Man About GolfDecember 6, 2016

The Locker-room Whisperer: Your Guide To The Good And Bad (Plus Tipping)

A reasonable tip for doing shoes? Here's your answer.
2016 Brad Mangin/PGA TOUR

Bruce Barilla grew up at the edge of what was then Chicago's meatpacking district, in the neighborhood called Back of the Yards. He began caddieing in 1967, when he was 13, and two years later he moved to the refreshment stand. "It was $1.50 an hour, which was more than I could make caddieing," he told me. "I got all I could eat for free, and I could play golf after work and on Mondays, and the girls came to the counter in bathing suits. It was the best job I ever had in my life." He went to college to please his parents, whose parents had immigrated from Eastern Europe, but as soon as he graduated he changed his mind about careers. "I just wanted to go back to the golf course," he said.

So that's where he went. He spent most of the next 35 years working at clubs and tour events, usually in the locker room, with a lengthy intermission during which he preached at an independent Christian church, mopped floors at a college and went through a divorce. He's now retired, although he works part-time as a driver at Enterprise Rent-a-Car, and he still preaches. He also works at tournaments and consults with clubs that want to improve their locker rooms.

"I've done consultations at 27 clubs, and I've worked at or visited 40 more," he said. "I don't mean any disrespect, but if architects and interior designers have never been a locker-room attendant, they're going to make mistakes." Here are some of those mistakes: ceramic dispensers for shampoo and other shower liquids (which break when they're dropped and can't be checked visually as they get low); double-stack half-lockers (which aren't tall enough to keep suits from wrinkling); amenities placed on counters next to sinks instead of on shelves just above them (because amenities on counters get wet and make the counters hard to keep clean); clubs that redo their locker rooms without seeking input from employees who've worked in them for years.

And here are some things he likes: heated shelves in shoeshine rooms (for drying wet shoes); a supply of loaner shirts (for golfers who get rained on and need something presentable for the grillroom); lockers wide enough for two pairs of shoes stored side by side (like the ones at Butler National); shoe-shine counters situated as close as possible to the locker-room entrance (so that workers can easily spot members and guests who need help). Barilla's website, lrcgolf.com, includes a floor plan for something he calls a Shower Suite™. If my wife ever tricks me into remodeling our house again, I'm hiring him to design the bathrooms.

In Barilla's view, a locker room should be a sanctuary—and never more so than during a professional event (he has worked at 45 of those). "There are things we see that even sportswriters don't," he said. The best regular tipper among the pros is Phil Mickelson; the biggest tip he has ever received part of was a check for $5,000 that Billy Hurley wrote to the locker-room staff at Congressional Country Club after winning the Quicken Loans National this past June; the biggest tip as a percentage of the purse was $1,200 from Nick Price at the Western Open in 1993.

Barilla answered my questions about tipping only because I insisted. He believes that no-tipping policies discourage good service, but he also believes that job satisfaction comes mainly from working hard and paying attention to details. He leans toward his wife's philosophy, which is that if a waitress does a poor job you give her a nice tip anyway because maybe she's having a terrible day. "Five dollars is a very reasonable tip for doing a pair of shoes," he said, when I asked for specifics. "And if you're unsure what to do, you can ask the manager or your host. I know it can seem like a lot—there's the car parker, the bag guy, the cart guy, the shoe guy. But even if you have to spread around a hundred bucks, why not? You couldn't afford to get in the door, so it's worth it."


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