Auto Caddy

After 30 years away from the game, golf beckons me with new technology

From our rental here on Sanibel Island, Florida, I have enjoyed looking out from our lanai at the second hole of the Dunes Golf & Tennis Club. The water hazard has a well-behaved alligator in it, and the golfers—most of them of an advanced age, as am I—appear to be having a great time.

I last played golf nearly 30 years ago in Wyoming. It was fun. I took enough lessons from the pro at Casper’s Paradise Valley Country Club to navigate the course with a tolerable number of whiffs, slices, three-putts, lost balls, and expletives.

But at 70 was I really ready to take up the sport again? I wasn’t sure. What if it wasn’t like riding a bicycle?

One afternoon I saw a guy walking toward the second hole followed by a robot carrying the golf bag. It wasn’t an android with blinking lights, but the way the cart rolled along about seven feet behind its master suggested R2-DT in knickers. That did it. The next day I signed up for a lesson with Mike Dopslaff, head golf pro at The Dunes.

After four lessons and 12 visits to the club driving range, which is actually a pond into which you whack floaters, I asked Mike if he thought I was ready for a round of golf. I knew the front nine would take me past our house. I also knew I would rent a robot caddy instead of a ridable cart.

“Sure,” Mike said. He agreed with my suggestion that a tee time at the end of the day might be a good idea.

So on Friday I rode my bicycle down Sand Castle Road to the club and paid for the greens fee and a bag of rental clubs. When Erik, the guy at the counter, asked if I wanted a cart I said no, I wanted the auto caddy.

“Really?” Erik said. “Ok. Here’s the controller for the only one that works.”

He handed me an electronic transmitter with an on-off switch and a belt hook. At the golf barn, the helper put my Callahan clubs on a cart. I had to ask him to move them to the robot. “Really?” he asked. By this time I was getting nervous.

At the first tee, I suggested that a threesome of guys go ahead of me, and then a mother-son twosome. I wanted to be the last player on the course, even though it was approaching 5 p.m.

I named my assistant Robo and practiced leading him around the path between the course and the clubhouse. I discovered that I needed to stand directly in front of him, with my back and the sensor facing him, before he would release his brake with a click and begin following me if I moved forward. When I stopped, Robo stopped.

I ceased keeping score after a 10 on the fourth hole. I started out with six balls, each with the Dunes logo on it, and I found an extra one in someone’s yard next to the third hole. By dark, I’d lost five balls in the water and the rough. My right knee began acting up. Every time I set up and looked down a fairway, I knew the chances of my shot landing on grass were no better than 50-50.

But oh what fun I had with that robot! I began talking to him, sharing my frustration and asking for advice. “Whaddya think, Robo? A seven iron from here?”

As I approached the second tee, I called Darlene on my iPhone. She came out of our yard to video Robo and me. My favorite part of the clip is her laughter. And I love how my auto caddy and I look against the sparkling water of the alligator pond. We look like we’re having a great time.

Tomorrow I have a free lesson scheduled with Mike, a perk of purchasing four lessons at the full price. Mike has been a great teacher, one who watches in silence as much as he offers suggestions on how to improve my swing. I will probably thank him for re-introducing me to the game and then call it quits.

I’ll miss Robo. Maybe when I’m 80 technology will have created a club that swings itself. That’s what Mike has been trying to teach me—how natural a golf swing is meant to be.

You let the club do the thinking and then follow the ball down the course—like a robot.

Maybe I’ll try it one more time.