Pinehurst
There aren’t a whole lot of experiences in golf better than being able to spend some time at famed Pinehurst. Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

Pinehurst wasn’t what it’s become when I first traveled there in the early 1980s as a fledgling junior golfer who was interested in the game but not yet infatuated.

My crazy lifelong love affair in pursuit of birdies and memories began a year or two later and the flame ignited in the Home of American Golf. We convened and competed each summer in those Sandhills, playing courses crafted by a master. Collectively too young to understand how lucky we were, our growth was measured off the tee, on the green and through final-round standings as we built friendships that burn brightly today.

I came from a modest upbringing compared to my peers, parking golf carts and picking the driving range to pay entry fees. Not that I minded, willing to do whatever was necessary to walk those blazing fairways each June and July, play the North & South, the Donald Ross or the Invitational at Mid-Pines.

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From those blue collar roots, loving the game, a good tale and a good time, I naturally gravitated toward the men in white jumpsuits who walked the course and carried clubs for members and guests. At Pinehurst, caddies form the backbone and soul, no different than anywhere else in the world where caddies still exist. A man can’t carry on a conversation with a golf cart. Not for long anyway before a higher authority slips him into a white suit of his own.

We carried our own bags in those days, of course, and carried on in the evenings, holding court in the basement apartment at the Pine Crest Inn among other temporary homes. We aimed for low scores during the day and shenanigans at night, laughing now at behavior that was mostly harmless though certain to give the modern helicopter parent a case of hives.

Jeff Ferguson was a legend in the Pinehurst caddie yard then and now. He carried Chris Kite to a U.S. Amateur final and Vicki Goetze to North & South victories, and kept us rapt with the tale of a young Davis Love III blasting mammoth drives around the village masterpiece, Pinehurst No. 2.

We became friends and later on he hauled my clubs around some championship courses in tournament play, though I fell short of the standard set by his previous loops.

Ferguson remains a fixture at Pinehurst. He’s the lone living active member of the Pinehurst Caddie Hall of Fame, which originated in 2001. His photo hangs on the wall in the resort clubhouse, alongside the other legends like Fletcher Gaines, Hard Rock Robinson and John T. Daniel, better known as Barney Google.

From Jones and Sarazen to Hogan and Snead, Nicklaus and Palmer and Mickelson and Woods, every legend has played at Pinehurst and many of them relied on a local looper to lead them around the course. Sam Snead leaned on Jimmy Steed for club selection and green reading, calling his Pinehurst caddie perhaps the best he ever had. They won the North and South Open together in the 1940s. Any player, professional or amateur, would have been wise to listen to Gaines. He won the annual caddie tournament so many times (seven in a row) they named the trophy in his honor.

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Those men started out in a bullpen alongside 500 others, decades ago in the days before motorized carts. Jimmy Smith has been the caddie-master at Pinehurst since 2000 and has 130 caddies under his watch. With the recent opening of the redesigned Pinehurst No. 4, his staff will likely expand next season. Like its more famous neighbor No. 2, carts aren’t allowed on the fairways and the paths are located on the extreme edge of the playing area. Taking a cart on those courses not only means more walking, it also means missing out on experiencing the course the way the designer intended. Not to mention trying to decipher the confounding greens on your own.

Nobody knew those greens better than Willie McRae, who died at age 85 two days prior to my most recent trip. He caddied at Pinehurst for 75 years, working for Donald Ross, Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle and dozens of touring professionals. Working for a member of the Great Britain/Ireland team in the 1951 Ryder Cup, he watched as Ben Hogan dissected No. 2 in 66 strokes.

“Everybody is somebody,” McRae said more than once and anyone fortunate enough to have him on the bag for four hours on No. 2 surely felt grateful to be there.

Pinehurst is blossoming. The resort has opened a putting course and par-3 layout in recent years, added a brewery and barbecue restaurant. The energy is palpable.

The caddies will earn their pay on Gil Hanse’s redesigned No. 4, trudging through soft sand and pointing players toward the exaggerated slopes which can funnel a golf ball toward the hole, if attacked correctly. My veteran caddie Bob did his part during my recent round. There wasn’t much he could do for my feeble putting stroke, however. Like thousands of other club caddies around the nation, he would soon head to the warmer air of Florida for the winter.

But next spring, he’ll come back to Pinehurst. Hopefully, I’ll return before then. It’s an easy choice. Vocation or avocation, aspiring pro or weekend duffer, there’s a mystical allure in those towering pines.