Build a Caddie Shack
//Golf courses: get a caddie program up and running. Right now.//
Caddies are a strange breed. Specifically, the club caddies: the everyday-ers, hustlers, bag bandits who pull two loops a day hoofing around the same course for $70 per shoulder. The pursuit for cash—however one can earn it—is the purest drug to a caddie. It's just about the only thing that unites the disparate personality types that lug bags.
A swab-check at a golf club’s caddie shack yields—among the mold-ridden stains, stagnant clouds of tobacco and bodily fluids—an unctuous petri dish of starkly opposed personas and their respective realities: country club kids—children of those fortunate enough to whack over the $35,000-plus per annum to belong to the fine establishments; the wannabe pros—detail-obsessed perfectionist cutthroats who hold every ambition of making it on tour; and the Davy Jones crew—those who caddie to avoid background checks, outlaws tethered to their station like pirates to a vessel.
In my time, I sat somewhere in the middle of this broad spectrum, taking to the golf course to prepare myself for encroaching student loans and subsequent debt. At 15, I grabbed a bib and towel and hit the shack. Each morning I joined the lineup for our 5:45 a.m. “Brae Burn Breakfast”: iced black coffee, cigarette, loop. We had the same for lunch, too.
Amid the debauchery of the caddie shack lies an opportunity. While the club kids, the wannabes, the pirates, and caddies like me swarm on the money, living and dying by member-guest weekends, the virility of caddie programs can generate a bigger impact than wallet lining.
First, and most important to members of the industry who bemoan the low adoption rates of golf among young people, caddying introduces a broad and diverse swathe of people to the game. Golf is far from equitable. It doesn’t cost a dime to carry bags, though, and with most courses offering free play to caddies on certain days of the week, an inlet is opened to those who may not otherwise have the opportunity to get on a course. Some of this exposure can—and should, in some instances—drive resentment. But, by broadening the top of golf’s market funnel, a significant number will convert into full-on fanatics.
The professional circuit was once full of players like Ben Hogan and Lee Trevino—players who did not come from economic privilege, but who were introduced to golf through caddying. Carrying bags was their equalizer, allowing them to spend as much time on the course as anyone with more substantial means. For worse, this path has been all but closed-off, and the game has become more homogenized as a result.
There should be more caddie programs in this country. Public golf courses, in particular, have the largest opportunity to take on this challenge. By recent counts, there are merely around 150 public golf courses in the United States that maintain active caddie shacks, many of which reside in just a handful of states. The benefits rendered to golf courses—public ones, too—by way of a thriving caddie program are undeniable, though.
Strong programs benefit the caddies themselves. There are ever-important lessons to be learned as a looper, like mastering the hand-rolled cigarette while shouldering two bags, or finessing the optimal body contortion to take a piss while trudging through the woods, looking for some hack’s errant tee shot and remaining undetected by the group of 70-something ladies on the neighboring hole. But there are softer, more résumé-friendly lessons for caddies to learn, too: self confidence, humility, money management, decisiveness, how to admit when you’ve messed up, the ability to identify bullshit, the ability to deliver bullshit, doggedness, how to talk someone off the ledge. The list goes on.
A healthy caddie program inevitably gives back to the course, as well. Caddies are field marketing experts, and perhaps courses’ most honest ones. Caddies are seldom paid employees, so they have little vested interest in sugar coating course conditions or feeding some company line about why someone should “really consider pulling the trigger on the annual membership.” But successful caddies know that in order to scrape the barrel for that extra ten bucks, they had better bring their A-game. Being well-versed in green reading and golf course architecture, paired with sharp wit and understanding when to remain absolutely, god-forsakenly silent, is a phenomenal asset to a caddie—and arguably, just as much to the golf course. Caddies are preservationists of tradition and boundary pushers, alike.
You can’t understand how much of an experience enhancement it is to play alongside a pro jock until you do it. Those are the experiences that will bring you back to the course again and again; ponying up for that caddie/therapist to track down your missed shots and tell you a joke just at the right time to keep you from snapping your putter.
I would never have caught the golf bug if it weren’t for my career under the bags. Witnessing countless putts sunk or lipped for high stakes, learning to appreciate the raw beauty of a Donald Ross design, and being surrounded by every character type imaginable sparked an insatiable hunger for exploration. The same will be true for future caddies around the country if more clubs foster programs of their own. Build a caddie shack, build the game.