Six Strokes Under

Chapter One

The South Carolina Sun News lay on the kitchen table, folded open to the want ads. Mom had gone through the listings with a yellow highlighter. Pastry chef, responsible for breakfast, desserts, and banquet production. Me in a chef's toque? I'd never scrambled an egg without her one-on-one supervision. Job coach for the disabled, experience in special ed and bilingual (Spanish) preferred. I knew hola and gracias. Telemarketing, business-to-business, hard selling required. I couldn't sell Girl Scout cookies to my own grandparents. Restaurant counter help, intelligent and upbeat. Intelligent? Sometimes. Upbeat? Not so you could count on it.

Besides the astonishing lack of fit between me and her selections, Mom had overlooked the fact that I was flying to Sarasota in three days for the LPGA Qualifying School, otherwise known as Q-school, a boot camp for wannabe professional golfers. The lesson plan, four days of mental and physical torment, determined who'd get a shot at becoming the next Nancy Lopez or Annika Sorenstam.

"I guess I don't understand you, Cassie," Mom said when I first broke the news. "You tell me your chances of making it onto the Tour are minuscule. Why pay three thousand dollars to put yourself through hell and then come home empty-handed?" Punctuated with a heavy sigh.

I loved my mother. Honestly. Even on the days, and today was shaping up as another one of them, when I'd just as soon wring her neck as have a cup of coffee with her. I counted on weekly phone calls to my friend Laura for perspective when I thought I was going to blow.

"You don't have a clue what's it's like to be without a mother," she told me from Connecticut.

"She's trying to help. Be grateful she's there to love you, Cassie."

"I'll try."

Laura was eighteen when her mom's car careened off the road on a rainy night. The tree she hit compressed Mrs. Snow into a shape "not compatible with human life", according to the coroner's report. So on that score, Laura was right. As much as my own mother got on my nerves, yammering about how life was full of disappointments and who was I to think I was immune to them, I'd never had to face a Mother's Day or my birthday without her. Or any other occasion where mothers were an essential part of the equation.

"I'll be so glad to get out of Myrtle Beach," I said. "If I stayed with Mom and Dave one more week, you'd have to fly down here and lock me up. It's not just Mom's want ad fixation. Dave keeps telling me that playing golf is not work. And I need to get a real job and start acting like a grownup. Every night he leaves applications from the outlet malls on the kitchen table."

I shifted into my imitation of my stepfather's Yankee-come-to-the-deep-south-lately growl. "Don't y'all give me this crap about finding yourself, sister. Trust me when I tell you my authentic self does not involve serving enough cholesterol every morning to choke the arteries of every golfer in the state. Though that isn't a bad idea."

"You've got the poor bastard nailed." Laura laughed. "I take it head breakfast cook is not his life's dream."

"He doesn't know how to dream. He hit a new low yesterday when he brought home an application from Hooters, home of fast food served by big boobs."

"Hey, don't knock waitressing. Your mom does it. I did it all through college. And Hooters' chicken wings rule."

"Have you seen what they make those girls wear? Skin-tight orange nylon shorts that can't begin to cover their cheeks. I bet you don't even fill out an application to work there, just write down your name and bra size in big block letters. Cassandra Burdette, 36C."

"In your dreams, girl," Laura said through snorts of laughter. "Come to think of it, you probably don't have the right equipment for that position."

More laughter. Best friend or not, she was starting to seriously wear me out.

"Any word from Jack?" she asked.

"Nothing new. He's in Japan this week, so the time zones and the long-distance rates are killing us." I'd met Jack just before I left my caddie job on the PGA Tour. His rocky performance as a rookie golfer meant he was banished to the Asian Tour until his game picked up. Just thinking about him gave me a little physical jolt, a frisson, I think the Victorian ladies would have called it. Even though he split before our flirtation had time to catch fire, I had two dreams on the horizon now: the LPGA Tour and Jack Wolfe.

"Gotta run," I said. "I'm going over to the club and hit balls. I'll pick you up in Florida Monday night. Call me on the cell phone if your flight's running late."

"Aye-aye, Captain."

Ha. Even if it looked like I was in charge, her carrying the bag and me swinging the clubs, I knew she'd have a lot to say. She always did.

I pulled off Route 17 into the driveway of Palm Lakes Golf Course, where my father had worked for twenty years as the assistant golf pro. Twenty years he waited for the head pro job to open up. At last it did. Then they offered it to someone from outside, a young guy who'd worked five years at a resort course in Florida.

"You can't take it personal, Chuck," the search committee chair told him. "We just felt we needed some new blood, some new ideas to keep up with all the competition coming in."

Dad did take it personal. How else could he have taken it? Half a working lifetime of "yes m'am, no sir, let me get that bag for you, how'd you hit 'em, don't tell me you reached the third in two" and then they passed him by. From what I overheard in the fights with Mom before he split, he saw two choices. Either he could get the hell out and find someplace that could see his potential, or sink into the quagmire of bitterness and pessimism she called home.

From the outside, nothing much had changed since my father's working days. "The Grandpappy of Golf" the sign at the entrance still read. As I opened the trunk, a bag boy ran up and grabbed my clubs. He wore oversize green plaid knickers, a military-style jacket, and a tam-o-shanter, kind of a cross between British colonial dragoon and leprechaun.

"Top o' the mornin', Miss Burdette! Let me get that bag for you!" The green pom-pom on his plaid cap bounced with each step as he trotted to the clubhouse ahead of me.

"You taking a little money on the side hawking Lucky Charms?" my older brother Charlie asked Dad the first time he saw the new uniforms.

"It may look like schlock to you," Dad said, "but it's our edge over the competition."

"Just don't let the NAACP play the tenth hole," Charlie said. That was my favorite spot on the course, where a black guy in a chef's hat and apron served chicken gumbo from a pot hanging over a wood fire next to the tee.

"We may not have the length or challenge of some of the other courses," Dad told Charlie, "but where else does Scarlett O'Hara meet Jack Nicklaus?"

Inside the pro shop, I walked past the black-and-white photograph of the club taken in 1965. Every person on staff posed on the front lawn, along with every piece of course maintenance equipment, including a 1963 Buick station wagon, a '62 Pontiac, and seven hand lawnmowers. The ladies wore Jackie Kennedy pill-box hats on their flip hairdos. My very young father had just been hired. He wore a Butch wax special and a huge grin.

Odell Washington rubbed my back while I waited for the assistant pro to bring me a bucket of golf balls. I leaned into his kneading fingers.

"Feeling okay today, sweetheart?" he asked.

Odell had worked alongside Dad for eighteen of Dad's twenty years. Being black and over fifty, he hadn't been at all surprised to be passed over for promotion when the head pro job came open. Then he ended up with the spot after all when the Florida hot shot absconded with the pro shop till at the end of his first season. Eight months ago, I'd come limping home from caddying on the PGA Tour with a serious case of post-traumatic stress syndrome, related to some rookie's errant drive landing between my eyes. Odell had hired me on the spot and insisted on sponsoring my trip to Q-school.

"Your dad gave me a shot. Now it's my turn with you," he'd said over my protests. "You can't argue with karma, sweetheart."

I gave Odell a quick hug when his assistant arrived with my balls. "Thanks for the massage. You're the best."

I carried the bucket out to the range and spilled the balls onto a patch of grass. I hit a few full wedge shots, then paused to watch the other golfers.

Most were men, middle-aged and paunchy. Their faces were charged with the excitement that comes at the beginning of an amateur's round on an expensive vacation course. I'd seen it every Wednesday, caddying for Mike Callahan during the professional-amateur rounds before the real tournaments began. Most times, that excitement died over the five hours it took to play, killed off by too many balls lost in the marsh, too many putts yanked past the hole, too many approach shots dubbed into sand traps or water hazards or just plain out of bounds.

At the far end of the range, alone, stood a woman. She was different, not just interested in how far her drives bounced by the 200-yard marker. Instead, she studied her target between shots, barely glancing at the trajectory of her balls once she hit them.

"She reminds me of you." I jumped, startled by the emergence of Odell just behind my bag. "Kaitlin Rupert. She was a few years behind you on the high school golf team. Maybe she has more natural talent than you, but I believe you've got the edge in drive." I glanced back down the range. The name sounded familiar, but I didn't recognize the girl.

"Hey, come with me," he said, grabbing my wrist. "Y'all should get acquainted. Y'all have a lot in common." He pulled me down the row of golfers until we stood behind her.

"Kaitlin Rupert, Cassie Burdette." I extended my hand. She laid hers limply in mine.

"Cassie's just come off a stint caddying on the PGA Tour. She looped for Mike Callahan through Q-school and his rookie year," Odell said.

"Interesting," said Kaitlin, turning back to her bag. Not to her, I guess.

"Kaitlin's headed to Q-school next week, too. Maybe you could give her some tips on what she can expect," Odell said to me.

"I've already hired Tom Pinella for a consultation. That's Tiger's coach," Kaitlin said. "So I'm all set. Unless you think you have some tips he won't have thought of." She laughed, picked up a short iron, and resumed hitting pitch shots.

What a bitch.

Odell grabbed the back of my T-shirt and tugged me a couple of stations away. "I know she seems difficult, but she needs someone right now." His voice dropped to a conspiratorial whisper. "She's got family problems that could really get in her way."

Line up and join the damn club.

"You know her father," said Odell. "Peter Rupert. He was the football coach at the high school."

Everyone in Myrtle Beach knew Rupert. He'd been my brother Charlie's idol for the better part of his teenage years, much to Dad's chagrin.

"She needs a shoulder right now," said Odell, "or everything's she's worked for will go down the toilet."

That sounded familiar too. I poked at the hole in my sneaker with the toe of my wedge.

"With your experience taking Mike through Q-school, you'd be a major asset."

Twenty feet from where we stood, I saw Kaitlin run her fingers through her curls. I bet she'd been born that way. Nothing out of a bottle could have produced the same golden shimmer. She took an easy practice swing and held the finish, showcasing long tanned legs and conical breasts with the dark outline of her nipples showing plainly through her shirt.

Barbie Goes to the Driving Range.

Nope, I didn't see how it would be possible to help her out. Matter of fact, I couldn't even be sure I'd give her directions to a gas station if her tank ran dry in a bad neighborhood. Never mind help her make the cut at Q-school.

I followed Odell back to where she stood. "So what do you think," he said, "can you help this young lady out?"

Man, I loved this guy, but he was a bird dog.

"No can do." I turned to face the girl and shrugged. "Sorry. I'm planning to try to qualify myself this year. Coaching you would be a conflict of interest."

"Then maybe y'all could just work together this week, kind of a Q-school support group." Odell looked totally pleased with his brainstorm. "Two hometown girls make good on the Tour. I can read the headline now."

Kaitlin swiveled her head back in my direction then posed gracefully against her leather bag. "You're going to Q-school? I can't recall seeing you on the Futures Tour."

"I didn't do the Futures Tour route. I was working here for Odell."

"You're going to Q-school without any professional competition under your belt?"

"I played in college. And like Odell told you, I've been caddying on the PGA Tour. I know how to get around a golf course."

"It's an entirely different experience when you're the one standing over those putts in this kind of competition. Until you've been through it over and over, six feet might as well be sixty yards."

I shrugged. She was probably right, but the snotty attitude galled me.

"You must have money to burn," she said. "Or maybe you're just out of your mind."

"Neither one," I said. "Just optimistic."

Just another optimistic asshole, I wished I'd had the nerve to say.

I walked back to my bag, hoping I looked confident, not mushy-kneed and queasy, the way I felt inside. I couldn't let myself dwell on the misgivings Kaitlin had stirred up. Or my own burning question, exactly the one she'd raised. Where the hell did I get off thinking I was going to make it on the LPGA Tour with no experience but a few college competitions and a year caddying?

The situation called for action. The kind of action I could get for a few bucks sitting at the bar of the Chili Dip Inn.

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