Death in a Green Jacket

The new Hacker mystery by James Y. Bartlett Coming to bookstores April 2007

Green Jacket cover

George Carruthers III, a distinguished banker from Atlanta, was the one who first noticed the foul smell. Carruthers, a high-handicap golfer and longtime member of the Augusta National Golf Club, had managed to hit his golf ball into the large, sweeping bunker that sits some 50 yards in front of the 10th green at the National. That in itself was an accomplishment, though of dubious distinction. That big sweeping bunker is almost never in play during the Masters tournament. When the course was first built in 1932, the bunker had been situated next to what was then the first green. But a few years later, after the nines were reversed, part of the never-ending fiddling that goes on at Augusta National, the green was repositioned up the hill and a bit off to the left.

But they left that big, sprawling bunker right where it was. With its big, upsweeping face, the bunker partially hides the fairway that sweeps uphill to the green, and from some parts of the fairway it looks like it’s protecting the front edge. But it’s all camouflage, which was what the architect of Augusta National, Dr. Alister Mackenzie, had learned about while serving in the British Army during World War I.

Hackers like George Carruthers III do not play the same game as the professionals who visit Augusta every April. He had popped his tee shot high in the air, so it stopped halfway down the great slope of the steep hill that drops away from the clubhouse. Trying to make up his lost distance, despite the unfriendly hanging lie on the side of the hill, Carruthers then tried a fairway wood, which he topped dreadfully, sending it skittering along the fairway until it chased into Dr. Mackenzie’s bunker. Had this been the Masters, the TV announcer might have fallen out of his booth in amazement—no one ever hit a ball into that bunker. But this wasn’t the Masters, there were no announcers, and the members of the hallowed old club are all too familiar with that bunker.

Carruthers cursed, grabbed a nine-iron and sent his caddie on ahead to the green while he climbed down into the bright white sand, littered with bits of pine straw that dropped from the surrounding canyon of loblolly pines. He was thinking that if he could somehow manage to knock his ball up on the green, he had half a chance to make bogey. For golfers like George Carruthers III, bogey is always something to celebrate at Augusta National.

But as he entered the expanse of sand, he immediately noticed the smell. It was the smell of death. Sickly sweet, the odor of decay, it announced that something was dead and decomposing in the warm Georgia sun. Nose wrinkling with distaste, the fastidiously groomed Atlanta banker looked around for the tracks of an animal he was certain had died somewhere in the vicinity of his golf ball. But the bunker was empty, immaculately swept, the sand virtually undisturbed. Around the edges of the bunker, the grass had been neatly trimmed and carefully edged, as if Carruthers’ own barber, whose shop he visited in the basement of the Candler Building once every two weeks, had gone around the entire bunker with his clippers, combing and trimming so that every blade of grass was in its prescribed place.

Shrugging, Carruthers stepped up to his ball, swung, and bladed it neatly over the green and down the grassy bank beyond. When he trudged up to the green, his playing partners chided him humorously. He could only shake his head.

“Phew,” he said. “Something is dead down there. How can I play a tough shot with that smell?”

“The only thing that stinks around here,” said one of the wags in his foursome, “Is your golf swing.”

Carruthers and company played on, and, as they chopped their way around the rest of Augusta National’s fabled back nine, the incident was soon forgotten. Several hours later, as Carruthers and his friends sat in the members’ lounge, enjoying a cold beer, Augusta’s head golf professional, Martin Tynsdale, walked by and asked the gentlemen how their round had fared.

“We stunk the place up,” said one, looking at the scorecard in disgust.

“That reminds me, Marty,” Carruthers piped up. “I smelled something dead in the front bunker on 10. You might have one of the fellows check it out. Most unpleasant.”

“Yes, sir, Mr. Carruthers,” Tynsdale said. “We’ll get right on that. Was that the bunker to the right of the green?”

The table laughed, all except Carruthers. “No, Marty,” he said, his face turning red. “The front one. Down the fairway.”

Tynsdale smiled knowingly and gave George Carruthers III a friendly squeeze of the shoulder. “Thanks,” he said, “I’ll have someone go down and look around.”

It was an hour before sunrise the next morning when Bill Beckham, the course superintendent, motioned to Chas Johnson. Johnson was getting ready to drive out onto the course to mow the greens on the back side. He and two other workers had already been up for an hour, mowing the front side greens in the chill darkness with the bright headlamps as their guide.

“Chas,” Beckham said. “Marty called yesterday afternoon and said one of the members complained about something dead and smelly down in the front bunker at 10. Check it out, will you? Must be a squirrel or something that a hawk left behind. And check all around the area—smells are funny. They can drift in from anywhere.”

“Yessah,” Johnson said, getting up into the seat of his triplex mower. It was the newest model and it looked as clean and shiny as they day it had rolled out of the factory. Nothing at Augusta National ever looked worn or used. What Johnson didn’t say, but was thinking, was “Goddam members prolly think their own shit smells better than anyone else.”

Johnson had to drive a circuitous passage down to the tenth green—machinery was to be kept off the fairways at all times. There were secret pathways and openings through the woods that the grounds crew knew to use, so it took Chas several minutes before he pulled up next to the green. Dismounting, he walked back the 50 yards or so to the Mackenzie bunker, its yawning expanse glimmering the in the dawn light.

He smelled it, too. It was obvious, overpowering. Chas Johnson, who had served with the Marines in Viet Nam, was familiar with the smell of death. Something near this bunker was very, very dead. Pulling his jacket collar around in front of his nose and mouth to filter out the nauseating stench, Johnson walked around the perimeter of the bunker, looking for something out of place. There was a set of animal tracks in the soft white sand, but he could see where the critter had entered, dug a little, and where it had left. Nothing else seemed out of place. He walked back up to the green, and examined the bunker to the right, the place where pros often bailed out on Sunday afternoon to avoid the certain bogey of a pulled shot down the bank to the left. The odor of death lingered here, too, but again, nothing seemed out of place.

Johnson walked back down the hill to the high lip at the upsweep of the bunker. He stared at the sand with the practiced eyes of someone who had worked on this golf course for nearly 30 years.

There! To the right, where a finger of green turf probed into the white sand, providing both a curvilinear design on the bunker’s edge and a place for golfers to enter and exit the sand. Just where the green finger ended, Chas Johnson thought that the surface of the sand looked slightly concave, slightly bulged. Not perfect, and therefore not normal.

Looking around, he found a bunker rake and walked around and back down into the sand. To his practiced feet, the sand felt slightly harder than it should. He took the rake and began gently digging into the white silica. The sand, which should have been silky and loose, seemed hard and packed. Something wasn’t right. He kept digging and moving sand back with the rake.

Suddenly, one of the tines caught on something. Chas Johnson pulled. The rake was caught. He pulled harder. Slowly, whatever his rake had snagged out began to pull free from the sand. Then it came up out of the sand and into sight.

Chas Johnson stared with wordless horror as he pulled a human arm out of the sand. The rake had caught beneath the band of a wristwatch. The arm, grey and green in the dawn light, was still connected to a torso buried deeper in the sand. But Chas Johnson wanted nothing more to do with his grisly job. He dropped the rake, ran back to the green, jumped into his mower and, ignoring all the rules about keeping off the fairway, blasted back up the hill towards the clubhouse as fast as his mower could go.

The fingers of the hand, which had fallen back onto the sand, next to the rake that Chas dropped, pointed towards the green.