Cart Barn Confessionals: A Night Washing Range Balls
Cart Barn Confessionals are reader-submitted memoirs from their years as employees at a private country club or golf course. If you have a story you'd like to share, email Adam at firstname.lastname@example.org.
From the editor, Adam:
(Names have been changed to protect the innocent.)
One summer I had been hired on part-time as a bag room attendant, thus ending my days as a caddy at Joliet Country Club. Sure, I was still allowed to caddy if I wanted to on my days off, but I was making enough steady income (for a 16-year old at least) to keep my Chevy Blazer filled with gas and enough cash to goof off at night.
Another job skill that I learned quickly from my days as a caddy was how to become the biggest kiss-ass I could possibly be in order to earn more tips than the other guy I was working with that morning. When added to my $7/hr wage, a good “tip day” would immediately bump that rate upwards of $15 to $16 dollars an hour. Needless to say, I was kissing a lot of ass.
The duties of the job were pretty simple for the most part:
- Make sure the member’s clubs were clean and in the proper shelving slot
- Keep the sand bottles and golf carts filled with sand and gas, respectively
- Fold towels for the locker room and each golf cart (JCC tried to be high-class by putting hand towels in each cart so members could use them to wipe their golf balls. Most just stole the towels.)
- Maintain the driving range
That last item on the list – maintaining the driving range – was by far the worst part of the job. You could have asked any bag room employee and they all would have said the same thing. Sure, it seems like an easy task; set out the range balls every morning, drive the range picker tractor to retrieve the balls, run the baskets of balls through the ball washer, repeat the following day. What wasn’t immediately clear to a new bag room boy like me was that anything could go horribly wrong during any of those seemingly simple steps that would ultimately ruin the rest of your day.
My first experience with setting up the range came the first weekend after being hired on in the bag room. As with most part-time jobs, the typical day was broken out into two shifts: 6am to 2:00pm, and 2:00pm to close. This particular Saturday I was on the closing shift along with another veteran bag room employee, Clayton Phillips. He was not only one of the best employees at the club, but also smoked more pot than anyone I had ever met. He would come to work stoned and remain that way throughout the 6 or 7 hours of his shift. If that wasn’t impressive enough, he also managed to never make a mistake during his shift. All the members loved him, the golf pros loved him, and the lifeguards at the JCC pool really loved him. Clayton was a handsome young man who lead a carefree lifestyle that any self-respecting, beautiful lifeguard female would love to bring home to her disapproving parents. If Matthew Mcconaughey from Dazed and Confused worked at a golf course, Clayton Phillips was that character to the smallest detail.
Clayton and I had made our way to the driving range picker (or “the picker”, as we liked to call the rickety old caged tractor used to pick up the golf balls on the range) and he was attempting to give me a crash course in driving the contraption while also packing a one-hitter – or a metal pipe used to smoke small bits of pot at a time- in his lap. He was seated on the passenger side and I was behind the wheel.
“Alright man,” Clayton had said. “These things handle just like a normal golf cart, except you’ve got that big tractor thing in front of you. Take your turns slow, try not to make them too sharp, and don’t ride along any hills sideways. I don’t want to spill my weed, cool?”
Clayton was right; the picker was relatively easy to drive and handled almost exactly like a golf cart would. Getting used to the tractor extending out in front of you didn’t take too much time, and within a few minutes we were cruising around the driving range scooping up golf balls with no problem. Clayton was surrounded in a cloud of sour-smelling smoke while offering pointers to me between puffs. This lesson was going pretty smoothly.
The particular piece of land that the club was built around was not only littered with hills and valleys but also had a wide creek that ran through 13 of the 18 holes on the course. This creek was widest near the first and third holes, but it also featured a pretty wide (and horribly inconvenient) portion smack-dad in the middle of the driving range.
While coming down a hill by one of the four target greens on the range – careful to not spill any of Clayton’s pot, of course – the setting sun managed to glare on the picker’s windshield just enough to blind me for about two seconds. This temporary blindness was just enough to allow me to drive perpendicular to the creek at full speed.
“Shit dude! Turn the wheel!” Clayton barked at me as we were just a few feet away from falling into the creek.
I managed to turn the steering wheel hard to the right (Clayton’s pot was a goner) and the cab rode the side of the creek for a split-second before finding grass once again. Another lesson I learned that day was that the picker’s tractor was actually wider than the cab of the vehicle, and the entire left half of the tractor was now swimming in the creek bed. I also quickly learned that the JCC creek had a pretty strong current, which was taking range balls out of the tractor’s baskets at an alarming rate. Clayton and I jumped out of the picker and ran down to the foot of the creek and surveyed the situation.
“Now what the hell are we gonna do?” I asked. I hadn’t even been on the job for more than a few weeks, and all I could think about was how the Head Pro was going to react when he learned I broke his range picker. Of course, I had no idea if it was broke or not, but I have a habit of assuming the worst.
Clayton jumped down into the creek – which was only a foot or so deep – and started pushing on the tractor. “Get in the picker and floor it in reverse, Adam. I’ll lift here and it should work.”
I followed his orders and climbed back into the picker, reached down on the floor, clicked the transmission switch to “reverse” and hit the gas. Clayton stayed in the creek and did the best he could to lift the heavy tractor. After a few seconds the picker started to roll backwards, and eventually Clayton was able to guide the tractor out of the creek and back onto land. I stopped the picker and climbed out to help Clayton out of the creek.
“Sorry about that man. Maybe I shouldn’t drive this thing anymore?”
“Are you kidding? You know how many times we’ve driven this thing into the creek? Shit man. I used to do it once a week just to take more time down here and away from the bitchy ‘members’ up by the club.” Clayton was already packing another hitter with what weed he had left. “Don’t sweat it. Besides, when Pro hears that you’ve broken your picker cherry he’s gonna laugh it off.”
Perhaps the most important lesson I learned while working in the bag room was that most of the guys were decent dudes, which went completely against the impression I had of them as a caddy. We hated the bag room boys, even to the point that we would avoid them at all costs when walking around the property of the club. The avoidance always seemed to be based on whatever fear a younger child has when approaching an older kid. I remember having the same feelings of avoidance during grade school or my early high school years whenever I would run into an upperclassman. While there were a few instances when my fears would be realized because of some jerk at school, most of the time these fears were complete irrational and quickly diminished once I actually got to know a person. I still tend to become fearful of uncertain situations even to this day, but befriending and working alongside some of the bag room employees help me settle those concerns much faster than I probably otherwise would have.
Clayton and I finished picking the range (Clayton drove for a bit while he showed me where to stay away from on the terrain and how to not drive the damn thing into the creek) and then drove the picker up towards the caddy shack to our iron baskets where we would empty the balls from the tractor in preparation of running each basket through the ball washer. While the range picker was simple to drive, the old range ball washer was a completely different problem.
As I stood up next to the ball washer, Clayton could see that I was completely confused as how to even turn the device on let alone operate with any sense of skill. “You look like a lost puppy, man,” he said as he walked up to assist. “Here; let me explain what this piece of shit can do.”
The ball washer worked like this: you pour a basket of balls into the top of the machine, which looked a lot like a woodchipper. The top of the machine was angled down to allow for the balls to roll towards the middle of the machine, which then fed into a circular track that wrapped around a large brush submerged in water. When the washer was turned on, the brush would spin and guide the balls along the track until ultimately dropping out the bottom of the machine and into another waiting basket. An entire basket of range balls – which could fit upwards of 300 balls when filled to the brim – could be cleaned in less than a few minutes when the machine was working properly. The key, of course, was that the washer had to be working properly. It never did.
Clayton showed me where to load the golf balls into the washer and then went back outside the caddy shack to empty the rest of the tractor. Before too long I had the washer running at full speed with no problems, and the balls were moving through their track with ease. After awhile I began to notice a peculiar smell, however, coming from the bottom of the washer. “Hey Clayton, something stinks in here man.”
“That’s just the water, man. Smells like it hasn’t been changed in a couple days. As long as there’s soap in there you should be fine. Do you see any suds?”
I confirmed that I did, in fact, see soap suds pouring out of the machine and onto the shack’s cement floor. The smell started to get worse as the first basket of balls finished, but I paid no attention and grabbed another basket of dirty golf balls that Clayton had brought for me to clean. After pouring the dirty basket into the top of the washer I flipped the switch to “ON” and started the machine to work on the second basket. Suddenly, the foul smell was now accompanied by a screeching sound and the balls stopped moving along their track. Great, I thought to myself. First the picker and now I broke this?
Clayton heard the screeching sound and strolled up to me near the washer. “Aww, that sucks man. Looks like a ball is stuck near the brush. You’re gonna have to turn it off and fish that little fucker out.”
What Clayton was referring to – and something I couldn’t have possibly known prior to turning on the washer – was that sometimes a driving range ball will have a small cut in its cover thanks to years of being smashed by irons and drivers. The issue was that when one of these cut balls made their way into the washer’s track, it would literally wrap itself around the iron track and get stuck, thus halting the entire cleaning process. Oh, and it would cause the washer to scream like a banshee, too.
This was a complete pain in the ass and by far the worst aspect of picking the driving range. In fact, if you were to go to the club now and ask what the bag room boys hated most about the driving range, they would undoubtedly say “that fucking ball washer”. To make matters worse the only way to clear out the stuck ball from the washer was to take off the top of the machine and stick your hands into the foul, disgusting water and feel around until you found the cracked ball. Clayton watched as I knelt down and begrudgingly reached into the machine’s water tub. After a few seconds of searching and whining to Clayton that I couldn’t find the ball, I suddenly felt the sharpness on my fingertips that could only be that of a cracked golf ball cover.
Now, what Clayton did teach me was why the ball washer stopped. What he didn’t explain was how I could actually remove the broken golf ball from the track. So I had to improvise.
With my fingers secured tightly around the cracked golf ball, I started to tug as hard as I could, trying my damndest to get the ball out of the track. When I noticed it simply wasn’t moving, I decided to place my foot on the base of the tub for more leverage. With one final violent pull on the cracked golf ball I managed to free the ball from the track. I also fall backwards onto my ass with the foul water and washer’s tub completely emptying on top of me.
Golf balls were rolling everywhere. Water that hadn’t been changed in probably a month was in my mouth, in my eyes, and had completely soaked my clothing. The smell was beyond hideous. I have yet to experience a smell anything close to what the stale, stagnant, golf-course-chemical-saturated water bath offered to me as I laid on my back surrounded by the mess I had just created. When I did manage to finally open my eyes I noticed that not only was Clayton peering down at me, but also the lifeguard he was currently dating from the club: Sarah Swolski. To say that this particular life guard was “hot” or “attractive” would be an understatement. Clayton once explained to anyone who would listen that he picked his women like he picked his weed: only the best cuts. Sarah was certainly that, and now she was looking down at me covered in filth.
“Did you get the ball?” Sarah asked as she smiled. Clayton had already begun laughing behind her. I peered over at my left hand and noticed I was still holding the cracked golf ball, which I lifted up to show Sarah.
“Yeah. I got it.” I said as I picked myself up off the ground. After we all shared a quick laugh, and after Clayton reminded Sarah that I also drove the range picker into the creek, he told me to go home for the night and that he would finish the job for me.
While walking away from the caddy shack and towards my Blazer I looked back at Clayton and Sarah just in time to see them shut the shack’s door and turn off the light, presumably to take care of additional business besides cleaning golf balls. I later learned that Sarah had gotten pregnant that evening in the caddy shack, making Clayton the first bag room boy during my stint to quit JCC because he needed to find a “real job”. I sometimes wonder if they named their child after me, and if they had to throw their clothes away as well because of the water smell.