slacks and white golf shirts embossed with the green GMO emblem, or Boy Scouts in uniformed shirts lugging aluminum poles with the players’ name and score (red for under par, black for over), or caddies dressed like auto mechanics in full length blue jump suits with a player’s name in bold black capital letters snapped to their backs or sometimes pinned where the snap was missing, everyone else, from player to spectator, was dressed for a day at the course.

Not my dad. In addition to work hat and shoes, he had on a pair of his favorite light tan work pants he always bought at Sears and a matching work shirt with breast pockets on both sides. Even from this distance I could see a small notebook and slightly longer pencil protruding from his left pocket. He didn’t have a program. For all I knew he could have been standing there for hours in the heat just waiting to see me walk down the fairway.

I tried to avoid eye contact as I made my way down the long strip of creeping bent grass to a white sprinkler head just past the sand trap, in order to pace off what yardage remained to the green. The hole was playing down wind. John T. had hit driver hoping to carry the bunker and draw the ball slightly left so it would find a narrow stretch of fairway and roll down toward the green. He hit it well but like too many of his shots this day it never came left as planned. Far right of the trap the ball hit a patch of hard turf and kept bouncing until it found the rough behind a row of oak trees strategically placed to guard the entrance to the green from that angle. From there it’d be hard to make par let alone birdie. We both knew the tournament had ended for him. But as I turned to give him yardage for a shot I knew wasn’t going to make a difference, I couldn’t help notice my dad again. He hadn’t moved. Hands on hips, smile on his face, he seemed oblivious to our dire situation as he stood on the hill looking in our direction.

John T.’s shot careened off some branches before flying onto the fairway behind us. He’d lost twenty yards to the pin but at least from there it was an open shot to the green. With a half wedge and a putt he managed to save par.

By the time we left the green and headed to the sixteenth tee, I was relieved to see Dad was nowhere in sight. Later that night, after he came back to the course to give me a ride home, he took the check John T. made out to me down to his darkroom to make a more permanent copy, a tradition he’d started when I worked my first tournament two years before and one that wouldn’t end until I worked my last one two years later.

*

Early in the week Dad had said he’d try to make it out to the course, but he said pretty much the same thing the year before, and the year before that. Those years the pros I caddied for had made the cut and played all four rounds, but finished pretty much out of the money. I figured if he ever really was going to show up it would be on the weekend.

Because of work, week days for him were out of the question. If he wasn’t working, he wasn’t getting paid. And while he put in for his vacation check every year, the money in that fund was based on contributions he made from weekly payroll that accumulated in a no-interest account managed by his union’s health and welfare fund, a system that accumulated just enough pennies over the course of a year to cover our family’s vacation up north every August. Besides holidays, weekends and the few times he’d stay home ill, Dad worked every day, inside or out, as long as the work was good, for as long as I could remember.

His weekends were busy too, with what he used to call his “side jobs” that helped pay the mortgage if he was ever out of work, like drafting a set of plans for a house or remodeling project, or the renovation at Saint James, or doing some other carpentry project for one of the many churches in the area.

“God loves a cheerful giver,” he’d say when the thank you cards came without payment.

Saw-filing was his only real side job that was a money-maker, although I’m not sure he ever told Uncle Sam. He had a network of tradesmen, the company he worked for and, for a time, a local hardware store under contract for his filing services. My brother and I’d help him move what seemed like a steady stream of circular and hand saws from his work car to the basement where he’d turn on an overhead lamp and crank a tiny handle on a small metal wheel that let him eye-up the path of the file on the filing machine so that it aligned with the exact width and depth of each stroke for each blade. Then, he’d turn on the machine and adjust the volume of the radio so whatever he was listening to could still be heard above the motor and the rhythmic screech of the file moving lengthwise between each tooth.

All through high school he teased me about taking over the family business, which I took as his way of tricking me into his trade.

“No thanks,” I’d tell him knowing I had no interest in following in his footsteps and that I had made more money caddying over the course of one summer than he’d made over a career of filing saws. Besides, he always said, “getting paid for what you love doing, isn’t work” so I guessed it was working out for both of us.

*

But for how embarrassed I was seeing my dad that day on the hill off fifteen or how unappealing the thought of working in construction was to me the summer following my senior year in high school, my career as a caddy at Tuckaway seemed dependent on the construction industry in ways that extended beyond relying on dad for rides to and from the course, before and after work, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday and Mondays, for summers at a time. While there were plenty of doctors, lawyers, business owners and even a mortician (whose putter’s head was molded into the shape of an open casket occupied by a tiny tuxedo clad corpse), always looking for a good caddy, I ended up being a regular for Mike T., a long hitter in a short frame and owner of one of the largest sewer and water contractors in southeast Wisconsin, and for Bob M., an on again, off again, semi-retired developer, who once played golf for Notre Dame and still played pretty constantly just above or below par. Their foursomes consisted of folks in their network which meant they included names like Poblocki and Tews, names that my dad always seemed to recognize right down to the projects they had going on around town or whether or not they were union.

“I don’t think he’s union, is he?” he’d repeatedly ask about one in particular who lived near the course and owned a ready-mix company. I’d say I didn’t know, knowing that he already did and that he wanted me to consider things like that as part of my learning the course.

*

My dad had his talents and passions but he never was much for sports. He said it was because of his size that the only team sport he ever played was Cadet football in high school, keeping a gold lettered “C” he’d earned for that effort safely stowed in a red and black footlocker he made in wood shop his sophomore year in high school. But other than watching the Packers on Sundays after church or tuning the radio to Notre Dame football on Saturday afternoons, which I attributed more to his Catholic upbringing than any love of the game, I could count on one hand the number of times we played catch, and on that same hand the number of tosses he actually made to me before giving the chore to someone else or finding something else to do.

So it was a bit of a surprise when out of the blue one summer afternoon he brought home a junior starter golf set he happened to see on sale in the sporting goods department at Sears as he waited for mom to purchase a pair of white coveralls for him at the work clothes register a few aisles away.

When he brought the box into the house he said it was a gift for the entire family. My siblings joined me in opening the box, replacing the rumpled tissue paper from the top and bottom pockets of the bag with an assortment of white wooden tees, a half dozen plastic balls and a sleeve of three real ones, and then sliding the black acrylic driver, three irons and straight edge putter into their proper sections of the bag as shown on a diagram that was taped to the faux leather bag. While there were enough short-shafted clubs for each one of us to use, each of them lost interest not long after we walked to the back yard and took a few turns hitting balls through the tall grass. I was soon all alone spending the rest of the afternoon playing tree to tree over an imaginary course that now had surrounded our house.

That imaginary course eventually became six real holes made out of recycled aluminum Purina Dog Chow containers Dad used to save to store things. I’d use the hand shears to clip a three-foot radius of grass to a length shorter than the mower allowed to simulate a green but the ground was more lumpy than smooth so there was never much need for a putter. None of the holes required flags, being easily visible from any place in the yard.

Long after I stopped clipping the grass and the cups had become worn and dented, I walked that course with Dad. It was the day after his birthday in August, the last summer I lived at home. I had gifted him my old set of Burt Yancey clubs that I’d found in the basement while looking for some wooden crates I could stack into shelves and take with me to college. The clubs polished up like new. I helped him with his grip and stance, but rather than swinging the club with his arms and body, he used only his wrists.

“This can’t be that hard,” he said after rolling a few shots along the ground. “It’s like hitting a nail with a hammer, right?”

I’m not sure I answered him. We did talk about going to a driving range later but we never did. I left for school the next week.

*

My career as a club caddy ended that summer, but for two years when I came back for a week each to caddy in the tournament and pick up a few more lessons about the game.

In ’77, Bob G. barely missed the cut after the infamous Tuckaway wind picked up in the afternoon and sent the scores of those unlucky enough to draw the afternoon flight soaring. During a practice round on a Tuesday he taught me his “big hook” – an open stance, inside-outside swing, ending with the club head snapping down at the ball and carving out a foot-long section of turf in the follow-through. That shot was almost enough to get a low one-iron through a stiff headwind onto the green on ten, before two-putting for bogey his last round.

In ’78, I took a week off from a part-time job I’d picked up driving a shuttle bus at the airport, to caddy in the tournament. Dale D. didn’t make the cut either, but in a few years he’d be among the leaders on the Senior Tour. He taught me a shot to use when the ball is below the cup on the fringe of the green.

“Take a seven-iron,” he said, instructing me from just off the green on eleven. “Grip it low like you’re putting but hood the head slightly so the tip of the blade pinches downward when you strike the ball.”

A miracle of physics, it gave the ball an over-spin, sending it rolling toward the hole at a pace faster than the initial impact should have allowed.

A friend and I talked of following the tour down to Quad Cities the following week and Dale D. said to look him up if we decided to go. We never went and I never went back to driving the shuttle bus either.

In ’79 I didn’t take off work and I didn’t caddy but I went with Dad to the tournament to watch my younger brother carry a bag. This time I drove. We parked in a grass field on the other side of Drexel Avenue that a year later would become an apartment complex. We hiked about a half mile down the road to a folding table where we bought tickets from volunteers staffing a gate near the old driving range. The program they handed us listed all the tee times. Knowing the course I figured my brother’s group was somewhere on three, so we walked up the hill on one to get to the green on six where we took our spots on a ridge overlooking the hole, and waited.

That’s really all I remember of my last day at Tuckaway. Once, after revealing my caddying past at a political event to an executive of a large insurance company who I knew to be a member of the club, he asked if I’d ever like to play the course as his guest. I never followed up. I’m sure I’d have enjoyed it. I’m sure I’d have been pleased by how much longer my drives were now than they ever were when I was a kid. And I’m pretty sure I’d have been disappointed to see how my short game and putting had deteriorated over time. But I’m not sure how I would have reacted seeing my dad again, twenty years younger than the last time I saw him, dressed for another day on a job site, standing alone high on that hill in the tall grass off fifteen. All I know is he’d be there, if only waiting for me.

Photo credit

About Joe Oswald

Joe Oswald was born in Franklin, Wisconsin and holds a BA from the University of Wisconsin--Madison and a Masters Degree in Liberal Studies from Georgetown University. He recently retired from a long career in political and labor organizing, most recently as the Government and Community Affairs Director for the Wisconsin Laborers’ District Council. He lives in Madison with his wife, son, and cat, Romeo. His first publication has recently appeared in The Furious Gazelle.

Joe Oswald

Joe Oswald is online at