Chapter Five- See the Loopers
The word Caddy, or Caddie, conjures up an immediate image in a golfers head. The basic function is carrying a golfer’s clubs during a round of golf and caddies have been around since golf first began. But it can mean so much more and it’s interesting to see how the caddy role has evolved with the advent of the professional game. Top players these days often use the Royal ‘We’ when going through a post-round interview, in reference to their bag-man. “We hit a nine iron on 18”, or “We saw a cup and a half break on that last putt” or “We weren’t sure what way the wind was blowing” and “We were happy with that round of golf”. It’s very much a team strategy, with the caddy acting as mentor, adviser, friend, coach, psychologist and close confidant. Tour caddies can earn hundreds of thousands of dollars in a season on the right bag. Tiger’s ex, Steve Williams was in fact the highest paid athlete in his native New Zealand at one point. But before we get ahead of ourselves let’s go back to the humble origins of bag carrier.
Golf has been around for a long time. Even from its earliest days in Scotland the game was developed by the privileged, who amalgamated enough wealth to design and build courses which became their playgrounds. Long before the growth of municipal courses private clubs began to spring up across America. Professional people - bankers, doctors, lawyers and industrialists - wanted to stamp their mark in their neighbourhood. The further up the food chain the higher the expectation of the course that they tried to build.
These were in the days when slaves, who later became servants, waited on them hand and foot to build and maintain their courses, to feed and quench their thirst and polish their shoes. This was especially true at courses like Shinnecock Hills. One has to be of a certain status to gain membership through its hallowed doors via social, political or business connections.
That was certainly not the case with caddies. Basically anyone who turned up and looked close to normal was sent out to ‘carry bags’. So you got a melting pot of personalities when player would go out with caddy.
There has always been a bit of ‘them against us’ attitude with those for whom you caddied. I suppose we were undertaking serving duties in return for payment, it was a contract between player and caddy, your temporary boss for the day paid your wages. There was a wide spectrum of employers, ranging from nice, pleasant and convivial through to snobbish, rude, unreasonable and nasty.
Caddies tend to take the flak for missed putts, lost balls, duffed shots, but really they are also just someone to vent at. I certainly took some abuse in my time. Some of the caddies gave back as good as they got, regardless if it meant they were thrown off the course without payment. There were a few times when a new caddy was called for half-way through a round to replace a “sacked” caddy. I was less inflammatory, riding the punches to ensure I always got paid. You learned quickly that this is a service industry, the customer was always right, even when he or she was wrong. That’s not to say I didn’t stand my ground; it was just how I did it.
Some of the caddies would silently vent, giving their players wrong clubs, mis-reading their putts, ‘losing’ their players ball in the rough and even standing on balls before their player arrived. It was their way of getting even; it was their Caddy Attitudes.
The class system has and will go on forever. Caddies were not allowed in the club house PERIOD! Sometimes when members stopped for a mid-round beverage in the club-house, a player may offer to buy you a drink and then pass it out the door of the porch. I’m glad I got to experience all this. I knew I was never destined to be a caddy all my life but I was able to add it into my melting pot of life experiences.
And still today the modern professional caddies on tour are barred from entering the clubhouses at tournaments. Even during thunderstorms caddies are restricted to tents / lean-tos and outbuildings, a practice that goes back to when caddies were ‘mere hired help’ like the gardeners or servants. They were not of the same ‘social class’ as players and club members and were treated with derision, irreverence and mistrust.
So, back to the caddies. They are a very strange breed of animals to classify. They come in all shapes and sizes, from all walks of life with all sorts of personalities. At Shinnecock there were 20-30 regular or semi-regular caddies. There were maybe an additional 30 or 40 who would sporadically turn up, especially on busy days and weekends, to supplement their income, the ‘week-end warriors’!
There was a real cross-section of life from the full time seasoned caddies to the high school and college kids, guys doing degrees and Masters who would go on to become lawyers, professors, bankers, policemen and salesmen. Retired folk who wanted to get out of the house each day. And there was generally a good mix of nationalities represented. While most were local, there was a smattering of other visitors. Over the years there had been a decent pool of Irish caddies, but also caddies from Scotland, England and Wales. There was also representation from South Africa and Australia too. But one gap was a lack of female caddies.
When we arrived we were the ‘new guys’ directed to the bottom rung of the ladder. A lot of rounds had to be looped before we would progress up the ladder. As we entered their world it became apparent that there were several interesting personalities: certainly some of the caddies were larger than life.
One of the best characters was Alaskan Bob. The story goes that at some point he was a successful pitcher for a decent baseball team, married, kids, nice house etc. Then it all went south with drugs and alcohol. He lost everything and somehow he ended up caddying as his only source of income. When sober he was a real nice and very intelligent guy and during slow days we had many interesting conversations across a wide range of topics, but he was a mess when he had been bingeing. We would go drinking with him a few times and would go from having an interesting conversation on American Foreign policy to getting kicked out of a bar for ‘mooning’ the patrons. He had a certain ‘manly odour’ and rarely changed his attire and it wasn’t unknown for him to sleep at the course - in the woods. He was a bit of a nightmare as a caddy when drunk or hungover. I can still picture the scenes of Bob heading off down the first carrying some poor unsuspecting golfer’s bag, with balls and tees falling out of the bag pockets behind him, with us all shouting over to him trying to help but him appearing oblivious to it all. I doubt he received big tips on those days. And then there was his antics at the US Open, including directing a clueless Jack Nicklaus into the ladies locker rooms. But when ‘compos mentis’ Bob was great company and a good caddy. He was full of stories and had a lot of wit and charm, a real character and some of the players and their guests loved that. Why Alaska? Because it’s a hell of a state!
Another character was John Perry, he came from across the road in the Reservation. Like a lot of the caddies and groundstaff who worked at the course, John was a native Indian and proud of his Indian heritage. JP was larger than life, literally! He was about 6’4”, a black guy built like a brick shithouse with a terrific smile and an infectious laugh. He called himself The Bear and would tell these amazing (and mostly made-up) stories about life, women, gambling, drugs and alcohol. He showed us a nasty gash on his stomach that he told us was the result of a shark bite; he told us he was a semi-professional golfer; he told us about how much money he had won gambling and the many ladies he had in his black book. You have to picture the scene, Perry telling stories on a slow day surrounded by caddies, sometimes of his previous night’s escapades. One of his best lines was “Those bitches thought I was Lawrence Taylor (NFL player). Man, I was signin' autographs and shit!"
It only took me to see John swing a golf club to realise that most of the stuff that came out of his mouth was pure fantasy. Still he was entertaining and he seemed to genuinely like the Irish ‘loopers’.
One of the caddies, Welsh Nik, came in after a morning loop and in celebration of a successful round decided to partake in a little Attitude Adjustment Exercise down in the caddie yard, a joint that was being passed round. The four or five puffs that Nik took knocked him for six and he must have dozed off.
A while later JP had come down the hill to join us. He was bored and decided to have a little fun, kicking Nik a few times gently in the back with his size 14's
“Come on Euro trash...let's see what you got. Oggie bogie - here comes the Bear”. With that JP was doing his Ali impression, jabbing, ducking, shimmying and shadow boxing. We all joined in whooping up the fun, with Arty, one of the older caddies leading us and I heard him saying repeatedly “let's get it on in the yard.....yeah.”
Nik was a bit dazed but must have gone into fight-flight mode. He was obviously intimidated a bit by JP saying “Look I don't want any problems”. But JP was now getting into top ‘wind-up’ gear with his Ali routine.
“You gotta prove yourself here white boy” he says “Sink or swim, sink or swim!” The caddy mob were all hooting and hollering at this stage. The Bear looked menacing throwing combination punches into the air.
“Come on white boy....let's see what you got” he goaded.
We all knew JP and what he was like but this was a new guy, ‘fresh meat’. So eventually Nik got up and JP started jabbing his shoulder with light punches. Nik backed away with arms up and his palms facing JP still protesting that he wanted no trouble, but then in a blink of an eye he lunged at John putting his left foot at the back of his legs, then pushing his chest. John is a big guy but slow. He hit the ground with a thump and was winded by his own weight. Nik at this point was in full ‘kill mode’ with his foot on JP’s neck. Boy this is getting serious I thought to myself, while still whooping it up. It must have felt like this at the Colosseum!
Next thing JP bursts into a big old belly laugh. He knew he had sufficiently wound up Nik to breaking point. Luckily Nik saw the funny side too and the situation quickly diffused.
“Hey Nik, you just passed the test!” he chided.
When you get to know John you realise that he is a gentle giant, not a fighter at all. Except in a joking Ali sense. But John’s finest hour came one Sunday at the ‘Cock.
The story goes that the pro arrived one Sunday morning at 7.30 a.m. to open up. He saw some golfers at the 8th tee and thought it strange as no-one was in the book that early, so he took a cart out to see what was going on. He came across four golfers who told him they were guests of John Perry. It turns out they met John at a bar the night before. John had told them he was a member of the prestigious club and that he could get them a game but he would have to charge an ‘admin fee’ of $50 per person. In a feat of unsurpassed gullibility they paid him up front in cash and were told to be on the 1st tee at 6am the next morning. I can only imagine their excitement at being able to play at a US Open course for $50, and then their humiliation at being asked to leave the course immediately as they were trespassing! As for John Perry, he was banned from caddying for six weeks, or in caddy speak, he was ‘down the road’.
Then there was Ray, or Lard Ass as he was known. He was the king of “jibba jabba” or shit-talking. Ray didn’t play golf, but was a great hustler and excellent at ‘taking care’ of his golfers. He reckoned he was the best caddy at Shinnecock and commanded the best tips with the top players. He was hugely entertaining especially as he reckoned he had a large amount of success with the ladies. I always found that laughable given his anatomical proportions, but he was sure full of it. He looked like an extra from Starsky and Hutch, constantly fixing his Afro hair with some perfumed oil or gel.
He and Johnny got on well, constantly ‘jibbing’ each other. Ray called Johnny ‘The Unpredictable Johnny’ after the professional wrestler Johnny Rodz. So they would mimic these mad wrestling bouts. Johnny seemed to like the new title and after a few post-round pints he would often live up to his unpredictable name.
I recall on one occasion the guys were playing cards in the Shack while I was chipping and putting on the green nearby. Next thing there was an almighty roar and kerfuffle followed by Ray sprinting from the shack with John Perry in hot pursuit brandishing a knife. It was some sort of row about gambling, probably bubbling for weeks and overflowing into the caddy yard. It was both funny and scary in equal measure. But it was clear that these guys had a darker more dangerous side, so we never got too close with any of them.
Vietnam Lenny was an enigma. I think he was a ‘Vet’, he always seemed out of it and slightly incomprehensible. He never gave a straight answer to anything, especially to a golfer. “Which way does this putt break Lenny?” was met with “left, left” or “straight right”. He had been caddying for years but never really got promoted to beyond a bag carrier. He always wore a Yale University T-shirt and baseball hat. People would ask “Did Lenny go to Yale?” The best answer I heard was from the caddymaster: “Yeah, they did lab experiments on him!” It was difficult having a conversation with Lenny, he’d often give you a vacant look. It was probably in part to my Irish accent, but we never really chatted much.
Quite often caddies go ahead on a hole to ‘fore-caddy’, which entails standing about 150 to 200 yards ahead on the edge of the fairway to watch where the player’s tee-shots go. You need to be able to follow the ball in the air. If it goes into the rough you have a better chance of finding it, especially on blind tee shots. There is a sign-language system used between the player and the caddy. The course was fastidiously set up with different grades of grass on fairway and rough, all cut consistently across the course. The first cut was 1 to 1.5 inches long, the second cut was 3 inches (perimeter of fairways). Then the 'deep shit' - chest high rough in some places like right side of 4th hole.
A drive in the fairway is given the baseball umpires ‘safe’ signal. You crouch facing the player and cross your arms several times in front of your knees. A drive in the semi-rough is signed back by the player with an indication of height of the rough. You turn sideways and gesture about six inches apart with your hands. A drive in the deeper rough is similar, but instead of six inches, you gesture about two feet. A drive in the hay or the woods is gestured with a sideways squat, meaning ‘it’s in the shit’. None of this is intended to insult the player, it’s just a means of passing information as he just needs to know what his options are: in other words does he need to hit a second ball.
I was caddying one day with Lenny. We were both standing down the fairway shooting the breeze when one of our guys was teeing off. I only caught sight of the ball late, it was heading straight towards us! I shouted to Lenny but he was in a dream trance, so while I was ducking he managed to get hit, right on the top of the head. It knocked him over but miraculously didn’t draw blood. He was a little dazed but outside that he just carried on. I was amazed.
Bruce and Lenny were two of the nicest guys you could ever meet and great caddies. Bruce was always Mr. Enthusiastic and nothing was ever too much trouble. He was studying to become a teacher, so balanced studying and caddying. Lenny would give us rides, get lunch etc. We played golf with them on Mondays and both were decent players. Bruce was always meticulous in his preparation and was always analysing the situation. Who was Greg going to pick next? Who was going to get the quality ‘loops’? Who would get lumbered with some of the less popular members. He had a great sense of humour mixed with an infectious giggle and would provide running commentaries.
Tim Straub, aka ‘The Shugster’ was the perennial ‘pro’ looper. He was a cross between Flanders and Fluff Cowan, with chewin’ tobacco and Glory Days stories. He was a great caddy, had huge knowledge of the course and was considered to be the best golfer in the yard. He kept us right when we first started looping, told us the inside line on most things you needed to know and plenty of stuff you didn’t need to know as well.
Arty was another genuinely nice guy, always looking out for the newer, younger caddies. He was usually paired with new caddies to ‘show them the ropes’. He would have great stories to tell about caddying and about the members. Full of gossip about what was going on in the yard. He also liked to kick back with a joint or two post rounds.
There were plenty others: Lee (Ray’s brother), Ronnie, Timmy, Travis to mention a few, who all showed up on regular occasions, all part of the caddy fraternity. For the most part it was a great bunch of guys, a kind of golfing family, looking out for one another but always bickering about who got the best / most jobs, who got paid the most, who made the most mistakes. Make a mistake, the wrong line off the tee, a bad yardage or a poor read and it would get added to your CV and be the subject of caddy banter for the following weeks.