East Lake Golf Club
East Lake Golf Club is home to one of the finest caddie programs in the U.S. Credit: East Lake Golf Club

Over the span of two decades in the 1980s and ‘90s, I was a looper. I spent my summers and weekends as a caddie, primarily at Spring Brook Country Club in Morristown, New Jersey. Spring Brook, founded in 1921, is one of many small, lesser-known private clubs in the northeast U.S. — an area also known among golfers as “caddie country.” The rolling hills around northern New Jersey, Connecticut and especially the Westchester County, New York, area, are dotted with some of the country’s top courses. One thing these great courses all have in common are great caddie programs.

Spring Brook, a Walter J. Travis layout, had a flourishing caddie program when I was growing up in the area. While it wasn’t a PGA Tour-worthy course, the walking-friendly, back-and-forth design of most of the holes, made it perfect for caddies. Occasionally, when things got slow in the Spring Brook caddie yard, I’d make my way over to nearby Baltusrol Golf Club to try and get a loop on the A.W. Tillinghast gem. Getting a bag at Baltusrol was not easy, but it was always worth the effort.

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For a high school and college kid, caddying is one of the best, if not the best, ways to earn a pocketful of extra cash. Truth be told, I don’t think I’ve ever had as much extra cash burning a hole in my pocket than I had during my caddie days. More than the money, though, the time spent on the course, walking step-for-step with the club members, learning how to interact, and seeing how they respected the game and conducted themselves on the course, was invaluable. Not to be overlooked — the hours spent in the caddie yard, swapping tales with other weekend loopers is something I look back on and smile about to this day.

At Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club, site of this week’s Tour Championship, the final event of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs, there are about 100 caddies — young and old — who get to share the same experience as part of the club’s unique caddie program. East Lake’s caddie tradition formally started in 1995, the year Atlanta developer Tom Cousins bought the club and spent millions to revitalize Bobby Jones’s former home and the surrounding neighborhood.

“We are a caddie-only facility,” Drew Dunn, the club’s head pro, said. “We require everyone to walk the golf course and because of that, we’re able to staff a large caddie program. We can provide work for them and they’re able to make a decent living doing it.”

Fittingly, Dunn actually started his professional golf career as a caddie at East Lake in 2006 before rising to his current role in 2014. It’s a career distinction that likely makes him one of the few head pros in the country to have started as caddie at the same club. It’s also a benefit, he said.

“Starting as a caddie is a huge advantage for me because I know what you deal with day-in, day-out,” he said. “The position itself is extremely important because they spend more time with our members and guests while they’re here on the property than any other employee. They can make or break somebody’s experience. So, it’s very important that they are trained well to do a good job.”

Unlike most clubs, the caddies at East Lake are employees of the club, not independent contractors. While this distinction costs the club more due to payroll expenses and taxes, Dunn says it is money well spent.

“It costs us money, but it allows us to tell them when to show up, provide them with uniforms and require them to wear them,” he said. “Those are things you can’t do with an independent contractor.” As employees, East Lake’s caddies are held to a higher standard than caddies at most clubs. While this is generally a favorable outcome, it could limit the amount of so-called “colorful characters” that many caddie yards are famous for.

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East Lake also recently amended its long-standing “no tipping” policy. Now, members and guests are permitted to tip caddies on top of the pay they automatically receive from the club, Dunn said. For most rounds, a caddie will easily earn more than $100 per bag, a rate that is comparable to most top clubs around the country, according to a survey Dunn conducted prior to changing the tipping policy.

Like the club itself, East Lake’s caddie program also serves a bigger purpose. Each year, a small group of new caddies are selected from the First Tee of East Lake program. Through this program, young caddies are given opportunities that they otherwise might not been exposed to.

“The older guys kind of adopt them and take them under their wing,” Dunn said of the First Tee caddies. “For a lot of those kids, it’s really their first job. And we all know about all of the life skills you can learn from caddying.”

The club also offers caddies the chance to apply for its Charles W. Harrison Scholarship. Since the scholarship program began in 1998, about 60 caddies have received scholarships towards their college education, Dunn said. “The scholarship is great for our guys.”

While hosting the Tour Championship is great exposure for the club, it’s not great for its caddies. When the Tour players and their personal caddies roll into town, East Lake closes to outside play for about two weeks. Because of this, there’s no on-course work for the caddies. To make up for it, East Lake caddies are involved in the behind-the-scenes work at the club during the tournament.

“A lot of them work in the clubhouse with the food and beverage staff or on the driving range,” Dunn said. “There’s a lot of interaction between the Tour players, their caddies, and our caddies. It’s a fun week for everybody.”

Although the Tour Championship will come and go each year, one thing is certain at East Lake: caddies will always be an important part of the club.

“There are not a lot of places around here that have full caddie programs,“ Dunn said. “Mr. Cousins has told us that he always wants this club to have a caddie program. He thinks that’s the way the game of golf should be played. So yes, we will always have a full caddie program here at East Lake.”

As a former caddie, that’s a position I can strongly support.