RALEIGH, N.C. — As Wednesday’s Pro-Am at the 2019 Rex Hospital Open carried on earlier this week, waves of caddies came and went through their tented area set up under the trees on the back lawn area at the Country Club of Wakefield Plantation.
Sitting on chairs and a picnic table set up in sight of the practice putting green, the mood included quiet greetings and conversations as working loopers as well as those looking to grab a last-minute bag dove into their box lunches.
With a revamped format, the participating pros only needed to play nine holes and subbed in or off with another before heading to finalize preparation for the week’s event on the range and/or the putting green.
Amongst the group were a number of ‘career’ caddies in their 50s and 60s with multiple decades of experience along with younger guys — a relative term in this group — who held their place in conversation at the pace of the veterans.
Staying cool and dealing with 90-plus degree temperatures was a topic of conversation.
Adam Hyman, a 65-year old Panamanian and seasoned Tour caddie since 1993 was seated beside a rookie, a 48-year old, passing on advice on what to expect during his first event.
Hyman wasn’t on a bag for the week, but was following the Tour expecting to pick up work at the next few event stops.
He imparted some wisdom on the subject of endurance and longevity in caddying on Tour.
“All depends how you feel, how you keep yourself,” Hyman said. “It’s like a car. You can have a brand new car, but if you don’t take care of that car, it’s gonna be gone in one year.”
With all this talk of endurance, survival and longevity, there was one voice, and the most experienced of them all, that wasn’t present to share such knowledge.
Hylton ‘JJ’ James was still in a hospital in Kansas City, recovering from recent bypass surgery following an episode at the Tour’s event there earlier in May.
Having turned 78 in April, James is the oldest caddie on any professional tour and has recently worked the last three seasons with Web.com Tour member Ben Kohles.
Their relationship actually spans back to 2012, at the first few Tour event Kohles ever played in after graduating from the University of Virginia.
He won the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Invitational and the Cox Classic in successive weeks with JJ caddying for him then.
“The one that I won in Columbus, that’s where I first met him,” Kohles recounted. “Playing out here for seven years as a pro, you obviously learn a lot. I’ve matured a lot as a player, especially with my attitude. At times, when you get to struggling a little bit, you can get pretty down on yourself and start getting really angry. You know, when you feel like your game’s there, but none of the results are showing. JJ’s just really good at keeping me in the moment, and being like, ‘You know what? It’s not the end of the world.’ Some of us players think it is. Obviously, we get to play this game for a living, but it is tough and very stressful at times.”
Regular, intermittent contact between Kohles and James since those early days eventually turned into daily contact when they began to work together full time.
“We just stayed in touch. We would talk every now and again when we saw each other,” Kohles said. “He said, ‘I’d love to work for you,’ but he was working for somebody and I had somebody. But it just worked out three years ago – he was open and I was open – so I stuck with him.”
Kohles also provided a little more detail on what led to James’ hospitalization.
“He kind of went down on the course – he didn’t fall down – he was just really sluggish and barely moving,” Kohles said.
“We knew something was up, so we went to the hospital and got it checked out and they saw that one of his arteries was kind of blocked. So, they went ahead and did the surgery. He lives in Atlanta, but trying to see the cardiologists in Atlanta, they’re so booked, he wasn’t going to get in for another month-and-a-half or so. His best bet was to stay in Kansas City for a couple of more months. He’s been out of the hospital for over a week now at a rehab place and he’s doing awesome. His recovery’s going really well. He’s exercising every day. He basically just can’t carry any weight around now. “
A video on social media showed James was already working out by walking around with an empty stand bag over his shoulders.
— Web.com Tour (@WebDotComTour) May 22, 2019
Twenty-four year veteran caddie and 63-year-old Mike ‘Country Club’ Troublefield added some insight on what happened on the course.
“JJ is really a great guy,” Troublefield said. “Everybody who’s been out on this Tour knows, and in all different kinds of weather, and to do it at age 78 is pretty remarkable — carrying that golf bag around. He’s always had a positive attitude to me which keeps you healthy as well, too. Obviously he has has some medical problems that caught up with him, but it took a long time for him at his age to realize what was going on. I was on hole No. 16 and I think he was on No. 17 and he looked like he was wandering around. He looked a little bit dazed or lost. Then later on I found out that he had to go to the hospital.”
Troublefield provided his words of support and advice to look further into the future on how he could help himself and fellow caddies: “JJ – don’t worry about caddying. Try and get your health back. But, if you do decide to come back on Tour, you don’t have to be a caddie. Start JJ’s Lounge and have an area for the caddies to hang out.”
Ralph Hackett, a caddie on the Tour since 1988, currently loops for pro Brady Schnell, offered up his thoughts of Tour life and JJ’s role in it.
“It’s a brotherhood more than anything,” Hackett said. “There’s still a lot of personality clashes like in any job. Just personality – no different than any work environment. You tend to have people you get along with and others that you don’t. I’m not saying that either way for JJ. A mutual friend said ‘this guy’s a special guy and he’s been doin’ it a long time.’ And as the oldest caddie, doing the job that I love, how can you not respect someone like that?
“That’s what it’s all about. These guys are brothers in that we have that same spirit about us. We like the independence, we love chasin’ golf bags around, we like being outside.”
With that much respect and admiration from fellow caddies and players, it won’t be a surprise to see JJ return in whatever capacity he wants as soon as he’s physically able to.
It’s apparent that there is a true reciprocal appreciation for one another from all sides.
“There’s so much life in him,” Kohles concluded. “Even at his age, he’s just always, always happy. I mean I’ve literally never seen him upset or even when we play bad, he’s always there just trying to pick me up. I’m the one getting pissed, but he’s just great to have out there, keeping it real light and he’s always cracking jokes. That’s really why I like to have him on the bag.
“I pretty much talk to him almost every day. He calls me a few times a day, usually on the course. He thinks he’ll be back in Portland at the end of the season, but you know, just time will tell. Whenever he can get back out here, I plan to have him back.”