There are many paths to becoming a PGA Tour caddie. Mine began in the 1990s behind a pro shop counter in a small Eastern North Carolina town.
The phone rang and I answered because that was one of my responsibilities as a fledgling assistant golf professional, a job for which I had the game but not the patience. Clarence Rose was on the other end, driving home after missing the cut at the Honda Classic. He was a Tour veteran with a decade of solid play to his credit, at the time on the comeback trail after a three- or four-year hiatus.
Clarence was about 15 years older than me and also our hometown hero. The previous winter we’d played golf frequently as he honed his game for the West Coast swing. (In other words, several other area club pros and I paid the Rose Family grocery bill each week, writing off our gambling losses to experience and as an inexpensive playing lesson). On occasion, during these 18-hole donation sessions, I’d ask Clarence if I could come out and caddie for him on the Tour some time.
He never really said yes, which is why I was surprised when he asked on that March afternoon, if I’d be interested in traveling to New Orleans the following week to carry his bag in the PGA Tour event at English Turn.
Flashing through my mind was another 70-hour week working for a pittance, opening and closing the pro shop, parking golf carts and fielding inane queries about why there wasn’t any grass on the No. 6 tee box. Two seconds later, I answered yes. Perhaps it was quicker. Maybe I shouted.
So off I went on a journey that lasted the better part of eight years. I was in my early 20s, lacking attachment or direction and possessing just enough golf knowledge to get started as a Tour caddie and fake it until I got up to speed. Within weeks, I’d realize how little I knew. Still, it was a perfect fit.
I loved playing competitive golf. A former N.C. high school champion and junior college All-American, I dreamt of playing the game for a living at the highest level. But those regular rounds with Rose and our other local legend, Mr. 29 His Ownself, Neal Lancaster, proved my dreams outweighed my talent.
At the time I was no stranger to the nightlife, rarely missing a tee time after dark and eager to follow the party wherever it went.
Traveling the nation seemed like a great idea so why not do it walking alongside the best golfers in the world, with a chance to make a little money and roam freely, unencumbered by a mortgage or wife or any of the other loose impediments weighing down my friends and peers.
At the time I was no stranger to the nightlife, rarely missing a tee time after dark and eager to follow the party wherever it went. Seemed like there might be ample time for such activity out there on the road where each week offered a new adventure.
Perhaps the seed for this journey had been planted seven or eight years earlier when I stumbled across Michael Bamberger’s book, “The Green Road Home,” in my high school library and read it in one sitting. Bamberger, now an esteemed golf writer and author, spent a year caddying on the PGA Tour in the 1980s and his detailed, honest account of life inside the ropes portrayed a path that wasn’t all rainbows and snow-cones. Still, there was opportunity, a cool office to work in each week and from my perspective, no incessant questions from members about turf conditions.
Starting out, I figured the hard part of Tour caddying might be the travel — where to stay, finding a roommate, figuring out how to exist on budget. That part came fairly easy. Now, the veteran Tour caddies weren’t throwing any parties for the newbies. But there was a brotherhood and spirit of camaraderie during the era. Once the veterans realized you were serious about this pursuit and not simply “dropping out” of real life for a month or two, they offered plenty of guidance. Landing a weekly rate at a mom-and-pop motel close to the course was a birdie for certain in those days.
The hard part was the actual caddying. Not carrying the bag, per se. Even though I smoked cigarettes, slept sporadically, was somewhat weak and generally in mediocre physical condition, lugging the 30-40 pound satchel up-and-down hills in heat, wind, rain, never bothered me — while it was happening. Sore feet, tight back and neck muscles could be an issue in the evening, but I was wise to the ways to ease those pains.
The challenge, at first, was trying to keep the pace in a brisk threesome, provide yardages, remain on top of the wind direction, stay out of the way of the other players, rake bunkers properly (I was the son of a club professional and had played golf my entire life but had no clue how to do this before caddying on Tour) and try to actually offer sound advice, when requested.
Clarence trusted me with our team yardage book that first week at English Turn. We came to the difficult par-4 18th hole needing to make par to make the cut. He shoved his tee shot right into a fairway bunker and was forced to lay up into an area covered in the J.I.C.Y.F.U. area, familiar to anyone who has used one of George Lucas’ yardage books. It’s best if Tour pros don’t spend much time in these areas. As I scrambled to find a corresponding sprinkler head, Clarence snatched the book out of my hand and found it himself. We made bogey and missed the cut by one shot.
He shoved his tee shot right into a fairway bunker and was forced to lay up into an area covered in the J.I.C.Y.F.U. area, familiar to anyone who has used one of George Lucas’ yardage books.
As we walked off the green toward the scorer’s tent, I was convinced my first week as a PGA Tour caddie was probably my last. Instead, there were 160 more, give or take. I worked for a dozen pros, including Jerry Kelly and Larry Rinker and many others who faded into the golfing ether. Maybe I saved one of ‘em a shot or two.
The journey took me to Hawaii in January, to Memphis in June, to a U.S. Open at Pinehurst where friends and family walked outside the ropes. I watched Tiger Woods hit his first tee shot as a pro in Milwaukee and laughed with him down the fairways at TPC Sawgrass, felt the heat of the final group on Sunday, hung out with billionaires and rock stars, savored weeks on the Monterey Peninsula and had enough fun for six grown men.
These days I write for a living, scribbling words on golf whenever possible. Similar to caddying, no two days are the same. While I never put on the white jumpsuit and carried a bag around Amen Corner, I’ve been fortunate to spend days there wearing a media badge around my neck, reporting on the best players in the world. As the wind whispers through the pine tops above the 12th tee, swirling counterclockwise as a clever looper once described it, maybe I have an idea how they’re thinking and what they’re feeling as they try to pull the right club.
When the opportunity to contribute here arose, I seized the chance. Once again, it felt like the perfect fit. I’ve enjoyed watching the professional Tour caddie emerge from the shadows and step into the light, receive better treatment and be celebrated for the role they play in every cut made and tournament won. It’s been written and said many times before, but golf is the only sport where the participant has another person standing beside them, experiencing the action.
That feeling pulled me in all those years ago and it’s one I’ll try to share in this space, as I can. Send me a note if you need to know what J.I.C.Y.F.U. means or if you have a story idea.