Who is Tony Shuster and why is he on the cover of your book?

Tony and AlexI have been asked by folks who have seen his generous, hyperbolic quote on the cover of my recently completed novel, Night Lessons: “Who is this Tony Shuster fellow?”

I must confess that Tony’s past is shrouded in mists to me, other than the fact that he has been, and continues to be, a key member of a shady group of golfers who regularly assemble in the dead of night at a public par three golf course in Indio, California to participate in a variant of the “Royal and Ancient” game under the banner of Muni-Madness. Other than that dubious distinction, I can attest that he is otherwise a good judge of literature, a charismatic spirit, and a student of the game and its courses’ architecture. He is a looper, aka a caddie, but not just any caddie. He is a raconteur of sorts laboring beneath a golf bag – although laboring is a misleading word in the case of a fellow who traverses 36 or more holes a day without ever losing good humor or contagious optimism even when his player’s performance often merits nothing of the sort. I am lucky to have enlisted Tony’s enthusiastic support for my book, but even more…to have played a round with him that from my perspective was an extraordinary event.

I once dreamt up a magic sort of fellow – a caddie as a matter of fact – in the very book he plugged for me, but had I met Tony before conjuring up that character, I just might have inserted him into the story instead.

“Magic?” you say. Okay, first a little background: I am a very poor golfer. I possess a futilely explosive swing in which all energy is directed everywhere but the ball. Tony once described my swing as “total commitment” and I must say, it was kind of him to find such an affirmative word. We first played together at Bandon Trails, a fine Crenshaw/Coore design at Bandon Dunes Golf Resort where he loops during the summer months, I think he was mesmerized by the simultaneous viciousness and impotence of my “swing”. Yet unless the roar of air from my lurch at the ball drowned out his snickering, I never heard a note of laughter or a groan of pity at a move that was/is so comically tragic. No, he remained mum. A true professional. Such restraint borders on supernatural, but that is not the magic to which I refer.

I have “played” golf for thirty some years – over a thousand rounds – and in that time I have logged one ace, two eagles, and perhaps a score of birdies. Yeah, that’s twenty. Ouch! You single digit guys can stop laughing. But for what it’s worth (and it’s worth a lot) I do love the game; I’m just…challenged. Do the math: In my case a birdie has come along every six months or so, or so stood the depressing statistic until the day when at Tony’s invitation I met him and his fellow-caddie Alex Simcox at Bandon Dunes.

Having not traveled down to Bandon since way back in the nineties – when it cost only $35 a round for locals, and before David MacLay Kidd’s original dunes had landed in the golfing world’s sights – I was a tad overwhelmed by the present grandeur of the premises. This trip was a lob wedge into the stratosphere above the $24 per round munis I generally play. As I hauled my long-neglected clubs from the car and beat ancient grasses from my soft-spikes, a lump – a manifestation of that inescapable first-tee apprehension – formed in my throat. Perhaps I was out of my league.

I caught up with Tony and Alex at the practice green. Their nonchalance in the face of such a celestial golf environment was unsettling at first. Did they not realize where they worked? They carried themselves like pros, and after watching exactly one of Alex’s practice swings I realized they – he at least – might play like pros as well. Oh boy, I would be attempting to manufacture a golf game under the scrutiny of real players, not my fellow 20-handicappers back in Portland. Maybe I really was in over my head. My pulse quickened. Just before we trekked down a rustic trail to the first tee, Tony came jogging back from the grill-room all smiles. No, he had not had a drink, but he had just met the man himself, Mike Keiser, the visionary singularly responsible for Bandon Dunes’s very existence. Tony was stoked to have made his legendary employer’s acquaintance. My knees started to tremble… I didn’t know magic lay ahead.

I will not bore you with details of the round except for a couple of notable moments. After watching my partners fire astoundingly well-executed drives from the first tee – drives that in the case of Alex resulted in an opening eagle – I skulled a drive into the short reaches of the fairway. My second shot never gained much elevation and appeared to bury itself into the flanks of a dune guarding the green. But the magic of which I speak must have intervened, because as I pushed aside tufts of dune grass in search of my ball, Alex proclaimed that it was up on the green. Impossible! Convinced that in a kind gesture he had tossed a ball up onto the putting surface to spare me humiliation, I checked it out. Incredibly, the ball was mine, and I soon escaped with an improbable par. Some slight-of-hand seemed to be at work. As we headed over to the next tee Tony and Alex’s happy chatter was lost to me in the sound of my tantric breathing. If I could just calm down I might make a game out of it. But then the world started to wobble.

Meniere’s syndrome is a defect of the inner ear that causes severe dizziness and sometimes nausea. Pro golfer, Jason Day is afflicted with the disorder and, if I recall, the affliction had some bearing on Jason’s performance in the third round of the US Open last year at Chamber’s Bay. Walking to the second hole, Meniere laid me low. It is hard to mask one’s frustration at tackling a fantastic course, with two great partners when one’s horizon is pitching like a barge. Enter Mr. Shuster. He distracted me from my trials with facts and fables of Bandon, he produced a Gatorade out of thin air and instructed me in the merits of electrolyte balance and proper hydration, and he demonstrated his amazing backward swing. Lo and behold, I somehow staggered through the front nine with bogies and a couple of pars… reasonable for me on a good day.

Then on the back nine the impossible.

After a poor drive, a good approach and a great putt I walked off a short par four thinking I had made my second par. “No, it was a birdie,” Tony informed me with a genuine grin. I think Tony and Alex were happier than me. In disbelief, I sheepishly returned their fist bumps. A few holes later – a par three – after choosing not to tee the ball, and after reminding myself to hit down which I accomplished at the cost of nearly spraining my wrist, I looked up in mid-grimace to see my ball land on the green within 18 feet of the hole. Not to brag, but it was closer than either of my partners. Funny, the sheepishness had vanished.

Fantastic. A green in regulation is always a victory for me. But the putt was another matter. It had to track directly across a severe slope. Not an easy two-putt… for anybody. Tony, as he recently explained, reads about 70,000 putts a year, and he stepped in to have a look. He never said a word, though. Apparently he deduced from my set-up and my eyes that I had correctly calculated the line that a properly paced putt would have to travel across that fall-line in order to die into the high side of the hole and avoid scurrying endlessly down the slope. But what were the odds of execution?

On the road home that night I stopped for a bite and checked out some of the alarming photos that Tony had posted of me in full-throttle that afternoon. Had the game been a disaster, I might not have found them amusing, and out of sheer humanity I doubt Tony would have shared them. But it had been a good game – a magic round by my reckoning and I was in a magnanimous mood. I laughed at the pics and at myself. Even that absolute terror of a putt across the slope on that par three a couple of hours earlier had fallen resoundingly into the cup for birdie number two. This bird I accepted with a crazy grin without second-thoughts. My wrists may have stung from the sloppy swing, but I returned my pals’ high-fives with gusto.

Two birdies may not be a big deal to some, but on that magical day on Bandon Trails, beneath the spell of golf’s unmatched camaraderie and beguiled by the magic of a scrupulously professional, optimistic caddie… and despite my marginal skills, a rusty game, a serious bout of nerves and uncooperative inner ears, I had bagged two. Walking off that beautiful sandy turf I glowed with satisfaction that I had left nothing on the course. What more can a golfer want?

In a few days I am heading south into the golfing hot-spots of Scottsdale and Palm Springs in hopes of selling a couple of books (you can order one on-line at Amazon or Barnes & Noble) I have been reading Tony’s dispatches regarding Muni-Madness craziness under the lights. From the sound of it, I doubt you can get much farther from Doak and company’s Bandon masterpieces, but I doubt you can have more fun on any course anywhere. Tony is on to something down there, something irresistible. His video posts reveal players with serious skills, but crazy-bad swing or not, I’ll have to jump into the Madness. And perhaps if the magic rears its head again, two-birdie lightning might strike twice.