Not long ago, Jim “Killer” Kowalski was caddying for one of his regular foursomes at Schuyler Meadows Club in Upstate New York.
One golfer hit his tee shot into a perilous position in the woods. Escaping the trees and finishing near the green demanded a cut shot through a 10-yard opening.
“He asked me, ‘Jim, How do you cut the ball?,’” Kowalski recalled. “I told him ‘open your stance, take an inside-out swing.’ He tries it, hits a tree and says, ‘you don’t know what you’re talking about.’”
The other golfers in the group knew better.
They urged Kowalski to demonstrate the proper execution. It was a low percentage shot Kowalski replied seconds before he rifled his ball on a low left-to-right path through the gap, coming to rest in front of the green.
“I threw the club down and told him: Don’t ever tell me I don’t know what I’m talking about,” he said, with a laugh. “The other guys tipped me double what they would’ve normally, just because they could tell the story.”
Killer knows golf and he knows Schuyler Meadows.
He’s looped at the prestigious club in Loudonville for 55 years, logging 5,000 rounds on a course designed in 1927 by Devereux Emmet (Congressional, Garden City) and renovated in the 21st century by Gil Hanse.
What started as a way for a 12-year-old Kowalski to earn money in the summer evolved into a lifetime pursuit. His primary income came from 22 years as a firefighter followed by a stint at General Electric Co. Global Research from which he retired earlier this month. But he was always passionate about caddying and golf.
“My father got us started, me and two of my brothers,” he said. “We’d give him the money when we got done and he’d buy us sneakers and that sort of thing. He’d let us keep a little of the money but he wanted to show us the work ethic — and it worked.”
A nasty bruise launched Kowalski’s caddying career.
There weren’t many golf carts at Schuyler Meadows in the 1960s. There were also 50 caddies in the yard so a young, inexperienced kid was relegated to shagging practice balls for members, earning three dollars for a three-hour shift.
The 13-year-old Kowalski, golf neophyte, was on the practice ground one day and a golfer yelled “Fore!” Kowalski had no idea what that meant. When the golf ball struck his leg on the fly, he dropped to the ground, crying. The golfer who hit the shot ran down to check on him. It was Linda Ellis, the ladies club champion. She felt so bad about the mishap, she hired Kowalski as her regular caddie — which surely upset the veteran caddies in the yard. He caddied for Ellis and one of her low-handicap friends for years.
“They used to take me to all the tournaments. They’d pick me up at my house, buy me lunch and bring me home afterward, so that’s what really got me interested,” he said. “They were really good. I really learned a lot from them about the strategies and what clubs to hit. So that was pretty interesting. I think if I’d just had to do shags for three years before getting a good loop I don’t know that I would’ve stuck around. Getting hit in the leg was a Godsend. I learned to follow the ball after that, let’s put it that way.”
A smart caddie shows up. Tomorrow it might rain. Golfers may decide to play elsewhere or not at all. The superintendent could, God forbid, accidentally kill the greens. The pro shop might burn to the ground. If you have a loop, take it, and figure out the details later. Cash in hand trumps what may come.
Several years ago, the phone rang at Kowalski’s house on Christmas morning. He was married at the time. On the other end was another of his regular loops. Albany was enjoying a rare December warm spell, temperatures in the mid-60s and this particular judge was itching to play.
“Can you caddie at noontime?” he asked Kowalski.
“Judge, I’m married,” he replied. “I’ve got young kids. I can’t get away, my wife will kill me.”
“I’ll give you a hundred bucks.”
“I’ll be there at 12.”
Kowalski told his wife about the cash guarantee. She told him to enjoy his afternoon at the course. Santa’s gifts could wait.
Kowalski caddied for Gene Sarazen and Ray Floyd at Schuyler Meadows, enjoying unforgettable experiences alongside two legendary champions and gentlemen of the game. There are only a handful of caddies around Schuyler Meadows these days, mostly college kids who pitch in when the course is too wet for carts.
“Caddying is a dying thing,” he said. “But it’s a great job. It helps you get contacts when you want to go out and get a real job. I’d recommend it to anybody.”
For the last 25 years, Kowalski has caddied for renowned Loudonville amateur David Hayes in tournaments around the region. Together, they’ve qualified for the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Mid-Amateur. Hayes hopes to have Kowalski on the bag again this year as he attempts to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open and competes in championships around New York.
“He’s been a good resource and a good guy all around,” said Hayes, 52. “He got to know my game very well, he understood all the different shots. He understood the yardages. He knew my game so that when you go out and play in a big event, that was one less thing you had to worry about. You knew you had a great caddie.”
Kowalski, 67, prefers caddying for low-handicap golfers, of course. They tend to hit the ball straighter and spend less time in the woods (though he can tell you a funny story about another of his former golfers who landed in the woods — but you’ll have to ask that one yourself).
Walking six miles across fairways and hills has kept him in good physical condition. His blood pressure is normal. His cholesterol level would be lower if he cut back on the junk food.
A 5-handicap, Kowalski jokes that the golfers are hiring him for his brains, not his brawn, and some of his regulars even let him put the clubs on a cart these days but pay him as if he was carrying the bag.
“The guys I caddie for (at Schuyler Meadows) will look at me and ask which way a putt breaks,” he said. “I’ll say, you’ve been here 30 years too — you should know which way it breaks. I’m not telling you.”
When he does, they’d be wise to listen.