Eric Larson knows what it’s like to make $100,000 in a week or 12 cents an hour.
He has experienced the thrill of caddying at all the majors and in a pair of Ryder Cups – one of them the Americans actually won – and the solitude of sitting in a federal prison cell.
Larson has caddied for players who have won four PGA Tour titles – two each by buddy Mark Calcavecchia and Anthony Kim – and helped Kim and Jeff Overton make their first Ryder Cup. Yet he lost his freedom for almost 11 years.
The life of a professional caddie is never boring, but Larson has experienced more ups and downs in the last 30 years than all the rides at Disney World and Six Flags combined.
You could do a movie on his life and there would be things that would be left on the editing room floor … that’s how many turns his world has taken. Heck, he’s friends with Tommy Chong, who starred alongside Cheech Marin in those stoner Cheech & Chong movies, but more on that later.
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None of it seems to bother Larson. The time in prison. The capriciousness of his job – where you’re always one mistake or a bad week from getting fired. Or the fact his success is dependent upon another person’s actions.
It all just rolls off his shoulders that have been strengthened by carrying 30 pounds of golf equipment 6 miles a day and ordeals that few have experienced.
“I’ve thought about writing a book,” Larson said, “but who in the hell wants to read a book about a guy in prison? It has been an interesting life.”
These days, Larson caddies for Harris English, a two-time winner on the PGA Tour who barely kept his card this season by finishing 125th in the FedExCup standings. The 58-year-old Larson is twice English’s age, but with his boyish face, looks a lot younger.
Larson is like the Dana Quigley of caddies – he would work every week if he could. This year, for instance, he also caddied for Tim Herron, Seungsu Han at the PGA Championship, Jesper Parnevik on the PGA Tour Champions and Davis Love III in Malaysia.
Larson – who is simply known as “E” by his friends – recently finished a 10-week stretch on the road and estimates he will have been at his two-story townhome in Jupiter for three months this year.
Who can blame Larson for staying busy? When you’ve spent more than a decade in a cell, you feel like there’s a lot of time to make up for.
“I love what I do, and I’ll do it for as long as I can,” Larson said. “Fluff (Mike Cowan) is still out here at 70.”
Larson thought he was a good golfer when he moved from Wisconsin to West Palm Beach in 1979 at 18. Until he met Calcavecchia and Ken Green at Bear Lakes Country Club and saw their games.
“Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can caddie for them,’” Larson said with a grin.
And that’s what Larson eventually did, caddying for the ultra-aggressive duo, first for Green, then for Calcavecchia.
Larson was making a decent living, but like most, he could always use more. That’s when he made the biggest mistake of his life: selling cocaine.
Larson said his illegal activity started on a small scale. He had friends back home in the Midwest who wanted cocaine, and he had contacts in South Florida who could provide it. Larson would take a financial cut.
“I did it for monetary purposes only,” Larson said. “I didn’t use it, and I never brought it out on Tour. Was I a major drug dealer? No. Did I drive fancy cars? No. That doesn’t make it any better.”
Eventually, one of his drug suppliers gave Larson’s name to authorities. Because the cocaine he moved had crossed state lines, he faced federal charges.
His friends were shocked to hear about Larson’s drug activities. Calcavecchia, who had won for the first time with Larson on his bag, the 1995 BellSouth Classic, said, “No clue whatsoever. None of us knew it. ‘E’ says he never used the stuff, and I believe him.”
A few months later, Larson was jailed. One of Larson’s closest friends, Kevin Richardson, an attorney in West Palm Beach, traveled to Larson’s sentencing hearing in Michigan in December of 1995 to speak on his behalf.
As luck would have it, Richardson’s flight to Michigan was delayed by weather and he arrived at the court room minutes after the judge announced the sentence.
It was harsh: 13 years in federal prison, five years of probation and a $25,000 fine.
“I know if I could have gotten there a few minutes earlier,” Richardson said, “the sentence would have been a lot less.”
Larson’s friends were stunned at what he was facing.
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“There are murderers and rapists who get out earlier,” Calcavecchia said.
Larson certainly didn’t expect to be looking at more than a decade behind bars. It wasn’t like he was on a street corner selling.
“I obviously wasn’t happy with the sentence I got,” he said. “I violated the law and I deserved to be penalized. I just wish it could have been less time so I could have gotten on with my life.”
Larson put his prison time to good use. He earned a college degree in business administration and he stayed busy playing sports and working out while watching the days. His close friends were amazed at how well Larson handled the situation when they visited him in jail.
“I can’t tell you how many times I walked out of there and said, ‘Man, I don’t know how he does it?’” Green said. “You looked at the other people who were in there, and you knew these weren’t nice people. With the attitude I have, I would have killed somebody or gotten killed myself if I had been in ‘The Hole’ that long.”
There wasn’t much for Larson to do, so he washed dishes and did other menial jobs. He once did the math and figured out he made an average of 12 cents an hour the previous month for washing dishes.
“I didn’t mind working, because it helped pass the time,” he said.
Larson served his time at four federal prisons: In Butner, N.C. (where Bernie Madoff is housed); at Coleman, Fla., near Wildwood; in Taft, Calif., near Bakersfield; and in Miami.
When Larson was at Taft, he was approached by a familiar-looking tall man with a graying beard and a receding hairline. It was Tommy Chong, who had been arrested for selling mail-order bongs.
“Tommy knew I had been there for a while, and he wanted to know how to best handle prison life,” Larson said. “I gave him all the advice I could.
“I had my own garden where I was growing things, and he wanted to do that with me. But the warden wouldn’t let him. He said he was afraid Tommy was going to start growing marijuana in the prison.”
The two became friends before Larson was sent to Miami and Chong was released in 2004. When Chong appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno after his release, Chong mentioned Larson by name as someone who helped him get through the ordeal.
The two remain friends and Larson sees Chong every year when the PGA Tour goes to Los Angeles. They talk by phone all the time.
“Tommy is a great guy,” Larson said. “He never should have gone to prison.”
While in prison, Larson was staying in touch with what was happening on the PGA Tour, and he liked what he saw. Tiger Woods’ tremendous impact on the sport in the late-1990s had sent purses soaring on the PGA Tour, which meant a lot more money for the caddies.
A lot more than 12 cents an hour. Larson longed to get back to the PGA Tour.
“I would dream about it in prison and think it was possible,” Larson said. “Mark always told me, ‘Just do all the right things, when you get out, you’ll have a job. Hopefully, I can play well for you for a few years and then you can find a young player.’ ”
Amazingly, that’s exactly what happened.
Larson was released on Dec. 20, 2005. Richardson got Larson a job working in the bag room at Bear Lakes. Larson would have to call his probation officer when he arrived at the club and when he was leaving.
Calcavecchia, true to his word, hired Larson and their first event was the 2006 Honda Classic. Calcavecchia finished T41, but it seemed like a win for Larson.
A year later, they got that win when Calcavecchia captured the PODS Championship near Tampa. Larson made $75,000 for the week.
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“It worked out perfect,” Larson said. “Mark played well when he was 46. People took notice, thanks to Mark.”
Larson’s success as a looper also had a positive impact on his legal issue. His probation was ended two years early, a rarity in legal circles.
“The probation officer said, ‘We see you more on TV than we do here in the office,’” Larson said.
With Calcavecchia about to join the PGA Tour Champions, Larson needed a younger player. He got that opportunity when Kim, a rising star, offered him a four-week tryout in 2008.
They won their second event together. Larson had his young player and Kim had someone who could help him mature.
“I definitely think with him on the bag that I’ve grown,” Kim said in 2008. “He just brings a new perspective, a great attitude every morning, and I feel like if there was something lacking before a round, it was being positive and being happy to be there. I feel like with everything that Eric has gone through, he feels happy to be out here.”
They won another tournament together and Kim made his only Ryder Cup appearance with Larson on his bag. The U.S., which had lost the last three Ryder Cups, was leading 9-7 entering Sunday’s singles when captain Paul Azinger approached Larson.
“I’m thinking about putting Anthony out first,” Azinger said.
“That’s great if you want a point,” Larson responded. “I’m sure Anthony will be up for the challenge.”
Kim beat Garcia so bad, he didn’t realize he had closed him out, 5-and-4, after a difficult up-and-down at the par-3 14th. Kim started walking to the next hole before he stopped.
“We all got a good laugh out of that,” Larson said.
Kim won one more PGA Tour event with Larson before they parted ways in 2009. Larson said Kim told him he had a friend he wanted to put on the bag.
“I wasn’t mad at all,” Larson said. “I thanked him for the opportunity. Anthony made me a lot of money.”
(Kim hasn’t played since 2012 because of a serious wrist injury.)
Larson then hooked up with Overton, who finished second in their first tournament together. Overton added two more seconds and two thirds that year to keep the cash flowing for Larson and earning Overton enough points for a Ryder Cup spot.
“It’s amazing to me Jeff has never won,” Larson said.
Like all player-caddie relationships, this one eventually ran out of steam. Larson bounced around the next few years, working with Henrik Norlander, Chris Kirk and Andres Gonzales before finally getting his current job with English.
“I’m fortunate to work for a good, young player,” Larson said. “He’s a proven winner. He’s working hard at it and he’s included me in the mix in the team concept.”
Calcavecchia, who paid off Larson’s fine and was the only person to visit him at all four prisons, says it’s easy to understand why Larson is one of the most well-liked guys on the PGA Tour.
“He’s always upbeat, always positive,” Calcavecchia said. “When you’ve been through what he’s been through, I guess you have to be (happy). I can’t imagine going through what he went through and still be that happy.”
Larson saw no other option.
“I never really was bitter,” Larson said. “You can’t be that way or you’ll never get on with your life.”