In the early 1950s, Chico Fernandez came to the United States from his native Cuba to play professional baseball. He spent eight years in the minor leagues, playing for a half-dozen teams. During one stop, he was introduced to the game that would become his passion and profession.Fernandez was an infielder for the Knoxville (Tenn.) Smokies, a Class A team in the South Atlantic League. Friends invited him to play golf at Whittle Springs, a hardscrabble public course that once played host to Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan, and still serves as the annual site of the Knoxville City Amateur.
Fernandez shot 119. He was hooked. Just one simple round led to a 44-year career as a PGA Tour caddie.
“All I knew about when I was young was baseball, baseball, baseball,” said Fernandez, 86. “Back in Cuba I never hit a golf ball or threw a football, or nothing. It was just baseball, baseball, baseball. I didn’t know much about golf, but I’m glad I took the game up and fell in love with it. I really did.”
Fernandez played second base and shortstop a minor league career that included stops in Macon and Sioux Falls, Asheville and Des Moines. According to baseball-reference.com, Blas Fernandez was a lifetime .274 hitter, with 28 home runs and 129 doubles in 3,128 at-bats. He struck out only 70 times.
After he hung up his baseball spikes, Fernandez turned even more attention toward golf. One Sunday, he read a newspaper article about a one-day pro-am tournament to be held in Knoxville the following day.
“I said I’m going to go over there tomorrow,” Fernandez recalled in a recent phone interview from Knoxville, where he still lives today with his wife. “I got a job and fell in love with it. From then on I just kept on going to the PGA Tour tournaments every week. Every time I went I got a job.”
The journey began in 1974. It was a hard life, traveling the country by car, living in meager accommodations, playing for a sliver of minuscule purses each week.
Fernandez loved it all.
“This caddie business has taken me to almost every state in this country,” he said. “I think about five or six countries overseas and I tell you, I’d do it all over again. It’s been great to me. I think about it almost every day.”
If you ever met Chico, you remember his sunny attitude. And, he probably called you “partner.” He made a fine partner for Mark McCumber. They paired to win four tournaments together and made eight trips to Augusta National to compete in the Masters, including one that was particularly memorable.
“On Saturday we were playing with Fred Couples,” he recalled. “We came to the tee box on No. 16 and had to wait because Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson were waiting to putt. Nicklaus had about a 40-footer, he made that putt and people went crazy. Tom Watson had about a 30-footer and he made that putt and people went crazy.
“Fred Couples hit first and put his tee shot about where Jack Nicklaus was. We hit and put it about where Tom Watson was. Fred Couples made that putt, about 2,000 there and people went crazy. Mark McCumber said, ‘Chico go over there and hold on to the pin.’
“I went over there and he putted, I pulled the pin out and I started walking, I kept walking and I fell in the trap. When I walked out the people were going crazy and Mark McCumber and Fred Couples were rolling all over the green. I looked in the newspaper the next day and Fred Couples said, ‘I never had so much fun on the golf course in my whole life.’ I will never forget that. It’s such a beautiful place.”
Fernandez retired from the road four or five years ago. He needed to stay home and help care for his wife. But a caddie he remains. Earlier this year, he toted a bag during the Korn Ferry Tour’s Knoxville Open, working two days for a nice young rookie, enjoying the feelings a man finds inside-the-ropes.
He still loves golf, playing on Tuesdays and Thursdays with his buddies at Whittle Springs and follows the pro game, watching the recent Tour Championship as Rory McIlroy won the $15 million FedEx Cup prize.
“When I won my first tournament with Mark McCumber, he made $210,000,” Fernandez said. “I was born too early.”
Fernandez, who also won once with Billy Mayfair, followed the sun and pursued a game he loved in a life that has exceeded any possibility he might have imagined when he came to the States as a wide-eyed teenager, looking for a better life and a place to play ball. He immigrated from Cuba roughly a decade before the nation fell under Fidel Castro and Communist rule. The size of the ball changed through the years but the mission has been a success.
“I feel like I’m 46. I feel great, partner, I’ve been lucky,” Fernandez said. “I feel very lucky, I feel very lucky, partner.”