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Hustling to keep caddie programs alive

Photo illustration by Eddie Guy

Larry Foley describes himself as a hustler, an investor and an entrepreneur. He grew up in the Bronx, moved to Rye, N.Y., and started caddieing at Winged Foot in the eighth grade. “I enjoyed being around people, hearing their conversations,” he says. “It exposed me to doctors and lawyers and Wall Street guys. I’ll never forget that feeling of sitting on the long benches and waiting for Gene the caddiemaster to call out my name. There never seemed to be a method to the madness of who got called, but boy, when he’d shout, ‘Yo, Foley, get up here,’ there was no greater feeling! It opened the world to me. To this day, it taught me how to treat people. Whenever I can, I take a caddie. I’ve never been afraid to hustle because of what I learned back then.” Now a member at Winged Foot, Larry owns a golf course in Ireland, Narin & Portnoo Links.

Jimmy Coffey, the son of a Winged Foot caddie, followed in the family business and caddied at Winged Foot from 1986-’96. Now a floor trader on the New York Stock Exchange with a 2.2 Handicap Index, he followed another tradition and became a member in 2004. “I still get chills driving through the gates,” he says.

Caddiemaster David Zona estimates that 50 to 75 current Winged Foot members started out as caddies at this year’s U.S. Open site. When you think of Winged Foot, like so many of the great old courses in America, you think of the enhanced experience of playing golf with a caddie at your side—collaborating, conspiring and tacking your way around 18 holes. It’s an honorable profession for some, an adult job that supports a family, but for many young men and women it’s an education and a college fund.

In this challenging year, the worldwide pandemic endangers more than golf, but we recognize that caddies are at risk, not so much as carriers of golf bags for the well-heeled, but as a livelihood and a steppingstone for so many working-class people.

In the early stages of COVID-19, caddies were furloughed. Even the renowned caddie camp at Sankaty Head on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts was canceled for the year. To keep caddies afloat, some clubs used GoFundMe for online donations; top clubs assessed their members as much as $1,500 to $2,000.

Adam Rosuck, director of golf at Northmoor Country Club outside Chicago, turned the caddie shack into a food bank. During the worst of the pandemic, members dropped off groceries, and caddies filled their cars once or twice a week. The club decided to forgo compulsory caddies for the season and sold 200 pushcarts. Eventually one forecaddie per group was used. Then caddies carrying bags became optional. For club tournaments, 25 caddies were dispatched around the course as ball spotters and paid the same as for a double loop ($160). “What’s next?” Rosuck says. “I don’t know, but we’re being safe and taking care of our caddies the best we can.”

Mike Keiser, owner of Bandon Dunes in Oregon and Sand Valley in Wisconsin, says: “Clubs with a strong caddie program have stayed strong, but the weak ones are falling away.” There was a petition by young members at one top-10 course to eliminate mandatory caddies permanently as a cost savings, but the club president quickly squelched that.

Legitimate concerns about spreading infection persist at courses where many golfers are elderly or live with family members at risk. One of my fellow editors says straightaway on the first tee, “Just want you to know, I’m not a six-foot guy—I’m a 10-foot guy.” Likewise, when it comes to caddies, I’m still a little skittish and set the ground rules at the start: “I’ll take the clubs out and put them back myself. If I forget and go to hand you a club, don’t touch the grip. And I’ll take care of my ball-cleaning.”

John Kaczkowski, president and CEO of the Western Golf Association, which currently awards full rides to college for 1,045 Evans Caddie Scholars, says the coronavirus actually has helped modernize programs at a lot of clubs. Facebook pages and text-messaging are now being used to alert caddies and update schedules. Apps like Venmo make it easier to pay caddies without having to handle cash. Clubs that never used tee times—like Winged Foot— now require members to sign up in advance online.

At Beverly Country Club, where 250 caddies are drawn from the South Side of Chicago, caddie manager Mike Kinasiewicz says 95 percent of members resumed taking caddies by mid-summer. Because of the no-congregating rules, Beverly shut down its caddie shack and used “wave scheduling” with Google Forms to bring in 20 to 30 caddies at a time in 90-minute intervals. “We used to keep a lot of cash in the safe— $700,000 for the season,” Kinasiewicz says. “Now we’re using electronic payments.”

Some good has come along with the pandemic hardships. Golf is feeling a resurgence as a relatively safe sport that can be played with social distancing. In the absence of riding carts, many golfers have rediscovered the joy and exercise of walking. Rounds played were up this summer, often dramatically, as were sales of beginner sets at retail—a good indicator of vitality. Leaving the flagstick in, kicking over your footprints in the sand instead of raking bunkers, and taking a more casual attitude toward the rules have sped up play and increased golf participation. And the tradition of caddieing—a part of golf since the 16th century—hustles for new life.