A win in Mexico, a crazy car accident and a dream job at home wrap up the 1970s for Steve Hulka
EDITOR’S NOTE: Periodically, veteran caddie Steve Hulka will be filing stories for The Caddie Network about his life on the road as a PGA Tour looper, which dates back to the 1970s. Hulka’s stories are a great picture into what things were like then and how much they’ve changed in the present day… and he’s been there for all of it. This is his fourth installment.
It’s been quite awhile since I last wrote about the early years of my Tour caddying career.
I believe I last spoke to you about the end of 1977, when I was called back to caddie the Mixed Team Championship in Florida by my longtime boss (and future Hall of Famer) David Graham. Trust me when I say this current offseason was quite busy in my family, when on October 3, my grandson — Crew Tyler — was the third son born to my daughter Mallory, son-in-law Ryan and his two big brothers Camden (6) and Tate (3); then on November 2, we witnessed our son, Ben, marry his beautiful bride, Heidi, in Scottsdale near our Phoenix home. And last, but not least, on December 6, our first granddaughter Alayne Jolie came into the world for my daughter, Aubrey, and son-in-law, Drew.
Mix in Thanksgiving, Christmas and caddying a week for Paul Stankowski in Champions Tour Q-School Finals to that whirlwind three months and you have my built-in excuse for this installment incurring a four-stroke penalty for delay of game… just don’t disqualify me! Shoot, I had barely enough days for a round of golf on my own. So let’s pick it up where we left off last century and barrel over the falls through the late ‘70s into another decade.
Our partner that year was Raymond Floyd’s sister, Marlene, and the tournament was the forerunner of what years later became the JC Penney Mixed Team Classic. We didn’t contend, I remember, but what struck me as I watched women professionals compete for the very first time was how accurate the girls were off the tee and though Marlene’s 8-iron distance was 120 yards, she knew her yardages well and could really chip and putt.
I drove down to Tampa and back in the paid-up Mercury Comet of course, but the miles were starting to catch up on my little compact car, so having to think about new wheels became somewhat of an issue. After all, I was still living off the money I made last week; taking on a car payment was not in the books. Still, David and I discussed getting back together full-time again to start the ‘78 season, and though I was torn between staying home, helping my mom, Doris, and stepdad build custom homes and playing amateur golf, I found the lure of returning to the Tour and escaping another Chicago winter too enticing to pass up. Besides that, DG was welcoming me back, and I took that as a vote of confidence. The long lonesome highway again won out over work boots, jeans, sweatshirts and a hammer in my tool belt. I remember my rock music of choice that year was Boston’s debut album. I bought the 8track for my car stereo. “It’s been such a long time…”
The west coast commenced same as always, palm trees adorning the glitz and glamor of the celebrity events, and my caddie buddies were all still at it: Bruce Edwards, Grits, Disco Dennis, Boats, Pistol Pete, The Mex, Jarvo, Shemp, Rosebud, FryBurger, Hymer, Gorjus George, Growler, Big Mitch, Smitty, Killer Sam, Gumshoe, Golf Ball. Seems hilarious to me now, but the caddie nicknames were all how we knew each other back then — not so much these days, Rick So Serious (yes, there was a caddie that went by that moniker).
While I was away, these guys were racking up win after win with their players, cashing in on those whopping salaries of $200/week and still 5 percent of the players’ then meager earnings. David and I had our two wins from the ‘76 season, and though he kept himself busy designing MacGregor clubs with Jack Nicklaus, he was ready from the git-go to compete and try to add to his three-win total on the PGA Tour.
Once we headed east across Caddie Highway and Bermuda grass again, David was right back in his Florida element. I was fired up for a month in the Sunshine State knowing that DG usually ramped up his game. It helped that he, Maureen and their two boys where able to stay home and commute to Ft. Lauderdale and Doral, plus practice in the privacy of his home club, taking a page out of the Bear’s book.
I had vivid memories of a year prior at Doral that saw us coming down the Blue Monster’s famous par-4 18th hole one shot back of Andy Bean who was playing in the last group behind us. My man absolutely ripped his tee shot over the finger of the lake that stuck out into the left side of the fairway, and his lie in the rough was decent enough to get a 3-iron on it. The pin was over the lake in its customary back-left position for the final day and David, thinking nothing but birdie, hit a fearless rope right at the flag, but with no spin to hold it, it released to the back rough about 30 feet from the hole. Still feeling like a birdie-3 would force Andy to make a tough par to tie us, DG’s aggressive chip rolled out about 7 feet by… and he missed the par putt coming back.
Now up by two, Beaner, knowing a bogey-5 would do it, purposely laid up his second shot and proceeded to chunk his third on the front of the green! Facing a two-putt of at least 75 feet to win by one, danged if AB didn’t cozy his first putt up there to gimme range and tap in for the win. How do I know? Shoot, I stuck around to see him do it, and so did David. That’s just what players and caddies did back then: either witness your win, head for a playoff, or go home a bridesmaid, but at least stare down the man who wanted to beat you.
Most of the Spring and Summer of that year was a blur of the same towns and tournaments, but the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills was significant in that my buddy Gary “Grits” Crandall came away a winner in only the third U.S. Open that allowed us Tour caddies to work. Remember I told you about the first one in Atlanta in ‘76 with Jerry Pate’s 5-iron that his caddie John Considine put in his hand? Well, similar to Doral, this Andy — Andy North — who I set Grits up with the bag years before, came to the tough par-4 18th on Sunday with a two-shot lead over J.C. Snead and Dave Stockton, who were already in the house.
Andy pulled his second shot left of the green, and — horror of horrors — dumped his pitch shot from the rough into a greenside bunker. Rather than be rattled, he turned to Crandall and said the line that became famous, “Well, Grits, this is just points for my bunker game,” as he put it up there 4 feet from the hole and made it for the major win. I sat with Gary for the Awards Presentation after the tournament was over, and I was really proud of my friends’ accomplishment… little did I know at the time I would work for Andy two years after Grits found the love of his life and settled in Texas. More about that down the road…
David and I didn’t win on American soil that year, but the year was a comfy one as he retained top-60 status going into 1979. Still without college sweetheart Laurel — who dumped me two years prior — I was briefly engaged to a girl from North Canton, Ohio, who I had met at Firestone the previous year. But she wanted me off the Tour life and to move to Ohio because her father had a job waiting for me… hanging drapes for a living! Not hanging ropes with a 1-iron, not hanging 10 on a surfboard, not hanging around the office water cooler… hanging frickin’ drapes! Needless to say, I did not marry that girl. I ran so fast the hounds couldn’t catch me, down the Mississippi to the…
Capital of Mexico! DG was invited to play in the Mexico Cup in the fall of that year in Mexico City, all 23 million people strong 40+ years ago. You could really smell the smog there back then, and I’m sure they still require this of their commuters: you had a colored sticker on your car’s rear window that declared one day a work week where you could NOT drive your car — a forced carpool, if you will (take note, major US cities). This national tournament offered a first prize of $40,000 back then, which by Tour standards was pretty decent (that was first prize in 1976 when DG won in Akron).
My man played solid all week, and coming down Club de Golf Chapultepec’s 18th on Sunday, we were tied with Don January for the lead. David parred the 18th and this time we stood aside to watch the tall, slender Texan play the last hole in the group behind us — and three-putt for bogey. I mean, the last hole was a drive and a wedge, and January was hotter than Memphis in June when he walked off that green, I mean really hot since he lost to a “foreigner” as Internationals were referred to back then.
Hey Don, we were in MEXICO, doesn’t that make all of us foreigners, too? I believe David made it up to him down the road when he left South Florida and moved Maureen and the boys to Dallas and would tell people, “I’m Australian by birth, but Texan by choice!” Eighteen years later, we would compete again with Don on the Senior PGA Tour, and he couldn’t be a more outstanding gentleman. If any of us could swing the club back as fast and as far back as he did we’d all be in traction, no lie.
But something happened in the month leading up to that win that I will never forget. Remember I said the Comet was showing signs of wear from five years of 40,000 miles per? Well, what transpired on a late summer drive from San Antonio to Orlando can be headlined “minor miracle” — another God Thing if you will…
There was this stretch of I-10 in Pascagoula, Mississippi, that wasn’t finished and you had to divert further south along what is now Route 90, the Gulfport Highway. I was driving very late at night and Mike “Shemp” Boyce, who back then worked for Roger Maltbie, was asleep in the passenger seat. There was virtually no traffic at that wee hour, and I remember this Volkswagen Beetle bug, with no taillights, go roaring by us in the left lane. Not a mile or two later (sorry, I smoked back then, didn’t everybody?…cigarettes!) I went to flick my ash in the center dash ashtray — left hand across the steering wheel for this southpaw — and when my eyes returned to the dark road there was this VW right in front of me, dead stopped! I had no time to brake, so I whipped the wheel to the right, my left, front bumper coming into contact with his back, right taillight, and at that point we might as well have been Evel Knievel jumping over the Grand Canyon.
Think about the design of those old beetle bugs: the back end was a ski jump. Shemp woke up to his head smashing the windshield (of course no seatbelts) as the Comet went totally airborne in classic Dukes of Hazzard fashion, coming down hard on an embankment and spewing grass and mud all over the hood, windshield, roof, everywhere… I managed to keep the car upright and we skidded to a stop in a ditch maybe 50 yards past impact. We somehow got the Comet back up on the shoulder, and when we got a towel out of the trunk for Shemp’s bleeding head, we inspected the damage. My front bumper was turned up a bit from the impact, but what took the brunt of the landing were my two front wheels. Both of them were flayed out like an old, dirt-track stock car and, to make matters worse, my power steering was out.
Miraculously, I was able to get back up on the shoulder, and by the time we got back to the VW and the young kid who was driving it, a squad car had pulled up and the officer was checking to see if he was all right. His driver’s side door was open and there were beer cans strewn all over the floor mats. The boy admitted his motor died and he was trying to clutch-pop it to try and restart it while he was coasting. The officer asked if we were OK and then after a few more questions, surprisingly said, “If you boys can drive your car why don’t you get on your way and I’ll make sure this boy gets home.”
Wow, that’s it? Must’ve been the chief’s son or something… I guess Pascagoula’s one of those towns where everybody knows everybody. No ticket, no report, nothing. But here’s the kicker: I wore the inside of those two, front tires all the way down to the cord and got that Mercury all the way to Orlando driving less than 50 mph, drafting 18-wheelers on the Interstate. I called my insurance company and found a repair shop to get me back up and running for $900, and the insurance bought my (true!) story and covered it; shoot, I didn’t have it, and I sure didn’t feel like calling home to borrow it. And here’s the real God Thing to this amazing episode: had this accident happened less than three miles down that road, Mike’s and my exit strategy would’ve put us through a chain-linked border fence on the right shoulder directly into the Gulf of Mexico. Just chalk that one up to the Interstate Angels lookin’ after Shemp and me…
Once we got home from our Mexico win, David took me back to his Ford dealer buddy in Hollywood and we traded in the ol’ green Comet for a 1978 white Ford Econoline van with 10,000 miles on it, louvered windows in the back doors, shag carpeting, mag wheels, aftermarket stereo and a built-in bed in the back. I mean, this ride was totally tricked out. Yeah man, I was back in my element, driving another hippie van! And who surprised me most? David, when he told me thanks for coming back to work for him, great way to end the year, this one’s paid for. Wow! My boss was one of the most generous people I have ever met in my life, and like Bruce would say about Tom Watson, “the big brother I never had.”
Heading for the holidays for the seventh straight year, things were becoming clearer to me about my golf future. Or were they? I was committed to David to return for the start of the ‘79 season, but I still couldn’t wrap my head around moving about the country/world for 10/11 months a year. I had this quiet yearning to settle down, meet Mrs. Right and start a family and get serious about life, yet I hadn’t met that girl yet, and I was still living week-to-week dictated by what was left in my wallet. I was reminded of that little prayer I said as a kid when the nightmares were so bad: “Lord, please take them away.” And He did. And again when the big, black wasp stung me in the chest and my bloodstream was infected so bad I should’ve died. I prayed to live. And He let me. Maybe it was time to ask Him about finding the woman with whom I would spend the rest of my life…
So, as my thoughts were on another successful year for David and me, I embarked on another year on the PGA Tour, but this time with reservations. Things began to pull into perspective. Here I was, a 26 year-old college dropout with no money, yet I managed to get around the world watching the best players in the world do what they love and get paid for it. I had back-burnered my dream of doing the same years prior, but David’s striving for perfection taught me I could do the same on my side of the bag and help him achieve success, even if the pass/fail system of pro golf affected us both… and he was the one hitting the shots! Another west coast swing in the winter, but this time he and I had what I labeled the Ultimate Letdown, and it just so happened to involve one of my best friends on Tour and his player I admired the most other than my own boss: Bruce Edwards and Tom Watson.
Let me set the stage: final round of the Crosby Clambake (the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am for you youngsters). Paired at 4-under par with Tom and Bruce about an hour plus from the leaders, it didn’t take long for DG and TW to assert themselves right away. Trading birdies right out of the gate, Tom went out in 30 and David in 32 to stand on the 10th tee 10 under and 8 under, respectively, and sitting one/two on the leaderboard when the leaders behind us faltered.
I mean, it was a typical February day on the Monterey Peninsula: chilly, sweater weather with the wind whipping off the Pacific. When David birdied No. 10 to a Watson bogey, we were tied going up No. 11. Then came the par-3 12th and, with the honor and a 3-iron in his hand, David airmailed the green (similar to that rocket he hit at Doral); must’ve been one of those hot MacGregor balls, certainly not a player/caddie mis-club!
Tom put it 40 feet, safely to the right of the hole. David then did what great Tour players do. He hit his pitch to about 2 feet and marked his ball. Of course, you can guess what transpired next: Tom rolls in his bomb for a two, and Pebble poa annua greens being what they be, DG missed the par putt to hand Watson back his two-shot lead with six holes left. He and Bruce went on to beat Ben Crenshaw in a playoff to successfully defend their Crosby title, while David and I left the peninsula with yet another top 10, disappointed though we were…
So, another west coast flew by, but one thing I found interesting with the new wheels was I could go back to staying on my own and basically live in the van, finding Gold’s Gyms along the way and trade a tournament guest badge or $20 for a week’s worth of workouts and showers. It was akin to those early days with the Dodge camper van when I really had little money to go on. More of my salary and percentage money was staying with me, and as I drove across country yet again, I was hoping David and I would get his next Tour win that had been eluding us for over 2 1/2 years. But the “Week That Changed It All” came to pass in April in Tallahassee, Florida, during an opposite-field event at Killearn G&CC outside of the state capital.
All the winners from the previous year were back across on the other coast playing at the La Costa Resort in Carlsbad, north of San Diego. The rest of us opted to be at this smaller event, and after a late tee time on Thursday, David and I did what we always did: head to the range for him to work on a few things post-round; OK, let me be truthful, we banged out about four buckets of balls. It was close to dusk when he put the last ball in the air, and we were the last ones on the range. Trudging up the long hill back to the clubhouse, we came to find out everyone in the clubhouse had gone home. The bag room, locker room, pro shop, everything was locked up.
“That’s OK, David, I’ll just take the clubs home with me and see you for our 7:20 in the morning.”
Now Killearn was a half-hour drive on the outskirts of Tallahassee, and after a quick dinner I headed back there to park in the parking lot of a Mom ‘n Pop place that had small cabins a lot of the boys had rented for the week, and I was trading rides to the course for showers as I recall.
Also doing the same thing was our former caddie brother “Gorjus” George Lucas, who by then was making a decent living with his very successful yardage-book idea he created back in 1975. Many a week when he was pulling double-duty, I would go out Monday and Tuesday and help him gather the specific numbers he would use for that week’s info. A talented player himself, George drove the Tour in his “boat” of a Lincoln Continental towing a classic AirStream trailer which was not only his bed and kitchen but his office from which he constructed his weekly little $5 books that everyone bought (if they were smart). I parked next to him that night, and he was sitting outside the AirStream with a glass of Cabernet in his hand.
“Hey Hulk, how bout a game of gin?”
“Maybe for a little bit, Gorjus, I got an early one tomorrow.”
Well, that decision was the Kiss of Death.
A “little bit” turned into an all-nighter of wine and cards, and I as much as I can remember, I turned in for a quick nap as the night rolled into the wee hours. Of course, you can guess what happened. I whiffed an alarm clock and woke up in my van about the same time David was expecting to have warmed up and head to the putting green. Grabbing clothes to change into and throw in the front seat, I’m frantic now as I head out on the highway NOT looking for adventure, Steppenwolf, but what was my excuse to the boss going to be for why I was so late? And I had the clubs! I drove like the madman, stock-car driver I always dreamed I’d be, passing cars on the right shoulder if I couldn’t pass on the left, probably topping 90 mph on I-10. When I got to the caddie parking lot I knew I was in trouble, for my watch said it was just after 7:20 and David was suppose to hit third in a group that included Gary Koch and Bob Wynn (a former player of mine).
I found out later two things as a tournament official was waiting for me and drove the clubs and us in his cart to the tee: 1.) the head pro at the club offered to lend David his clubs to tee off but DG refused, saying, “I don’t give a damn about my caddie but I will NOT play this round without my golf clubs,” And 2.) Bob Wynn walked almost to his ball and walked back to ask if anyone would lend him a book of matches, an excuse to buy David (and me) some time in case I showed up. You see, if Bob and Gary had hit their second shots DG would be disqualified, but if I get there before that, it was only a two-shot penalty and David could hit and play on… which we did.
When I was hustled to the tee, you can imagine the look I got from the boss. He pegged it, off we went, and I don’t think there was more than one sentence of conversation between the two of us the entire round. Miraculously, we made the cut despite the two shots, so Hell Week continued on into that weekend…
Once word got around the caddie yard of what I had done, the vultures circled and guys would try their best to get a word to David behind my back about who his next caddie would be, even though nothing was said between us going forward during the Saturday and Sunday rounds. Sure it irked me, and I recall having some heated words with a few I found out were prying DG for info regarding his (and my) future. But one thing was for sure: this was a “sackable offense” in the third degree, and David, though he certainly forgave me, was disappointed that I took my job less seriously in order to allow this to happen. I, on the other hand, had made up my mind. My heart was not into being on the road anymore, and at the end of the week I made it easy on David. I asked him to release me, for I was headed home… though not right away. I caddied for Tom Purtzer for four more weeks and then decided to call it a career on the PGA Tour (or so I thought). I was headed home to finally unpack seven years on the road and find something new to do, and hopefully find Mrs. Right…
Once I got home, I had a long talk with my parents. OK, so I wasn’t going to be a Tour caddie anymore, and the eight acres of houses that my mother, grandmother and stepfather built were nearing completion, all the lots sold, homes designed and built. My sister, Billie, was in junior college, and my father, Frank, and stepmom, Alice, had their hands full with sister, Peggy, at Purdue and brothers, John and Jim, finishing up high school. Here I was — the world traveler — coming home with lots of stamps in my passport and plenty of highway miles beneath me, yet I had to turn the page quickly, dust myself off and find work. Other than swinging the hammer now and then during my weeks off from the Tour, I hadn’t had a job at home since I bided time between caddying at Hinsdale Golf Club on the weekends and stocking shelves in high school for $1.75/hour with my cousin Don, the two of us always finding time after work to head over to Mike Ditka’s bowling alley to shoot pool.
Mike Munro, a golf buddy of mine from my home course, was working as a bartender at Elmhurst Country Club, across the highway from White Pines where we played. He mentioned the club was looking for another bartender to help with the summer rush, so there I was at a private club, working inside a golf course for the very first time. It was during this stretch of summer months that my high school teammate Dave Eckdahl and I spent more time playing golf again, and he being my accountant since 1977, had not only business to take care of with my finances, but found ourselves heading to old Comiskey Park to attend quite a few White Sox games since we both were lifelong fans.
Though the team struggled to win that season, three significant things happened during that summer that impacted not only the team but how we viewed them going forward. 1. they traded for Ed Farmer, who became an All-Star closer the following year and would go on to become our radio play-by-play announcer; 2. they hired Tony LaRussa in August to manage the club the rest of the way, turning the team around somewhat the last two months; 3. The craziest thing that may have ever happened inside a major league ballpark was something I’ll never forget, and Dave and I were there that night of July 12 on a double date to see what we hoped would be a doubleheader between the White Sox and his future wife Dayle’s Detroit Tigers. The night became stuff of legend and lore, for it was Disco Demolition Night. A local disc jockey on our FM98 rock station by the name of Steve Dahl decided it would be best if we could blow up all the disco records between games, and he pitched the idea to owner Bill Veeck.
Let the “fans” come to the game with a disco album and pay 98 cents to get in and we’ll fill the park and then some. Bill, ever the pitchman to get people to come, agreed and the promotion was on… to have the evening turn into a complete fiasco. Our seats were in the upper deck along the third-base line, and by the seventh or eighth inning the natives were getting restless for halftime, and these albums started coming out of the upper deck like frisbees, hitting the field and narrowly missing some of the players. Announcements to refrain were to little avail, but somehow we managed to get through the first game (which we lost 4-1, dang it).
Once the stage was set, Dahl came out of center field decked in Army fatigues and helmet, driving a Jeep and towing behind him a wooden trailer filled with these records. But now all these crazed kids stormed the field, tearing up the outfield grass, sliding into the bases — heck, they pulled up the bases! Next thing we know, bonfires were ablaze in the outfield stands, and Veeck is on the PA system pleading with the masses to return to their seats…. yeah, right! Dahl did manage some pyrotechnics to get the records blown up, but the whole night went so terribly wrong the Sox had to forfeit the second game. Man, we left there PO’d. We went to watch two games of baseball! You can watch it on YouTube if you like, it’s all there in its full-blown insanity. The next day, our owner was on all the radio and television stations to explain how the evening got away from him, and his famous quote was, “these were not baseball fans!” Well, DUH, Bill!
Later that summer, the club was to host the Illinois PGA Section Pro-Assistants Championship, and Mike Munro and I had to gear up our bars for a huge dinner/dance to follow the competition. It being staged in the late summer. It was a culmination of all the tournaments the section hosted, and Elmhurst was proud to showcase the event for all the northern Illinois club pros and their right-hand men. I, being a public course guy my entire life, the only pro I really knew from the private sector was Dick Hart from Hinsdale GC, the head professional from the club where I caddied in high school.
An accomplished player his own self, Dick spent time in his younger days playing the Tour’s version of their winter schedule, and actually won an event called the Azalea Open, which back then was considered an official tournament. He was surprised to see me tending the portable bar just off the dance floor — we hadn’t spoken in almost 10 years. When I told him where I had been and who I had caddied for, his eyes got wide and we started swapping stories over the Miller Lites I was opening for him.
I guess his wife was OK not wanting to dance because we talked for most of the evening, and he introduced me to “The Stick”: Don Stickney, the head pro from Chicago Golf Club. WOW! Now I was no dummy to that place — everybody who knew anything about golf in Chicago knew about ChiGolf as we called it: originally located in my hometown of Downers Grove on a small parcel of land, the nationally known architect C.B. Macdonald came west from New York at the behest of some wealthy midwestern businessman in the late 1880s to construct the very first golf course in our region. The original site is still there, a nine-hole beauty run by the Park District.
But not soon after, Old Macdonald bought a farm a few towns over in Wheaton, Illinois and started working on what we know today as the oldest 18-hole course in the country. Opening in 1892, it hosted three turn-of-the-century U.S. Opens, and the first head pro to work at the club, a Scotsman by the name of Jim Foulis, won the $200 first prize in the second ever U.S. Open in 1896 at Shinnecock. The following year he was the defending champion at his home course and finished third.
So now our twosome became a threesome at my bar, and quite honestly, I remember this night like it was yesterday. I came to find out Dick and Stick (haha) played the old Caribbean Tour together in the winters, and Don’s boss before he got the head job at Chi was none other than Hubby Habjan, a well-respected man in our Illinois Section and long-time head man at The Onwentsia Club on the north side of the city. Our golf stories could have gone on for days, and I was honored the guys were just as interested to hear my tales as I was of theirs since we all knew the same touring pros who made a successful go of it.
Soon after that night, I was informed I would no longer be needed as the backup bartender since the season was winding down. One thing about golf in Chicago that will never change: as soon as Labor Day approaches, people start gearing up for football, the kids are back in school, and even though the best 2-3 months of course conditions and fall weather are upon us, the courses empty — inexplicably empty out — and leave wide-open days to the die-hards. You want to book a trip to play golf in my hometown? Try September 14 — my birthday — all the way through Thanksgiving. You won’t be disappointed, and there’s 100 courses you can play. OK, I’m prejudiced, and maybe I need to make a call to get you on a few of those, but the Tour could schedule the entire season in The Windy City and no one would complain…
So here I was laid off, the winter was approaching and I needed to find something to replace Elmhurst. And wait til you hear this circumstance: someone (I don’t know who) told me they needed a manager to run the restaurant bar at a well-known public course called Fox Bend where I played in numerous tournaments. It was a 20-mile hike from my parents’ house (yes, I was still living at home), but head pro Leon McNair, who was also the GM, welcomed me immediately, and I picked up right where I left off, and for a better salary and tips, I might add.
And guess who when he found out I was working there would stop by every day for a few beers on his way home from work: Don Stickney! Now I had this job as long as I wanted it, and when the snow started flying and the course closed, this popular restaurant to the locals never has quiet nights, and the more Stick and Hulk swapped stories the closer we became. I even found out this happy-go-lucky guy who grew up near Columbus, Ohio, not only was close in age to The Golden Bear, but actually beat Jack in match-play one year in the Ohio Amateur. Man oh man, here was the head pro at one of the most prestigious golf courses in the country, and his pedigree included a slaying of a young Bear, even if it was only one tournament.
I also found out that during his decade in the Illinois Section both as an assistant to Hubby Habjan and now the head man at ChiGolf, that Stick won quite a few Section events. And when he and I started an important conversation one night, it was a talk that eventually answered one of those little prayers I told you about when I asked Him to help me find the Right Woman to fall in love and marry… this story gets even better…
“Hey Hulk, I just found out my first assistant, Dave Nell, is going to take a job with Hubby next season and I’m gonna need a new guy come April 1. You wanna turn pro and come to work for me? I’ll pay you $750 a month salary and you can keep all your lesson money; plus once you join the Illinois PGA Section as a qualified assistant, you’re good enough to compete in Monday Section events and earn a little on the side that way, too.”
“Wow, Stick, really? My dad warned me if I never want to play golf to turn pro, you’ll work dawn to dusk and never have time to play. The shop and the business side of things will own you.”
I knew this because Dad was a weekend starter in the summer months for many years when his break from teaching high school English would allow him to work as many hours as he wanted at our 36-hole White Pines, then go play most afternoons after he clocked out and had a late lunch. Even in my formative years when he had me for the summer, we would go out between the first and 18th holes of the South Course and hit his shag bag amongst the trees and go pick them up — that is, when we weren’t doing that at his farmhouse in Kaneville, where he had our little 160-yard driving range.
“April 1, huh? Man ,Stick, if you’ll help me get registered into the Illinois Section that gives me plenty of time to get my affairs in order, and get this: I just heard from my buddy ‘Grits’ Crandall that he’s quitting Andy North and moving to Texas. Maybe I’ll caddie the west coast and Florida for ‘South’ to start 1980 and be ready for you come April.”
“Hulk, you should go for it, that sounds like a perfect plan. Sounds like your pal Grits is returning the favor for getting him Andy’s bag back in 1975.”
Well, here we go, this on again/off again Tour caddie actually wasn’t going back to being a full-time road warrior. Instead, I left for the west coast to greet my old cronies with something waiting at home I very much was looking forward to: starting a new chapter in my late-20s. Andy was great about the three-month arrangement we agreed to. For once in my young life I felt like I had structure to a plan that was going to not only take me down a new road in the golf business, but I could finally settle down back home and work toward a two-fold goal: become a head pro and work my own club and start a family…
I couldn’t wait for the decade to turn over. Nineteen-eighty here we come! A Miracle on Ice and a Nice Miracle for this kid.