Mather was at his usual post at the usual time. Every Saturday morning at 7 AM he had already spent two hours getting ready for his workday as a caddy at Slipknot Creek Country Club and Tennis Village. His alarm had gone off at 5 AM, awaking him from a dream where he was sitting in a recent-model Cadillac without any doors. This Caddy was the golf cart for the afternoon's round and he was on Number Eleven (a par 3) sitting in the passenger side. He was about to voice a concern about how the big American tires might rut the fairway if they continued to use it for a golf cart when one of his playing partners pointed to his bag of clubs lying on the tee. He felt as if the Caddy was really a big problem which was being overlooked, but the look on his playing partner's face was not good. When Mather got out of the doorless car and walked up to the tee, he pulled out his 5-iron and saw that it had been bent both at the grip as well as the hosel, making it look like some sort of iron pretzel. As he came to the realization that all of his clubs were similarly ruined and was imagining who could have done something this meaninglessly evil, the alarm snapped him to waking life.
He took the hottest shower he could stand and shaved his face, even though he was hardly at the point in his life where this was really necessary.
Mather was the only kid left at home in a family that had had their fill of kids. All of his siblings were "flown off the coop" as his dad put it. His mom and dad were both worn out, physically and financially, and barely able to imagine any sort of retirement satisfaction after seeing half a dozen kids either try to drive them insane or bankrupt or both. Mather was likely the best one of the lot, but their patience and resources were so shot to hell at this point that it would not have mattered if Mather had been the class Valedictorian. They would probably have still not had the energy to go hear the speech.
He was not the Valedictorian. Like his brothers and sisters, he barely made it in school. However; he did have one thing that none of them had. He had a love for the game of golf and he had a way with people. That's why he never missed his 7 AM place in line to caddy for Mr. Trantham. He'd been getting this bag for over a year now and it had been his ticket to both a fairly good way of life as well as lessons he could have never learned from his dad. Not that his dad was too selfish to share. He just didn't understand the sort of things that Mr. Trantham understood, and even if he had understood them, he'd have never been able to put them into words.
For instance, Mather had always tried to do the right thing, but he'd never understood the lengths to which a real golfer will go in order to avoid ever being considered even capable of dishonesty or cheating.
One afternoon back in August of last year, Mr. Trantham had stood on the 14th tee with the honors in a game with a foursome which had turned into a total push up to that point. They were playing "one tie, all tie," and this can often lead to several holes being halved before a bet is won. But this one had gotten out of hand. This was a fourteen-hole carry-over on a bet that, even though for pedestrian sums by the reckoning of the folks making the wagers, was still an appreciable amount when multiplied by fourteen.
Fourteen is a par 5 with a dogleg right about 300 yards off of the tee. To the left is a tree line of small pines and a few larger oaks and maples. Standing stubbornly in front of those trees is a line of little white stakes. Those stakes represent out of bounds and are really the only serious primary hazard on what should be a birdie hole.
Normally a drawer of the ball, especially with the driver, Mr. Trantham attempted to weaken his grip as well as adjust his downswing in order to generate what real golfers call a "power fade" (in order to distinguish it from what a hacker would call a slice). The difference between a power fade and a slice is usually about 100 yards, and it was highly unlikely that par was going to be any good on this hole.
As sometimes happens when you think too hard about the outcome of a minor change in your normal approach to things, Mr. Trantham got double crossed and wound up snap hooking the ball. It was already 20 yards deep in the trees when it hit an oak dead solid with a sound resembling a good drive with a wooden-headed club. The other three players all wound up to the right side of the fairway, but none with any appreciable length. Mather and Mr. Trantham hiked down the left side of the hole as the other three players walked to their balls. Mather, who usually didn't speak unless spoken to by his employer on the course, said, "You think there's a chance it's playable?"
Mr. Trantham said, "I hope so, son. None of those guys are going to make four from where they're at and I hit that a long way, even though not too straight. Why didn't you tell me I was going to snap hook that one?"
Mather felt a hot rush and thought for a minute that he'd made a big mistake. But when he looked up at Mr. Trantham, he saw a big grin and realized it was just a joke.
They both saw the ball at the same time. It was a good 75 yards ahead of any of the other three shots in the group, but it was dangerously close to those white stakes. It was pretty much equidistant between two of them.
A mockingbird was sitting on a lower branch of a young maple. It had changed melodies a dozen times while they were walking. Most of the tunes sounded as if they held some sort of promise, but the one that stayed in Mather's head was a lonely tune that reminded him of the way he felt some nights after his siblings had left and he was the only one in the house except his parents. When the first boy left the nest, his parents went out of their way to make sure that if there was a fall, it would be comfortable. Standards changed as the other kids bailed out of the house, and now it was likely that Mather could be gone for a week and his mom and dad wouldn't really notice.
"Why the glum look, soldier? You afraid I'm going to dock your pay if I lose this bet?"
Mr. Trantham always seemed to have a smile on his face. Mather wondered if life had been that good to him, or if he'd just decided somewhere along the way that sadness was for fools. He lied and said, "I just was hoping your ball is in bounds. It sure looks close."
And it was close. When they got to the ball, a cursory look said it was in play. Mather said, "Why don't you go ahead and hit this 5-wood. You've been hitting it real good all day."
Mr. Trantham said, "I'd love to, son, but I'm not so sure this ball is in bounds. Do you know how you check when you're not sure?"
"You use your best guess, don't you? It looks OK to me."
"No, when you're not sure you have to do this." And Mr. Trantham walked to the white stake ahead of his ball and got down on his knees. He lined up the white stake behind his ball with his left eye closed and imagined a line running from the two stakes. He motioned for Mather to do the same from the other stake. And there they were, looking at an imaginary line in relation to a little white ball, as well as each other.
"What do you think, son? Is any part of that line you're looking at touching my ball?"
"What if only a tiny bit of the ball is touching the line?"
"It's in bounds unless the whole ball is on the wrong side of that line. Is it out of bounds, son?"
"If I say, 'Yes,' is that the final word?"
"It's not out of bounds."
Mr. Trantham got up off his knees and walked back to where Mather had just told a lie. The guilt was already washing over the kid and he knew what was going to happen next. Why was he trying so hard to make this man happy when the outcome of this game meant so little to him?
Mr. Trantham got behind Mather and got down on his knees again. He closed his left eye and squinted as he drew the imaginary line again. "I don't think even a little bit of that ball is on that line, son. Are you sure it is?"
"No, sir. I'm not sure."
"Well, if you're not sure then we have to call it out of bounds and go back to the tee. Get the ball and my bag and let's hurry. We've already held up play long enough." He didn't sound exasperated, but that is the way Mather imagined the emotion behind that statement.
Mather hurried to grab the ball and the bag and caught up with Mr. Trantham who was already 20 yards ahead of him. He was breathing hard as he held the ball up and showed it to his employer and said, "The tree scuffed this one up pretty bad. We should pull out a new one for the tee, shouldn't we?"
Mr. Trantham did something that he'd never done with Mather before. He reached over and put his arm around his caddie and said, "You are always looking out for me, aren't you, son?"