Steve Hulka reflects on spiritual awakening in 1977 and how, after a brief break, he was brought back to caddying

Steve Hulka
After a tremendous 1976 season with David Graham, caddie Steve Hulka felt he needed some time at home and off the Tour. In his latest installment, Hulka reflects on how that all played out.

Hello, there. Welcome back. This chapter of my story has a very important, very spiritual aspect to what transpired in my life at this juncture. Let’s just say that circumstances played a very important role again in my maturation not only as a tour caddie but as a young man traveling the world. Some may not want to hear what I have to say, hopefully the majority of you will and take it to heart.

The year 1977 loomed, and how would we as a team follow up a season where my player, David Graham, finished second to Jack Nicklaus on the world golf money list? We ended 1976 with only two tournaments in Australia this time around as Jack whupped us and everybody else at the Australian Open. I mean, we were three back of Bear, paired with him in the final grouping going into Sunday in Sydney and Jack birdied three of the first four to pretty much lay claim to the tournament he always called his, “Fifth Major.”

I returned home for what I thought would be a joyful Christmas in wintery Chicago, but the break turned out much different — more like heartbreak. I learned I wasn’t going to enjoy the company of my college sweetheart anymore on the road, as Laurel’s parents ixnayed any further jaunting around the country earning $100 a week babysitting a 2-year-old. I couldn’t blame them, as her dentist father and stay-at-home mom wanted her setting the example for her three younger brothers who were all right behind her in school — she being the one with a degree from the University of Illinois. So, off to Minneapolis she went to take a job in the front office of the Ice Capades, an internationally renowned ice dance troupe, as the Comet and I alone made our way to meet DG on the west coast… a lonesome Route 66 at that.

RELATED: A season with the No. 2 player in the world, hanging with Jack, a loop with Arnie and more. Caddie Steve Hulka details an unforgettable 1976 season.

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For some unknown reason, I didn’t continue keeping the hole-by-hole notes of DG’s rounds like I did to chronicle the previous year, but I do remember we got off to a pretty decent start, and who wouldn’t relish the fact that this was my fifth winter in a row away from snow caddying courses the likes of Torrey Pines, Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Riviera, among others. Rubbing shoulders with famous celebrities was all part of the lore and lure of caddying on the PGA Tour, and this was the year Bing Crosby and his wife Katherine met us after our round at Spyglass Hill to congratulate David on a fine 1976, and thanks for coming back to compete at his Clambake.

My my, this man who I watched on TV and in movies growing up introducing himself to me — I think I detected cherrywood he had going in his ever-present Meerschaum pipe that day (LOL!). You probably need to be over 55 to even know what I’m talking about. At any rate, I just shook the hand of an American icon who loved being around tour pros and entertaining his Hollywood friends. Like Bruce Edwards loved to often and loudly say: “It’s THE TOUR!!”

Steve Hulka
In his brief stint away from caddying in 1977, Steve Hulka (right) spent time working on his own game. Steve’s father, Frank, is caddying for him here in the Illinois Amateur. Steve notes that his slacks were Etonic hand-me-downs from David Graham!

The West Coast Swing flew by as it often does, and once that last February Sunday came and went it was time to fire up the Comet and hit Caddie Highway east the entire length of the country to Miami. That was a no-brainer nickname we gave Interstate 10 because 1.) we all drove back then; even the players had station wagons and loaded up the family and the luggage and did quite a bit of their own driving from tournament to tournament. It still was just too expensive to fly commercially, and the Tour arranged the schedule so geographically perfect that there weren’t that many long drives between stops; and 2.) there were no less than nine cities we played along that major Southern Route: west-to-east you had LA, Palm Springs, Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, Pensacola and Jacksonville all within an exit or two of I-10. Oops, wait a minute I forgot one, make that 10: Tallahassee, which was the original opposite-field event back then to the Tournament of Champions held at the La Costa Resort and Spa. Down the road in a future writing, I’ll explain how the significance of that state capital and home to Florida State University played a defining role in my life in 1979.

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As the Florida swing unfolded, the buzz was brewing about the new course we were headed to up the coast in Jacksonville. Commissioner Dean Beman wanted to showcase the Tournament Players Championship with a permanent home and supplant the established Jacksonville Open at Deerwood CC, so the Tour had announced it was taking their flagship event that traveled the first three years and plunk it down, Jim, in Ponte Vedra Beach near their new headquarters.

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Before the Stadium course was built and became the focal gem of the TPC Network, they played the formidable Sawgrass Country Club on the beach side of A1A for five years, and 1977 kicked off the party. David and I were excited about our prospects. Our practice rounds went very well on this windswept ballstriker’s paradise fraught with gators in the ponds and frequent March gales off the Atlantic. We felt we could win here.

Except an unfortunate circumstance “rose up” to greet us on Thursday morning. I could set my watch to David’s punctuality, and as I waited for him to pull into the player’s lot — I need not remind you this was 20 years before cell phones — 10 minutes went by, then 20, then moving toward just over a half hour before our tee time I started to worry, but then he arrived. When he got out of the car I could see right away he was not feeling well. He was as white as the color of the car he was driving.

“Steven, I was up all night throwing up. I think I ate some bad seafood for dinner. I don’t know if I’ll be able to play. Let me go get my shoes on, see you on the range and we’ll see if I can make a go of it.”

Steve Hulka
There was a lot that happened for Steve Hulka — spiritually — in 1977.

Man, what a kick in the stomach, pun intended, not to mention our normal hour of prep was cut in half. He gave it a valiant effort for eight holes, but the bogeys piled up in the wind and the fact he had absolutely no energy to go along with a few trips to the Port-O’s to try and relieve the nausea that persisted.  Finally, he called a rules official over to ask permission to withdraw, and we headed to the clubhouse. About an hour later, we gathered his things at the hotel and I drove him to the airport. TPC ‘77 was over for us just like that.

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Now that I had three days to kill I returned to Jax Beach where I was staying and remembered I had ordered a pair of custom sandals from a tiny little leather shop amongst the surfboard, swimsuit and deep-sea fishing storefronts that lined up for a few blocks perpendicular to Beach Boulevard. Dan Pauly, the owner of the store, was a likable hippie-type from California, and the day I met him he told me the story about how he and his wife drove cross-country from Cali and arrived in Jax Beach with $50 in their pockets, a few hides they brought with them and the leather working-tools of his trade. Setting up on the beach and living out of their van (all hippies drove vans in those days), they made a go of it until he could qualify for a lease on their shop, and in a few years he said it grew from there.

What I did notice about the interior that lined the walls were these beautiful hand-drawn framed pictures in colored pencil depicting scenes from the Bible, with the accompanying verses written at the bottom of each one. The Last Supper, The Sermon on the Mount, The Woman at the Well, The Good Samaritan — those were just a few of a dozen or so that he had hanging around the shop. Growing up in a denominational Christian church I was familiar with them all, and at the counter to pay for my order I asked Dan who had created the artwork.

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“My wife Elizabeth drew those.”

Whoa! This woman he married had some talent, but I know I was impressed by her clarity and attention to detail. He then asked me how my day went and I relayed how my player got sick and had to leave town.

“What do you do now the rest of the week?”

“Oh, I don’t know, hang out at the beach, break these new sandals in, maybe head to Jax Beach muni to go play some golf…”

“Well hey,” Dan said, “if you’re interested, a bunch of my buddies at church are going camping this weekend at a lake about 60 miles west of here. You’re welcome to join us. Just gonna hang out at these cabins we rented and cook out.”

I heard myself say, “hey, that would be cool.”

The offer was made not only to me, but an unemployed caddie that week new to the Tour who I was with named Lawrence Harrity. That’s right, his mother named him “Larry Harrity,” but we — out of respect — stuck with “Lawrence.” Good thing Lawrence was a friendly type, low-key and respectful even though he was new to the Tour. If he was a smart-aleck or a boisterous sort, Edwards would’ve crucified him with some kind of nickname attached to that moniker — Bruce was the King of Caddie Nicknames. Anyway, both of us agreed it might be an interesting way to spend the weekend.

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So, there we were, an hour west of J-ville in the middle of north, rural Florida just off Caddie Highway, and the log cabins backed up to a small lake surrounded by huge pines. I won’t bother you with too many details — someday when we’re face-to-face I’ll give you the extended version if you’d like since we are getting off golf’s fairway here — but I can tell you after a night and a day of good talks, burgers and dogs on the grill and some great guitar playing, by Saturday afternoon I truly met my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ in a glorious way, and Dan and his buddies baptized me in that lake, John the Baptist-style.

It happened on March 19th, the day that my grandmother Doris Sr. turned 70. And verily I can say, the Pentecostal Movement of the 1970s was alive and well in north Florida and in my heart that weekend, and when I went back to their church and announced my baptism in front of their congregation, 300 people stood up and cheered for me. That happened for David and me many times on the golf course, but never in my life did I receive thunderous applause for a decision.

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What really turned this whole life on the road around was not only the Experience which had been revealed to me, but how everything going forward had a deeper and more perceptive meaning. When I called Laurel to tell her about it, she got a picture in her mind that I was going to hang out in airports and street corners and hand out Bible tracts. She, growing up in a much stricter household than I, abruptly ended our five-year relationship. With homesickness haunting me daily and weary of the travel, I felt a growing desire to get off the Tour. Here I was in my 25th year on earth and still had nothing more in my pocket than the money I made last week. But now I had Someone really close I could talk to to help me through these feelings of wanting to get home, work in the family construction business like I did briefly when I left school and see if I could take my own golf game to a level I had never got to in high school and college.

You see, once a golfer always a golfer, and I thought training and practicing would get me somewhere that spring and summer on the Chicagoland amateur circuit; maybe by the fall I’d have something on which to build. In 4+ years, I had just witnessed all over the world how the best in the game do what they do to be at the highest level, and I had it in my mind I could implement some of this knowledge to better my own game and see where it would take me. After all, I still had most of my college eligibility left and I owed it to my father to maybe get that degree after all. I’d play my way into either a golf scholarship, or a job in the golf industry. Whatever it is I would be led into doing, I was happy I was making the decision to head home…

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I had a heart-to-heart with David after we played in the Tournament of Champions at La Costa in April. I told him of my desire to take break and hang it up for awhile. David understood, I think, but it was hard for him to perceive anything other than circumstances we both incurred had moved me to change after that week at Sawgrass. I still chuckle today at a comment he made after a particular shot went awry: “Well, Steven, I see your religious conversion hasn’t helped my golf game one bit.”

Steve Hulka
In 1977, Steve Hulka had a special moment on the course when he made his first hole-in-one while playing a match with his dad.

Dan [Pauly], on the other hand, felt like he was really on his witnessing game, so much so he flew to my hometown during Masters week and earnestly tried to convert my mother, Doris, and stepfather. After his impassioned speech to them to believe like he believed, and like he convinced me I did, my mother blew him away by saying, “Dan, I hate to interrupt you, but will you do me a favor and turn to Matthew 6 and read the first eight verses out loud for me, please?”

Those of you who have read the Word know what it says, and I’ll paraphrase what it means here: that you don’t need to show off your good deeds publicly for the world to take notice, but give to those in need and do it unnoticeably out of the goodness of your heart. And when you pray, you don’t need a bullhorn and a lot of flowery words; in fact, you can go to a private place and pray to God secretly because He will hear you and listen to what you have to say. He might answer yes, He might answer no, He might say wait awhile… but He always answers.

This resonated with me, and it reminded me once again of some life-changing circumstances in my early childhood. As a young boy, I experienced horrible nightmares and I woke up many times very frightened. I’ll never forget the night Mom sat by my bedside and told me I had to ask God to help take them away, that this was an opportunity to say my own little prayer. I remember I mumbled something like, “Dear Lord, please don’t let me have these bad dreams.”

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Just that, nothing more, simple prayer. I can tell you from that day forward the dreams went away and I have not had one since. That’s a fact, Jack. And again, a few years later, I was 8 years old, playing with a friend at his house. I got stung by a wasp right through my shirt on my left chest, but we were running around so much I didn’t really notice. My mother did the next morning though when I tried to get out of bed but couldn’t stand up — my chest had swollen around an exit wound near my heart. The doctor visit to see what was up became a three-day hospital stay to save my life. The overnight venom from the sting had spread throughout my bloodstream, and once again I asked to be spared. I’m still here, thank God!

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So, eventually I steered for home that spring of ‘77 determined to work my way up in the world using my own skills and work ethic, and though I left him with having to break in another caddie, David Graham was supportive of my decision. One of the most undeniable aspects of being a professional tour caddie is the reliance of someone else’s golf ability to make a living. I had it in my mind to practice like I was taught when I was half my age, when Dad would have me out to his rural house where he kept a huge parcel of land mowed into his personal driving range. There he cemented two flags into coffee cans and buried them — one on the top of the hill near the road and the other down below near the back end of the property, 160 yards apart. There we would hit our shag balls, up and back, down and up. Each year as I grew, I hoped to hit one less club, that was my goal. It took about five years in my pre-teens to graduate from a driver to a cleek to a mashie-niblick… OK, it wasn’t that long ago!

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Though I do recall a fourth-place finish in the Midwest Amateur at the old Waveland GC right downtown in The Loop on the shore of Lake Michigan, it wasn’t the highlight of my summer of Chicago golf.

I was playing in our men’s club at White Pines with Dad one July weekend — all right: it was 7/24/77 — when I hit last in our foursome on the 210-yard eighth hole, pin slightly shy of middle on the left. My four-wood took off straight for the flag, and as Frank started off the tee with his pull-cart he yelled, “that one could hurt us!” since he wasn’t my Scotch partner at the time. It didn’t hurt me at all to watch my ball take one bounce and find the bottom of the cup for my first hole-in-one. That green is still there to this day, just another hole on a rerouted golf course. Memorably, I played it a few weeks ago with my son, Ben, when we were back in town for the BMW Championship at Medinah — it’s just an 8-iron now. My ashes will go there someday.

The summer of ‘77 flew by. By instituting a daily running regimen I was in my best shape since sophomore year of high school when I was playing three sports.  Between pounding nails for the family business, I was pounding golf balls like I always enjoyed doing. Another Chicago winter stared me in the face, but this time I stared back: it looked like I would be spending my first January in Illinois since ‘71-‘72, but then the phone rang…

“Steven, David Graham here. How would you like to come to Tampa and work for me in the Mixed Team Championship? I’m playing with Marlene Floyd, Raymond’s sister, and would like you there.”

“Of course, David, I’d love to, thanks for asking. I’ll see you Monday in Tampa at the Bardmoor.”

Here we go again. This caddying thing’s in my blood.

COMMENTS

  1. Your stories bring back memories of the great times we had.
    Still tell the story of David stomping down the 9th fairway of Pacific Grove yelling at us to get our butts in the car as everybody was waiting on us at Fort Ord. Jack’s look was the greatest when we showed up.
    Glad to see you are doing well.
    Cheers

    1. That’s a GREAT memory, Peter! Yes, that was the day we got rained out at the Clambake because Spy was unplayable. But Bear wanted to go somewhere to play/practice, and he invited DG, Tom Weiskopf and Ed Sneed to join him at Blackhorse. A fellow by the name of Ron Harvey followed us around that day – he was stationed @ Ord as an Army medical personnel – who 15 years later became our Caddie Chaplain. He eventually conducted the marriage of my daughter Mallory and son-in-law Ryan!

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