I was reminded the other day while watching the US Open at Oakmont how the great golfers of today do not come out of the caddie yard. They have not spent their adolescent years looping at private country clubs the way pros once learned the game.
Walter Hagen was a caddie, Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen, Byron Nelson, even the great players who never turned pro, Francis Ouimet and Chick Evans. They were all caddies, and they all won the U.S. Open, starting with the amazing win by 20-year-old Francis Ouimet [pronounced wee-met] in 1913 at The Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. Ouimet’s win changed the perception of golf in America, or as golf’s great writer Herbert Warren Wind put it, “the shots heard round the world.”
Walter Hagen started to caddie at the age of seven at the Country Club of Rochester. He made ten cents an hour, plus a nickel tip. Ouimet, caddying at The Country Club, earned 20 cents a round when he started to loop in 1904. Today, if a caddie is at a first-rate club, he [or she as it is increasingly is] can earn between $100 and $200 a bag. On any good sunny summer weekend a looper might draw down between $800-$1000 in hard cash looping 36-holes on Saturday and Sunday.
Hagen quit school at 12 and when he was in the seventh-grade, jumping out of the classroom window when the teacher’s back was turned. He headed for the links and never looked back. He turned a passion for the game into an amazing career, becoming our real first professional touring player, and a key member in creating the PGA Tour we know today.
All of the great early professionals were caddies. That is how one came into golf, and if you were 16 or older and still caddying, you were considered a professional, whether you could hit the side of a barn or not with a golf ball. Ben Hogan turned pro at 16, having dropped out of school the summer after his sophomore year at Paschal High in Forth Worth, Texas. Byron Nelson was a looper as well, dropping out of school a year before Hogan, and caddying with Hogan at the same country club.
All these ‘white’ kids moved up through the ranks learning how to make hickory clubs, repair broken ones, and how to cut fairways, trim the rough and water greens. The best of them settled into the comfortable lives of country club employees as pros and ground keepers, and the very best players became touring pros on the fledging PGA tour that developed slowly in the years between the wars.
The early caddies on the PGA tour, however, weren’t white kids with poor educations, but a ragged crew of itinerant African-Americans who like their pros followed the sun from one tournament to the next, eking out a living as they lived on the edge of society. These ‘professional’ caddies were the last in line when it came to respectability.
In the early Sixties a shift took place in the caddie ranks. White kids began to realize they could make a good and interesting living on tour as ‘professional’ caddies. In the late Sixties, for example, I ran into a young kid named Bruce Edwards who came from a wealthy family, [his father was a doctor,] who had quit school to caddie full time. He hooked up with young Tom Watson and caddied for him for nearly 40 years, winning tournaments in the U.S. and around the world. Bruce passed away a few years ago with ALS and his life was the subject of John Feinstein’s wonderful book, Caddy For Life.
Today a caddie with a successful pro on the PGA tour can earn six-figures and only work half a year. They are also as much a part of the game as their pros. Women as well have found their way into the caddie ranks, best known is Fanny Suresson from England, who is on the PGA tour. More women caddies, however, are found on the Champions Tour [players over 50] than on, for example, the LPGA [Ladies Professional Golf Association]. Wives, of course, are out on the course looping for their husbands, usually on the National Tour which is for younger, newer players. Once their husbands make it–if they make it–they retreat to the clubhouse or to taking care of the kids and leave the 40-pound bags to be lugged by someone else.
Anyone who loves golf, but doesn’t have the game to make it as a player, might find a life on tour as a caddie. It’s not a bad way to earn a living, and carrying clubs today on tour is a long way from Hagen’s ten cents an hour, plus a nickel tip.