Putt to Death

Chapter One

My best friend Laura's voice crackled on the cell phone. "Just remember, if anyone tries to tell you who's zooming who, you're not interested."

"Why?" I asked. "Who's zooming who?"

"That's just what I mean." Laura said impatiently. "It's none of your business and you don't want to know. Same goes for the bitch pin."

"You're breaking up," I said, louder now. "I thought you said something about a bitch pin"

"You heard me," Laura repeated. "It's like those wings you get when you fly up from Brownies to Girl Scouts. Only they give these to the women moving from the nine-holers to the group that plays eighteen. Those ladies can be a little tough. They never met a rule they weren't anxious to call you on."

"Jesus. You told me this job was perfect."

"It is perfect. What other employer would give you all the practice time you need plus dispensation to play in any tournaments you're lucky enough to be allowed in? Besides, it got you out of Myrtle Beach-stat."

I couldn't argue with that. Going back to living with Mom and my stepfather Dave in between tournaments had proved to require more tolerance and flexibility than I had in me. I'd heard daily lectures on relinquishing fairy-tales, accepting responsibility, and how I'd never find a man playing with all those lesbians-that last word whispered. None of this had improved my performance in the spring LPGA Tour events.

Then, through her PGA section grapevine, Laura heard about an opening at a posh country club on the Connecticut shoreline. She called me the next day and pressed me to apply. As their "touring pro," I'd give lessons, schmooze with the members about the professional golf circuit, and help out in the pro shop—in emergencies only.

On paper, it was a good match. Their board of directors was trolling for professional window dressing that might beef up the right kind of new applications, and along the way, fill the club coffers with the right kind of cash. The job offered room and board, maximum flexibility, and fabulous practice facilities. Having flailed through a series of missed tournament cuts this spring, I was desperate for practice. Desperate, period.

I veered into the golf club parking lot and maneuvered my station wagon under the shade of a large linden tree. I figured the sun would be blazing and my black upholstery blistering hot by the time I clocked out.

"I'll call you tomorrow with the full report," I told Laura.

I rolled out of the Volvo and looked around at Stony Creek Country Club. Every blade of grass appeared cut to the same height, and each dyed a uniform deep green. The clubhouse was a postcard-perfect Cape Cod, down to its white latticework draped with antique climbing roses on the sunny side of the building. Off in the distance, I could see whitecaps glinting on Long Island Sound-the only part of the landscape that couldn't be micro-managed by a fussy membership. An enormous American flag flapped at half-mast.

This job had not been in my five-year plan. But on the other hand, neither had anything that happened over the past year, my debut season on the Ladies' Professional Golf Tour. Every rookie knew that remaining exempt from the brutal Monday qualifying tournaments was the only route to a stress-free existence on the Tour. But I'd survived only five tournament cuts, not earning enough money to cover expenses or keep my exempt status.
I struggled to put my finger on exactly what was wrong. Drives? Fairway woods? Approach shots? Putts? The problems came and went with infuriating unpredictability. Hard not to conclude that the biggest problem was in my head. To top the whole mess off, the golf bag company that had sponsored my first year backed out, murmuring a barrage of regrets, but leaving no wiggle room for contract renegotiation.

"Let's see how this next year goes," said the sales rep. "We'll all be rooting for you. Sometimes it takes a couple years to settle in." Then he repossessed my Birdie Girl bag. Rock damn bottom.

I swung open the multi-paned front door and stepped into a cool lobby perfumed by an enormous bunch of white lilies in a glass vase. Grouped around the coffee table were several overstuffed, brown leather couches. You could sink into one of those babies after a round of golf and a couple of pops at the nineteenth hole and maybe still be there the next morning. Ignoring the siren call of the upholstery, I turned left, as directed by a carved wooden sign, and started down the hallway to the pro shop.

I paused just outside the door and sucked in a deep breath. A tall, ink-haired woman conferred with the man behind the counter. The woman looked to be in her mid-fifties, but she had the kind of Mediterranean skin that would age slowly, even with a lot of hours logged out in the sun. Assuming she was a golfer, a fairly safe assumption here, some teaching pro would have had to address the issue of how to swing the club around those impressive units. One of my buddies in Myrtle Beach suggested we pros refer to them as units, rather than knockers, boobs, or even breasts. This term, he claimed, would inject a disinterested professionalism into an otherwise delicate aspect of the lesson.

Both the man and the woman looked up when I pushed the door open.

"I'm Cassie Burdette?" My voice trailed off uncertainly.

"Ah, our new touring pro," said the man, his teeth gleaming straight and white against his deep tan. He came around the counter with his hand outstretched. "Scott Mallory. Welcome to Stony Creek Country Club, where all the balls fly straight and long."

"Aren't you going to tell her all our putts drop in the hole too?" the woman asked, laughing.

I gripped Scott's hand and smiled. His greeting was friendly enough, but somehow I felt a slight current of antagonism in his emphasis on the words touring pro. Laura would have said I was a paranoid head case: I should give the guy a chance and not project my own issues. I'd tell her to lighten up and leave the psychobabble to our psychologist friend Joe Lancaster. He got paid a hundred and fifty dollars an hour to spout horseshit.

"This is Elizabeth Weigel, the president of our ladies' group," Scott added, resting his hand briefly on the woman's shoulder. "Meet Cassandra Burdette."

"We're all so excited to have you," said Elizabeth, the skin around her eyes crinkling as she smiled. "The ladies' group can't wait for your clinics."

"Thanks. Glad to be here, too." Demonstration clinics were part of my deal, and I didn't mind giving them. In fact, I enjoyed showing off my techniques and telling stories from my short stint on the Tour. The problem lay in managing the audience expectations-no way in hell could one group lesson cure some poor hacker's slice.

Elizabeth's eyebrows drew together in a frown. "I just wanted to give you a heads-up on what I'll be presenting to the board," she said to Mallory. "We can finish this later. I'm sure you need to show Cassandra around. Even if you don't think they'll go for it, I feel it's the right thing to do. If we have to railroad those boneheads into the twenty-first century, I'm happy to ride in the engine."

Scott grinned again and patted her back. Elizabeth gathered her papers off the counter and left the pro shop.

"So, welcome to Stony Creek," Scott repeated. "Things a little rough out there in the world?"

"They're going okay." I attempted a chipper smile. "I've always been a slow learner and tournament play is certainly no exception. Were you ever out on tour?" Laura had warned me the guy was a little touchy about washing out of qualifying school five times before he finally gave up on the PGA Tour, but I couldn't resist needling back.

"Nah. The putting killed me." His glance slid to his watch. "I'll show you the ropes. I hope you were kidding about the slow learner bit. We have a lot to go over and I have to split later this afternoon. I'll take you to your digs first. Let me grab Richie, so he can cover things here."

He called the assistant pro up from the office, and we walked out the back door of the shop and past the cart storage area. Scott introduced me to the bag boys emptying trash and polishing the carts, as well as four older men who stood arguing as they added up their scores. He reeled off their names.

"They play together every Tuesday and Saturday morning, unless there's too much snow on the course to find a ball," Scott said under his breath as we walked off. "And it's the same damn stupid argument every time. They all agree to a match on the first tee. The bitching starts by the seventh hole-somehow the teams are unfair and someone's getting cheated. By the eighteenth, they're almost to fisticuffs. And that's nothing compared to how they treat a slow foursome with the bad judgment to get in front of them. The golf bullies, we call them."

"What a game," I said, trying to commit the names to memory. My mentor Odell Washington always told me that ninety percent of the success of a club pro was public relations. When it came to the ladies, a market Scott Mallory probably had cornered, it didn't hurt to be handsome either. There was nothing I could do about that.

Scott led me past two Dumpsters and up a set of stairs at the back of the building. The smell of bacon frying in the kitchen followed us up to the second floor. The administration sure hadn't frittered away frivolous dollars on the staff quarters.

"You can take any meals you like in the restaurant at half price, just sign the tab," Scott explained. "This could be your best perk. The food's damn decent. You'll be sharing this place with Megan Donovan. She's the greenskeeper's assistant."

"We're sharing a room?" I was trying hard to keep my positive attitude working, but sleeping with someone I didn't know and had zero interest in getting intimate with? Tendrils of negativity crept in.

Scott laughed. "Don't panic-it's a suite. Anyway, she's a nice enough kid. The guys give her a rough time, but she works hard and maybe she'll make it. Not here, though," he added quickly.

"No female superintendents for Stony Creek?"

He winked. "A place for every woman and every woman in her place."

I hoped he was joking, but you never know. Private country clubs aren't famous for leading the charge towards anyone's rights-women, gays, people of color… The tradition has always been the club as a refuge from the refuse. Not to mention nagging wives. Laura had assured me this place wasn't an outlier on the bell curve, and I remembered promising myself to keep my opinions to myself.

Scott pushed the door to my suite open. "By the way, I need you to attend the board of directors meeting tonight. Rich and I are committed to the Connecticut PGA Section dinner. Second floor of the clubhouse, seven PM. You should be out of there by eight, eight-thirty tops." He looked at me and laughed. "You have that panicked-deer-in-the-headlights expression again."

"I don't know a thing about anything at this club," I protested. "I wouldn't have a clue what to say."

"Don't worry. They don't want to hear too much from us anyway. And they'll be happy to get the jump on meeting you." Scott held his hand out. "Give me your car keys. I'll have one of the kids bring your bags up. Meet you back down in the pro shop once you've settled in a bit. I need to fill you in about the ladies' member-guest tournament tomorrow. Your opening scene." He winked again and trotted back down the stairwell.

I rolled my neck in one wide, slow circle, hearing the crackles of tension that had built up over the course of the short morning. Positive attitude, I reminded myself, as I had a look around my quarters.

Off the sitting area were two small bedrooms and a bath. The first room was furnished with identical twin beds covered with white matelasse spreads imprinted with what appeared to be the country club seal. So maybe the help did get vestiges of the royal treatment. Neat piles of clothing were stacked on one of the beds. I moved across the room and picked up a photograph displayed on the bureau. A redhead with a serious case of freckles and biceps sat in a golf cart, her arm around an enormous and alert German shepherd. Both wore red bandanas around their necks.

"That's Wolfie," said a voice from the doorway. "Don't worry, he sleeps at the shop. And this is my room. Yours is the next one over."

"I-I'm sorry," I stammered. "I wasn't thinking…"

"Never mind." The woman's voice was gruff. "I just stopped by to introduce myself."

She thrust her hand at me so firmly I flinched. Looked more like she'd stopped by to defend her turf.

"Megan Donovan. I cleared my stuff out of the bureau in your room." She gestured to the piles on the second bed. "So it's all yours. We won't see much of each other. I'm up at five, in bed by nine. Appreciate it if you keep your night life quiet."

"Of course," I said.

Megan appeared even less thrilled to share rooms than I was.

She leaned against the wall and crossed her arms. "I'm surprised the club hired a woman pro."

I didn't know what to say to that. "Oh?" I tried.

"This place has barely crawled out of the dark ages. You'll see."

"I'm no Martha Burk," I said. "This is just a job for me."

She jutted out her chin. "You may have take some stands around here."

"I'm not planning to stay long enough to get involved," I said. "It's short-term for me."

"I see. I hope you're not one of those women who climb on the backs of the rest of us to get where they're going, and can't be bothered to reach back and offer a hand." She scratched her head and grimaced. "Gotta get back to work. See you around."

Jesus. Who shoved the corncob up that girl's butt?

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