EDITOR’S NOTE: Periodically, veteran caddie Steve Hulka will be filing stories for The Caddie Network about his life on the road as a PGA Tour looper, which dates back to the 1970s. Hulka’s stories are a great picture into what things were like then and how much they’ve changed in the present day… and he’s been there for all of it. This is his fifth installment.
Hello again, Caddie Networkers. I am ready to start another decade of Hulka stories. I think we finally covered the 1970s so here we go: rock on, Chapter Five, bring on the 1980s.
Sure, go ahead, take me out of my classic rock ‘n roll roots and put me in the retro era, that’s just fine with me… at least we blew up the disco records! Let the good times roll, Cars. Wait, OK, still vans (Morrison?). Don’t worry, Don McLean, it’s still another bye-bye American Pie decade before the Day The Music Died.
Before I say “I do,” let me just say where I’m writing this currently: 37,000 feet above the western United States on a SWA flight to Baltimore. From that layover this afternoon I’ll catch a connector to San Juan, Puerto Rico, get me to the oppo PGA Tour event we’re competing in this week at Coco Beach GC & Resort while the upper echelon sports and supports Mexico City. You see, my current boss for most of the last 14 Tour seasons has been Brian Davis — yes, that Brian Davis who called a penalty on himself in 2010 on my favorite course on Tour to lose a playoff against Jim Furyk and Fluff.
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While we were both playing golf yesterday — he in the four-spot qualifier in Miami and me in my Monday golf group at home in Phoenix — we got word from the Tour that he made it into the PR field off of first alternate when somebody de-committed. My contingency plan was already in place since we were so close to getting in anyway, but that eliminates my umpteenth drive across the country to start the Florida Swing. Instead, that task falls on my son Ben and daughter-in-law Heidi to get the Tour family’s luggage trailer there. My air miles tick up to help my A-List status with Southwest while my drive miles keep 2,300 off of it. That’s a fair trade.
I’ll type paragraphs all week and get this out to you around a four-day loop, hopefully near the start of the Honda Classic… this is my fifth start already to this 2020 decade! And you thought I kept retiring from this pro caddying years ago? Well, let me see if I can clear up the confusion: let’s stay back in my history and crank up the ‘80s (where my game is these days, 😬). And I still haven’t introduced you to my answer to prayer yet, but she’s right around the bend — the circumstances He authored are already in place. I just didn’t know it yet. So…
To recount, I left you last time with this end-of-the-‘70s plan: I was to head for the west coast and Florida for the eighth winter in a row with a three-month only arrangement to work for U.S. Open champion Andy North. I had until then to report to Don Stickney on April 1 and begin a new career at the prestigious Chicago Golf Club as an assistant club professional. My on-again, off-again life on Tour as a professional caddie would officially close for what I believed was the last time, and where better to wrap up the three months but at my absolute favorite course on Tour: Harbour Town Golf Links.
Andy was such a good boss to work for, so midwestern easy-going compared to David Graham’s burning desire to be the best (could be why DG’s in the HOF, yes?). David taught me the diligence of purposeful practice and to persevere with the game’s good and bad on both sides of the bag; Andy taught me how to have fun and enjoy those around you on and off the golf course. One of the coolest things about those three months by his side was the fact I got to be around Bruce Edwards and Tom Watson a lot more, since North and Watson were close friends and played a lot of practice rounds together. We even spent the entire week of the 1980 Crosby Clambake together, Andy paired with his father, Dr. Stewart North, a professor at Wisconsin and later at the University of Houston, and Tom with Sandy Tatum, who at the time was Executive Director of the USGA.
In later years, these two paired up to win their share of Team Championships, which by the way, I caddied for Tom in two of them in the mid ‘70s when Bruce would trek off to Hawaii with Grits for a few months of solitude in paradise after the regular season ended. This was when Tom decided to bless his teacher at home, head pro Stan Thirsk of Kansas City CC, with a November week at Disney World. I mean, Arnie was playing with Jack, Johnny was playing with Stockton, Dean Refram would win with Jim Colbert. Tom and Stan didn’t actually compete for the title, though TW certainly thought he could contend with a club pro as his partner! Besides, he’d rather spend a week on the course with his childhood mentor and not only show him a good time but allow Stan to spend 72 holes observing his pupil play “under the gun.” How smart was that? They didn’t teach empty chairs out there at Stanford…
READ: 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.
I’ll never forget one of those weeks, one of those rounds, one of those holes, one of those masterful shots Tom could pull off. To be precise, it was the 13th hole on the Magnolia course, a short dogleg left where Watson had driven it just off to the right side of the fairway in the first cut for a back left hole location — a perfect angle. The wind was blowing pretty well in our face, and I gave him the yardage: 112.
“What do you like, Hulk?”
“I like pitching wedge, Tom, it might jump a little.”
To which he said, “watch this,” pulled out 9 iron, flighted it down a little to counter the wind… and proceeded to hole it! He triumphantly handed me back the club with that big gap-toothed grin of his, an eagle two going on their scorecard. This was the year we tied for seventh out of 36 or so teams at 22-under par in the better ball of pairs format… did I tell you Stan helped us on one hole the entire four days?! Yessir, Tom Watson shot 21-under par on his own ball that week…
But let’s not reminisce too much and instead remain focused on the current timeline. As I pointed the Ford Econoline north on I-75 in late March for what was that last time on Tour (so I thought), I couldn’t wait to settle into my brand new job, which would still require a six-day-a-week routine, but without the driving and a different bed every week. Mondays were always a day off in the private sector of the golf business to play in Section tournaments, so Tuesday through Saturday — dawn to dusk — became the norm for me (I was usually practicing or playing as many holes before dark around 6 p.m.). OK, wait, I have to be honest here, this was Chicago Golf. It was “only” a membership numbering 135 back then, so we never really saw anybody before 8 a.m. during the week, maybe a little earlier on the weekends; 40 players a day was considered busy by our standards, maybe a little more during peak summer months especially on the weekends (remember I told you golf in Chicago is primarily Memorial Day to Labor Day?).
So many members came from all walks of Chicago and Midwest corporate life. To name a few: the CEO of Standard Oil; the President of Keebler cookies; a Bowes from the Pitney & Bowes company; even radio and print personality Paul Harvey, who would roll up in his vintage Dusenberg convertible on weekends after a week’s worth of “The Rest of the Story” and “good day” endings that broadcast all over the Western world. Shoot, even our old pal Ben Crenshaw eventually kept a non-resident membership there, and to this day Davis Love III considers it the greatest course he’s ever seen and played. What was great for me was I was the only assistant in the pro shop, but Stick retained in the bag room another well-liked and trusted caddie, a younger man by the name of Tim “Lake” Schmeling. Don allowed him to grow into his role as Caddiemaster to our crew of about 30 teenaged boys and girls who we could count on every weekend during school and all summer to loop for the regular playing members who liked to walk and employ a caddie.
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Tim and I were in charge of hiring and training prospective “B” jocks, and we had quite the corps of regulars we could count on: there was this Irish Catholic family of five brothers, the Keogh’s, who went by nicknames like Beato, Waldo, Smedlap, Whips and Lape. Also emerging from the group were another couple of high schoolers from Wheaton who the members constantly graded A’s on their caddie tickets for the good jobs they did: John “Bugsy” Moran and Cathy VandenBrook, and soon after that Tom Lane, a new face who showed up when his parents moved to Wheaton from Massillon, Ohio. Our small corps of kid caddies around the shop (which was a two-room separate building detached from the main clubhouse) were all respected kids from great families. I never recall in my four years there even once a hassle, a disturbance or worse a caddie-yard fight like in the early scene from the movie Caddyshack — which, by the way, came out that year. Stick somehow found a bootleg copy of the movie on VHS, and he would keep it playing in the tape player hooked up underneath the TV in his office. Every day that movie would be on — whoever was near it when it ended would be in charge of hitting rewind — and the famous one-liners and dialog from the script became part of our normal conversation. Plus, watching Stick stop by the TV every time he passed by to watch a scene then start laughing hysterically was as funny as the movie itself. We had our own caddyshack going at ChiGolf, on tape and in real life. If you love the game like we do and have not seen the movie, I want to meet you. You are the only person on earth. But go out and buy a copy, will you please?
“You get high, Danny?”
“Every day, sir.”
“Where’d that go?”
“Right in the lumber yard…”
“Hey, you get a bowl of soup with that hat?”
“Looks good on you, though!”
“There is no gambling at Bushwood, and I never slice!”
“That’s a peach, Hon.”
“C’mon, Billy….oh, Billy, Billy, Billy…”
Well, you get the picture… which is 40 years old this year, can you believe it?! Timeless and so precious a film to golfers worldwide. “Aw, Danny, you don’t understand!”
One of my daily tasks at the end of each day was to take the merchandise sales and guest fee tickets we wrote up in an old carbon copy book in the shop and walk them into the clubhouse office where Account Manager Dorothy Darrow and her assistant would record, by hand, all these little ways that the members would get charged for golf-related items on their monthly bills. There were four management level adults who ran the club, Dorothy and head pro Don being two of them. The other two were Don Gerber, the head superintendent whose father years before him kept the grounds immaculate, and Werner Schwarz, the second generation German immigrant who did all the cooking and ran everything connected with food and beverage. Among us too was a Filipino family of three generations who lived on the grounds of the club in the “Manila Hotel” and assisted Dorothy, Werner and Don G with all things inside and out: Isidro, the 90-something WWII veteran grandfather (who smoked unfiltered Chesterfields every day), was the taproom bartender with his son Basilio and nephew Mel handling locker room and waitstaff duties.
READ: A win in Mexico, a crazy car accident and a dream job at home wrap up the 1970s for Steve Hulka
Werner also lived with his wife Ruth on the 15th fairway in a duplex ranch he shared with one of the members. Depending on Chicago suburban rush hour traffic — never a good thing — I had this half-hour to hour drive to and from the club every day, and in those late Spring months when we really had nothing much going on I could tolerate the commute… but six days a week?
Once that first season got rolling into the warm and busy months, I asked Stick if I could just park my van and “live in the lot,” grabbing showers in the locker room early and late, and he said as long as I didn’t go in there when members were around it’d be OK (my second year there they gave me a bedroom upstairs in the clubhouse). For that first summer and fall I had more time on my own at the club to practice and play before and after work; my game was coming around being at the club all the time — I even shot 2-under 68 one night playing a fast 18 with Lake and Mike Munro who came by to join us (hmm: play fast, play better — maybe way back when, Tommy Bolt was onto something).
And so let me get this straight: I came home to live in my van. Once a hippie, always a hippie I guess, yet that decision really allowed for more rest at night, fresh air and all. Those were some very busy, very different summers than I was used to, except for the sleeping outside part. Mondays I got to play in the Section events where they allowed assistants, of which there were many. Dave Nell and I even came close to winning the Pro-Pro Better Ball at Rolling Green, finishing second. I was in love with my new job, and being able to work on my game again on my own time was something that really mattered to me. And I got to work at it on the oldest course in the country. I was blessed. But still single.
Any of you remember the racquetball craze that gripped the early ‘80s? These racquetball clubs seemed to be popping up all over the suburbs, and chef Werner and I took to the sport as a way to burn off some steam and get some serious cardio in after our long days of mostly standing around. That’s the one thing about the club pro life I had a hard time getting used to: you were on your feet all day but you stood around. At least with looping you got to keep moving… with a 30-40 lb. bag on your shoulder to boot. Even most club caddies will do 25 lbs. on each shoulder. I loved that growing up at Hinsdale: your $4 became $8 (and twice the tips) once you attained Honor Caddie status and were allowed to double-bag it. But racquetball, man, you worked up quite a sweat in a hurry chasing that bouncy little blue ball and running around in that small high-ceilinged room.
Werner was a such a worthy opponent even though he was almost twice my age, getting so good he decided to enter tournaments at our little club. It was maybe six weeks into my new job one Friday night when we all decided to cheer Werner on when he reached the quarterfinals of one of these in-house tournaments. Stick, Lake, Bugsy and me from the shop; Don Gerber and his assistant Mike Monroe (no, not THAT Mike Munro) from the maintenance building, some of the younger Filipinos, and Dorothy of course, who brought that schoolgirl assistant with her, a Wheaton Central high-school senior named Mary Johannes.
Now I knew Mary to say hello every late afternoon when I brought her our shop tickets, and she worked both Saturdays and Sundays all day to spell Dorothy so she could spend weekends at home with her husband Bob. MaryJo was a whiz at the old phone switchboard that was next to her desk, where she took in calls from the main number, pulled a black cord up from the base and plunged the big plug into the proper hole to reroute the call if it was for the pro shop, kitchen, taproom or any one of the Brick Building rooms where guests of the members stayed — think Lily Tomlin and “one, ringy dingy” from her old Laugh-In days. Well, this young fun-loving Mary, who was not yet 18, sure seemed to catch my eye that night, and as I walked her out to her White 1978 Mustang that her mother let her drive — I used to drive a Mustang! — we talked for a little bit (maybe Werner won the tournament, I can’t remember), and I mustered up the courage to ask her out on a date… and she said yes! Then I don’t know what came over me, but I leaned over and gave her that first kiss goodnight. Uh, that small prayer I always asked God about? It was being answered right there; I just didn’t know it yet…
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I told my buddy Dave and his girl Dayle about this gal that worked with me at CGC and we planned a double date at a place he and I knew about called Grover’s Oyster Bar. Now I loved raw oysters. I remember the first time I had them: David and I were leaving the New Orleans airport together one time and there was this oyster bar in the concourse that shucked ’em right there in front of you for 25 cents apiece (remember it was the ‘70s!). Their shells were boulders and the oysters were the size of Rhode Island, but DG and I must’ve eaten two dozen apiece; I mean c’mon, whaddya want for six bucks!? The oysters today are minuscule, maybe poisonous, and go for four times as much.
Now of course I knew very little about Mary at this point, and not knowing she was born in Iowa to parents that raised cattle and corn… let’s just say this was NOT a Mississippi girl whose parents owned a catfish farm. She went along with our decision, Dave Dayle and I ordering seafood and oysters and I thought nothing of Mary’s chicken choice. A week or so later she invited me over to her house for dinner, and when I got there I was the only one eating since it was probably after dark because I had to close the cart barn. Her mom, dad, and she had eaten already so I sat down to a single plate setting and here came my meal: steamed scallops! Wow! If there’s truth to the saying the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, then lift me out of the water in a big net — I was getting hooked on this girl (and she still didn’t reveal to me she disliked seafood!). That date and home-cooked meal led to many more that summer, including our fair share of White Sox games. But one thing that passed that I will to this day always regret: she graduated high school in June, which I was not asked to attend with her parents and three older sisters, all of whom graduated from that famous school in downtown Wheaton. Famous, you ask? How’s Red “The Galloping Ghost” Grange and the Belushi brothers as alumni? Her sister Marilyn even went on a double-date with John on motorcycles to downtown Chicago I was told! The following Tuesday I came into her office, and there on her desk was a beautiful pot of flowers… from assistant supe Mike Monroe! Well, well, I had no idea my counterpart in the maintenance building was making one last play for a girl he must’ve fancied too. I knew right then and there I had to ramp up my game.
A few more dates and White Sox games (where no record albums got destroyed) led us to late August, where Mary was getting ready to leave for her freshman year in Knoxville at the University of Tennessee. Dang, I was just really getting to fall for this very young lady — who turned 18 on August 10th — but now she was going off to college 500 miles south. We were still years away from cell phones, and I was never a big pay phone or reverse-the-charges guy, so let the letter-writing begin all over again, just like I used to do with Laurel. Thanksgiving break and Christmas were months ahead that seemed like years, but I also knew I’d be heading to Florida in the dead of winter to take my first Business School, two of which were a requirement of the PGA of America to complete your credits toward attaining Class A status within the organization; without it you had little or no chance of finding a quality head pro position. I even made a trek down to her BigOrangeTown for a PiPhi sorority dance she invited me to along with a Tennessee football game. I got to see Fast Willie Gault as a Vol before he became a Super Bowl Bear, how cool was that?! But this college girl and I started to sense that our relationship was turning up a notch or two; her mother had asked her how old I was and she said she didn’t know, maybe 22 or 23. I was 28… Mary managed somehow to cover that up!
The dead of winter was upon us, and thankfully I had something to do that didn’t require a 2,000-mile drive out west. Just half of that. My business school was scheduled for Orlando in late February of 1981, right around the time the Tour would be making its way east. I got ahold of the boys and told them my schedule, and they suggested I could caddie my way home after my week in Orlando with “school” was finished. I lined up D.A. Weibring for the Jackie Gleason Inverrary Classic and Bay Hill, and low and behold we got paired two days with Jack. I never got tired of watching Jack play. He was still The Man back then, even though he had his contemporaries battling him every time he teed it up. What I found after 10 months away from the Tour was there seemed to be more and more young white guys taking up the opportunity to travel and find loops; one of these guys happened to be a curly-headed Southerner from Hillsborough, North Carolina named Mike Hicks, who at the time was working for Lon Hinkle. That relationship we struck up during the two weeks I caddied would be very significant years later…
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Maybe Mary can explain why we chose Macon, Georgia to meet up for a weekend away during this whirlwind month, but I headed home to get ready for my second season at Chi (you are pronouncing it “shy” I hope — that’s how we say it… think “shytown”). Once the warmth of Spring came around and the club got busy, a new member named Pat Hennessy took to me for lessons. Lots of lessons. He and I hit it off pretty well, and Stick certainly didn’t mind that was starting to teach more. Mr. Hennessy made it a point to take a lesson a week from me, and I relished the fact that he would relate to me how his game was vastly improving.
I’ll never forget the time he broke 90 at the club for the first time — he shot 85! Stick even put me in charge of teaching the weekly Junior Clinic in the summer. How many people can say they taught a young man who would go on to become the Duke Blue Devil mascot? Anyway, I had very little experience teaching if anything when I started the year prior, but part of that first business school I attended was taught by Dr. Gary Wiren, who back then was a very well-respected PGA of America Master Teaching Professional. Not only was he a regular at these schools, but he had authored a few good books on the subject. One thing I took away from his talks was that good teachers taught a method that they expected their students to adhere to, whereas great teachers adapted their teachings to fit a pupil’s body type, strength, balance and athletic ability. That’s where I felt I fit in, instruction-wise, along with many of the tried and true tips Father Frank learned on his own and would drill into me as a kid: “as ye waggle so shall ye swing”…“get your left knee behind the ball!”… “get your left shoulder under your chin!”… “hold the pose!” I found teaching the game to be vastly satisfying especially when you explained something and kept it simple so a pupil could readily understand you and then hit a nice shot for you because of your instruction.
Mr. Hennessy was such a great student for me, and I do believe I helped him along the way during that summer of 1981, and as the Chicago golf year wound down I told him about my plans to head back to Florida in the winter and try to compete on the PGA of America Winter Club Pro Series. He floored me when, one day on the range during one of our lessons, he pulled out a folded personal check and handed it to me, “Steve, you go down there and play your fanny off and have fun. I don’t want you to have to worry about expenses — and I don’t want any of it back.”
I didn’t look at the check right away, but when I did I was blown away: it was for $3,000! It was enough to cover all my entry fees, gas, food, you name it. When David won Westchester five years prior I made $3,175, and here was an unexpected gift from above by a very generous person to just go play. Needless to say I was very grateful for this opportunity. I’m sure many a budding Tour professional had members at their clubs who saw their potential and wanted to “invest” in a young man’s playing career, but this was just a no strings attached gift from a very generous man who happened to like me. What Pat Hennessy did that summer came as a total surprise, but what was even more surprising was the news I got from Mary: she decided not to go back to Tennessee for her sophomore year but rather stay home, enroll in the Academy of Fashion Merchandising and Design, and work afternoons after class at the Carson Pirie & Scott department store. Hmm, maybe I was sensing she didn’t want to miss me that much being that far away?! I still saw her on weekends because Dorothy let her keep her position at the club on a part-time basis. So that Christmas I did the only sensible thing a man should do when he’s this much in love with Ms. Right: I hid her engagement ring in the paws of a stuffed koala teddy bear. When she was discovering it I snuck around behind her and got on a knee, and asked her to marry me, right in front of her parents. Talk about good timing…
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So the wedding was planned for Christmas of the following year, except my mother said nobody gets married at Christmas (and I somehow went along with her on that one). Mary’s dad wasn’t too pleased with my change as he lost a $500 deposit on the original reception date. The reconfirmed date became April 2, 1983, right as my fourth year as Don Stickney’s first assistant was to start. We were to be married in the Methodist church Mary grew up in, right in downtown Wheaton, but wait til you hear this: word had come to me from my caddie cronies on Tour that the Masters was going to rescind their policy of preventing tour caddies from working the event. The 1983 Masters was now welcoming “us,” and I very much wanted to be a part of that… on my honeymoon! Thank you, Bruce Devlin.
The mentor to my former boss, the man who took David Graham with him as his partner to the World Cup in Buenos Aries in 1970 and won the event. And the man I always caddied for when DG took time away from competition. The man whose competitive playing career was winding down as his reputation as a golf course architect was ascending alongside his renowned partner in the design business, Robert Von Hagge (think Doral Blue Monster). Not only did I have the girl that answered my prayer saying yes to me, I had an old friend saying yes, come on down to Augusta and don the white jumpsuit for your first ever loop on the hallowed nursery and let’s have fun. Heck yeah! Except one problem: Mary was all in for this, but she didn’t have a ticket to get in! That’s when Tom Garvin, one of our members at Chi and the President of Keebler cookies, stepped up to the plate and called a friend in Atlanta who had yearly tickets and yes, he could spare one for Mary. Talk about a great wedding present!
But we didn’t have accommodations, and maybe she remembers how we got it, but the only “room” at the Inn we could rent was this local family just blocks away from the club who had every spare bedroom rented in their house, but who parked their camper trailer in their driveway. It became our honeymoon cabin for $300 for the week. I had to make this up to her, so we actually planned a second week to visit Charleston, South Carolina, tour the historic city, go horseback riding, shop at antique malls, even buy a kitten out of an ad in the newspaper — that became Mary’s Week. I did sneak in a round at Wild Dunes, though… and we were back in Wheaton before the ground thawed, a very happily married couple. Just don’t ever ask Mary if she’ll go “camping” again… it.won’t.happen.
Year No. 4 at Chicago Golf was going to be a special one in my life, for a very special lady had become my wife.