Steve Hulka has been a PGA Tour caddie for 40+ years. When he started in the 1970s, it was wild. This is what it was like.
It’s amazing how circumstances in your life can forever change your course in a heartbeat.
It was a phone call I dreaded having to make, yet it became one of the most important decisions I ever made. Call it a God Thing: “Dad, I need to come home, I’m wasting your money. You have three more to get through college, and I’m not learning much here at school…”
Or was I?
Champaign, Illinois, early spring of 1972.
I had just returned from a mad dash down to Mardi Gras, an impulsive and whirlwind weekend trip put together by six frat brothers and me. Entering the second semester of my sophomore year at the University of Illinois — and having twice missed trying to walk on the Illini golf team — my college life was nothing like the four idyllic years I spent in high school.
Captain of the golf team, drum major to the marching band, tenor sax in the jazz band, graduating 39th in a class of 528, I had many good friends and good times growing toward adulthood in Downers Grove, but leaving the nest for the first time and not being fully prepared for life away from home brought me to the realization that getting a degree in anything was not going to make me happy since all I wanted to do was be around golf and other sports, especially if it included being outdoors. I hated my classes and loved my social life, a toxic mix that won’t get you through a higher-learning institution with the required demands Illinois put forth.
I did leave with the intramural golf championship trophy and an addiction to pinball, so all wasn’t lost. Plus, I got to see Jethro Tull live at the Assembly Hall, and many weekends were spent in a small venue near campus called Red Lion Pizza, rocking to an up-and-coming band called REO Speedwagon. Ever hear of them?
“Come on home, son, we’ll find you something to do.”
I was shocked at how well my father, Frank, took it. Though I hadn’t really lived with him for over 15 years — my folks divorced when I was 2 — he was always there on Saturday mornings, picking me up to go places. An accomplished HS English teacher, basketball and golf coach in the Chicago suburbs, our summers were spent playing golf together at White Pines GC and going to White Sox games with Grandma Hulka. The older I got the more I realized how much he loved what he did for a living. He gave up a $15,000 a year milk route in 1954 at my grandfather’s local dairy to take his first teaching position at York High School… for $3,400 a year.
Provide a young wife and my stay-at-home mother, Doris, that scenario and it’s going to be tough sledding for any marriage, but I remember him telling me how happy he was getting up every day going to work (with a 78-mile, round-trip commute from Stepmother Alice’s family farm near DeKalb) and that even if I wanted to dig ditches for a living and enjoyed it I would be fulfilled for the rest of my life. I never knew at the time how important that advice would be down the road…
After a summer of working a good-paying construction job and playing the Chicago amateur circuit, I took a drive south to Robinson, a small central Illinois town that boasted the Heath Candy Bar Company and a Marathon oil refinery amongst the corn surrounding its 5,000 inhabitants. What was special about Robinson is that it was a stop on the PGA Tour, and while its $100,000 purse didn’t attract the likes of Arnie, Jack, Gary and Lee, Crawford County CC saw many of the game’s household names come to compete for the $20,000 first prize.
Even before he became PGA Tour Commissioner, Deane Beman won the tournament one year, and if you’re old enough to remember the names Bob Goalby, George Knudson and Grier Jones, they won there, too.
Donna Freed, a lady who was a town councilwoman and lived across the street from the club with husband Ken, opened their home to all of us who came in from out of town, and she would borrow cots from the neighbors and stuff us all in their full-sized basement…15-20 of us or more. This was the second time I had been to Robinson to caddie; in early September the year before I went down there on a whim at the insistence of a buddy who had heard they needed caddies. Being my dad’s caddie since I was 7 — pushing his hand cart alongside him in Chicago tournaments — and caddying part-time in high school at Hinsdale Golf Club, this came somewhat naturally to a 19-year-old who was so in love with the game and thought it would be cool to be around the best in our sport… so much so, the next week had me driving over to the river to work the Quad City Open.
Beman won that tournament too that year, but what was special was who he beat: this long-haired, mustachioed kid from Kansas City named Tom Watson. So enamored was I with this on-the-road toting in Tour events, I convinced my parents I was going to give it a full-time try. Having just turned 20 and with my grandmother’s financial help to buy a used 1967 Dodge converted camper van from the family electrician, I set out for Napa, California, to begin the journey that has — to this day — been what I’ve enjoyed for most of my adult life.
I never dug a ditch, but I’ve replaced thousands of other’s divots and raked a few bunkers. And the crazy thing about this decision? When I approached Father Frank with the idea, he said, “go for it, because I did it.”
“Dad, what?! You never told me this!”
Turns out he and his frat brother, Cliff Kong, took a semester off at Northwestern during their GI Bill years after the Navy to barnstorm the southeast in the summer of 1948. When they had money, they played golf; when they were broke and needed gas money they found the next Tour stop and caddied. Vic Ghezzi, Mike Soucek, Ralph Guldahl were some of the names Dad shouldered that spring. How could he say no to this golf-crazed son he raised?
What was so amazing about the times — remember these were the Vietnam War years — is how little money you could have in your pocket and still get around the country. We were making $20 a day and 3 percent back then, the going rate to caddie on the PGA Tour. But gas was 27 cents a gallon and most towns had Mom ’n Pop motels with kitchenettes we could stuff four guys in for the week for around $60. Who remembers when the “8 Days Inn” chain started popping up all over the country? Brand new hotels for $8.88/night…hog heaven!
But what truly was amazing in that era is how the black caddies who worked Augusta and other clubs in the South were the incumbents, caddying professionally ahead of us long-haired, white boys who eschewed college life for golf on the road (not all of us were dropouts; many spent their summers with us and returned to school in September). These were the early days when the Tour began to relax its policy to allow players to employ caddies year-round (the summers saw most clubs provide them their locals), and it was those same black brothers who showed us the ropes and welcomed us along for the ride. Herman Mitchell with the Merry Mex; Del Taylor with Casper; Killer Sam with Irwin; Walter Montgomery with Stockton; the list was long with these men who could also play a little…or in Sam Foy’s case, was a Gold Gloves boxer.
I’ll never forget the time I was having a match with Del and Herman at the old Memorial Park course in downtown Houston. Del was wearing a pair of hand-me-down leather spikes Buffalo Billy had given him and they hurt his feet so bad he took them off and played the back nine barefoot — and shot 36! It was the same round I watched Herman get his backswing stymied by a tree directly behind him. Instead of chipping out, he took the club straight up over his head from his address position, turned his shoulders and knocked the ball on the green! I think I lost about a day’s pay that day. Lesson learned. Don’t play even up with the boys who used to be the kingpins of the mid-south’s old Negro Tour. And next time you see me, I’ll show you that shot Mitch taught me. Unreal.
As the ’72 Tour season wound down we barnstormed all points west of the Rockies and back — Napa and Las Vegas, before heading south and east to San Antonio, Pensacola and Orlando. After enduring another cold winter in Chicago, I was convinced I had found my calling. I very anxiously awaited 1973 and the West Coast swing. A New Yorker by the name of Johnny Ray had set me up with a player named Mike Wynn to start the season, with the condition that if he took a Greyhound bus from NYC to Chicago after New Year’s Day, I would pick him up in the city and he would accompany me to LA and Riviera to start the year.
As luck would have it, we drove the entire trip to get within two miles of the club when I sideswiped a lady in her Mercedes. We pulled over and I let Johnny do the talking; he had her convinced it was a no-fault situation, and she somehow agreed right there in the middle of Sunset Boulevard, and off we went to Riv to start the season. One thing I do remember about that tournament is that a one-eyed caddie we called “Cocky” won the tournament with Rod Funseth… special only because the previous October he won with Lanny Wadkins in Las Vegas, Lanny’s first win on Tour. Two wins with two different players, I marveled at the accomplishment. Plus, I was in complete awe of the whole west coast experience for the first time. Celebrities ruled the Tour’s marquees, from Glen Campbell to Bob Hope to Bing Crosby to Dean Martin, and though my “Weiner Man” Mike was considered a “rabbit” Monday qualifier, I somehow made it from the left coast to Florida, picking up pro-am jobs whenever possible to earn that extra $20.
Mike and I didn’t have anything going by the time we got to Atlanta, and Gibby Gilbert offered me his bag to work the tournament that week. For the first time I had a player say he was going to give me a “salary” of $125, and had I not given him a bad number on a hole during Friday’s round I might have become his regular caddie beyond that one week.
At the trunk after missing the cut, he was nice enough to explain to me that that sort of thing cannot happen, and even though we took pride in walking the course beforehand and penciling everything down on scorecards, caddie yardage errors would not be tolerated. Since open bags back then were easy to find, I bounced around that spring. My first really good week came at the Kemper Open in Charlotte at Quail Hollow in early June, won by Tom Weiskopf.
Australian John Lister tied for sixth and his payday of $5,750 netted me around $300 for the week. But I was going to be a little late getting out of Charlotte. The Dodge needed a new alternator, so after the tournament I limped to a dealership, slept in the lot until they opened Monday morning and left with it fixed and most of that $300 left behind… easy come, easy go with life on the road. As it was, I made it to Philly the next week confident the 6-year-old camper would be good to not rob me beyond gas and oil for a while… little did I know at the time how driving long distances with a short time to get there would become an integral and necessary mainstay of my life.
Continuing into the summer always finding work, sprinkled with trips home to play in tournaments, I returned to Robinson that July (they moved the event up off its September dates) during a three-week stretch where I was covering for Steve Melnyk’s caddie so he could take a summer break and head home to Cape Cod. After making the cut in the morning wave on Friday, “Fluff” — Steve’s nickname on Tour two years before the real Fluff appeared — told me to meet him on the range after lunch for some post-round practice.
The news he gave me when he came back out was the game-changer I had been praying for all year.
“I was having lunch with David Graham and he’s looking for a new caddie. Are you interested?”
Heck yeah, I was, and meeting and talking with David on the range that afternoon sent my looping future on its course. Quite ironic was the fact that at that same Kemper Open where I had my first top 10 with a player was the same week a young Bruce Edwards caddied for David, and as fate would have it, he sent DG over the second green on Friday on the way to a missed cut, just as I had done Gibby a few weeks prior. It put Bruce on a week-to-week job search until, as we all know, he found his treasure stored up in heaven when Tom Watson walked out of that Norwood Hills locker room in St. Louis looking for a caddie. I know because I was on the putting green that day waiting for David and watched as it happened: Neil “Ox” Oxman pointed to Watson and says: “Look, Bruce, there’s Tom Watson, I’ll bet he doesn’t have anybody.”
That day golfing history proclaimed that as fact… and you can verify it on pages 40-43 in Bruce’s memoir “Caddy For Life.” If you haven’t read it, Amazon has a copy waiting for you. Shoot, I have two extra copies at home besides the one Bruce signed to me days before he succumbed to ALS. It’s a great read, I’ll lend one to you. Make sure you ask me about his picture on the cover of the hard copy. Hilarious, but so Bruce…
David and I actually didn’t start right away, as he told me he was taking a three-week break and would meet me in Hartford for our first event. I latched on to veteran Bob “Hawk” Wynn for those three weeks, the highlight coming in Sutton, Massachusetts when the real Hawk, Ken Harrelson of Boston Red Sox fame, was given a sponsor exemption to play in the tournament.
As distinct noses would have it, the two Hawks met in the locker room, hit it off immediately, and arranged a practice round. This acquaintance became more important later in life when Ken became the play-by-play announcer for my beloved White Sox. There was no question the man could play golf almost as well as he played baseball. I’ll always remember the day I was playing in a charity Monday Pro-Am in the mid-’80’s at Beverly Country Club, and Hawk showed up that morning after the team’s red-eye from a west coast trip afforded him little or no sleep… he went out that morning and shot 67 to take low-pro honors.
The tournament with the longest name back then, The Sammy Davis Jr. Greater Hartford Open, became David’s and my launching pad, and I’m sure glad we did better than his opening tee shot on Thursday.
The first hole at Wethersfield is a straightaway, tree-lined par 4 of 330 yards. The small square tee box sits on a raised concrete platform about 50 feet from the door to the pro shop. After the starter announced his name, David’s three-wood sailed way right into some tall oaks where about 20 people (including the marshal) heard it but never saw it. Never thinking to hit a provisional, we searched until our allotted five minutes were up — lost ball double!
I handed DG another ball for his trek back to the tee, probably thinking I’d be looking for another job after the week was finished. Back in those days as you’ve read my words, second chances were hard to come by; the old guard were as hard on their caddies as they were on themselves. Fortunately, things improved as the weeks progressed, and I would value this relationship as my regular job for many years and many wins to come. David had this burning desire to be the best, and his practice regimen was nothing short of Hogan’s. It was back then that we carried our player’s shag bag in the car, and many tournaments had us out there on the range 15-20 caddies at a time, searching the sky for our man’s ball flight while being wary of the others close to you. Thank God, I never got beaned. My love of baseball turned shagging MacGregor golf balls into a game of catch, and David and I became somewhat of a practice range sideshow. Rather than use a baseball glove like some caddies did, I wet half my towel and folded it in such a way it became my mitt. With the right sky, I could catch drivers in that towel and it wouldn’t sting. Wedges all the way thru the mid-irons, our goal was for DG to hit them so straight I wouldn’t move but a few steps one way or another.
He liked the challenge so much that on weeks off we would head to his Florida home and spend all afternoon on the range, emptying bag after bag of balls. I got to the point where I could catch his perfect short irons behind my back. The only thing I enjoyed better about those weeks off was Maureen’s cooking — her Shepherd’s Pie alleviated a lot of homesickness.
As the years 1974 and ’75 flew by I watched my man’s improvement, though we hadn’t won anything yet. I learned and filed in my mind everything I could as to what made David tick on the golf course, good or bad, for he was very much a perfectionist and drove me to be the same. Every approach to every green became “what have you got — what do you like” meaning I gave him the number and told him what I thought he should hit.
Tee to green I had to be the best I could be for David, and as I said earlier, in those days we had to walk the course ourselves and write down our notes on scorecards (“Gorgeous” George Lucas’ little $5 hand-drawn printed yardage books didn’t become popular until late 1975); even sheets providing the pin locations were still years away. If you had a late tee time, you ran around the course early and visually measured the pins. Some caddies in the morning wave would give you a couple bucks if you shared your info.
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Check this out… longtime caddie Steve Hulka gave us a peek at “the early days of yardage gathering.” Scorecards and pencils without erasers. Up top, some of Gorjus’ (yardologist, George Lucas, that is) first editions. Hulka said it sometimes went like this when acquiring those invaluable yardage books, “Gimme a book, damnit, I’ll pay you later.”
Early in the ’74 season we were paired in the last group with Ben Crenshaw, tied for the lead at the New Orleans Open. Lee Trevino lit it up that day in the group ahead of us, shooting 64 to win by eight. David finished a distant fifth or so with Ben tying for second.
In 1975, David lost by a stroke to Don Iverson at the caddies’ favorite tournament, the B.C. Open in Endicott, N.Y. It was our fave because the Monday after the tournament they left the pins in the Sunday positions and we played in our annual Caddie Classic, thanks to Tournament Director Alex Alexander.
Soon after, David relayed news to me that we would be traveling in October to his homeland of Australia for a month of tournaments and that I needed to get a passport. Flying internationally was very expensive back in those days, but fortunately DG had a sponsor back in Cleveland who picked up our airfare. Never having flown much to this point, Chicago-to-Honolulu-to-Fiji-to-Auckland-to-Sydney in coach was quite the 24-hour experience. I can’t tell you how many days it took me to stop waking up wide-eyed at 2:30 in the morning down there. But I was ready to go once I landed, and the whole incredible month culminated when, in his hometown of Melbourne, David won the Wills Masters at Victoria Golf Club (and the $7,000 first prize!) by beating Gary Player down the stretch.
Not without incident, though! Sunday morning, I took the rental car out to the course very early to get some homework done, and as we would do in the States, scout the holes and mark on my scorecards the day’s hole locations. Terry Gale, an Australian pro who had teed off in the early pairings and unbeknownst to me, complained to the officials that he saw David Graham’s caddie walking the course after the first group teed off, which may or may not have been in violation of Australian golf rules. Heck, I had no clue I was doing wrong; I didn’t even think to ask since it was something we did all the time back home as part of our job.
I returned to the hotel about an hour and a half before our final pairing with “Laddie” only to find out David and Maureen had overslept! They might have done the AM/PM boo-boo with the alarm clock, but when I knocked on their door thinking they were ready to drive us back to the club, that was their first clue that Sunday morning had arrived. Helter Skelter ensued for the next hour as they got ready in a Jumpin’ Jack Flash as we rushed back to the course. And if that wasn’t enough to get things rolling quickly, when we arrived at Victoria David was met by some officials from the Australian Golf Union.
“We’ve come to know that your caddie was walking the golf course this morning after the first pairing teed off.”
“So what?” David shot back. “Are you going to disqualify me for something my caddie does for me every week?! You can tell the press why I was not allowed to play, and I’ll just get on a plane out of here. Go ahead, disqualify me!”
Whoa, now the juices were flowing, and with all that hubbub and the short warm-up I don’t think DG even thought once about getting nervous. Off we went and four hours later the trophy was his, head-to-head with the Black Knight himself.
Not THE Masters but a Wills Masters nonetheless; it turned out to be the last tournament held under that sponsorship, so David got to “retire” another trophy as he did when he won the PGA Tour’s Cleveland tournament three years before. Oh, by the way, Wills back then was a cigarette company. Try getting that as a professional sports sponsor in today’s world…
Once we returned home for the December break and Christmas, I had a really good feeling that 1976 was going to be a banner year. I’ll continue on with you my life as a caddie next time I get in front of this computer and we’ll relive another couple decades. The stories I’ve got, hope you enjoyed these.
So, until the next installment — I’ve bent your eyes long enough — go out and play some good golf and enjoy Detroit and Minneapolis with some brand-new tournaments on the PGA Tour’s schedule. I’ll write some more soon when I can break away from my whirlwind schedule… ciao for now… stay busy!