Why They're Carrying On

May 10, 2015

Caddies are asking for part of the revenue that the bibs they wear bring in to the PGA Tour. (Scott Halleran/Getty Images)

The life of a caddie on the pro tours has changed dramatically over the last couple of decades. The days of the hard-living bag-toter who would close the bars at night and work the next day through bloodshot eyes are mostly gone. The hours are longer as players practice more, the travel is more global and the responsibilities (as well as pay) are far greater than they used to be.

The guys, and occasional gal, who loop for a living are more than mere porters lugging around a 45-pound staff bag/billboard with a player’s name and corporate logos handsomely displayed on that prime piece of advertising real estate. Dealing with the bosses’ often-oversized egos, caddies have evolved into a fluid mix of mathematician, psychologist, cartographer and bodyguard, all while remaining a Sherpa.

It’s fun to recite the reductive caddie creed of “show up, keep up and shut up.” But as prize money on the PGA Tour has quintupled in the Tiger Woods era, with 96 players winning more than $1 million on the tour in 2014 not counting the $35 million in FedEx Cup bonuses and lucrative endorsement deals, the job has expanded as well.

As golf coverage has grown, a few caddies have become personages and even brands. Mike (Fluff) Cowan is known for his mustache and intrepid manner. Steve Williams was a notorious enforcer (and winner) with Tiger Woods. Jim (Bones) Mackay’s quarter century at the side of Phil Mickelson make him the ultimate wingman. Most recently, Steve (Pepsi) Hale, who works with Keegan Bradley, inserted himself in a dispute with Miguel Angel Jiménez at the WGC-Cadillac Match Play Championship.

Most, however, remain anonymous, with little job security, almost no health coverage and no pension. And this is something the tour’s caddies want to change.

On Feb. 3, Lanier Law Firm of Houston filed a $50-million suit against the PGA Tour on behalf of the Association of Professional Tour Caddies (APTC). At issue is the bib caddies are required to wear at every tour event and, more specifically, the advertising on it.

The caddies want a piece of the revenue these ads generate, with the funds going to cover health care and a pension plan. “We tried everything possible to not get to this point,” says Kenny Harms, who has looped more than 25 years, including eight with Hale Irwin and now seven with Kevin Na.

James Edmondson, who caddies for Ryan Palmer and is president of the APTC, created the organization in 2013. In its first meeting with the tour, in February 2014 at the Farmers Insurance Open, the APTC raised workplace issues such as parking, quality of food and simply having a place to clean up after a round. Things went reasonably well until the discussion turned to the bibs.

“We said we wanted a small part of the bib for advertising to generate money to fund health care and a pension program,” Harms says. According to Harms, Andy Pazder, chief of operations for the PGA Tour, told the caddies: “You have no right to the bib.”


Matt Kuchar's caddie, Lance Bennett, is a leader in the suit with the PGA Tour. (Photo: Andy Lyons/Getty Images)

Right now, the tour gives a $2,000 health-care stipend to caddies who work at least 15 tournaments a year, the same number of events golfers have to play to maintain tour membership.

“There are about 195 caddies who qualify for the stipend,” Harms says. “We asked for $10,000 per caddie for health care and another $10,000 per caddie for a pension plan. That’s about $4 million a year all in.”

According to Harms, who is on the APTC board, there was another meeting with tour officials in March 2014 in Tampa and a third at the Tour Championship last fall. It was when the APTC found out the tour was considering only a modest increase in the health-care stipend that legal action was taken.

“We know the tour has told sponsors that they get $1 million a week from advertising on the caddie bib,” says Harms, who says support among the caddies for the suit is virtually unanimous. “We had 80 something in the original suit and now we have more than 160.”

The leadership of the APTC is a veteran and respected group. Beside Edmondson, Lance Bennett, who works with Matt Kuchar, is vice president; Jimmy Johnson (Steve Stricker) is treasurer; Adam Hayes (Russell Henley) is secretary with Joe LaCava (Tiger Woods) and Brennan Little (Camilo Villegas) joining Harms on the board.

Expressing a reluctance to “talk about the actual litigation or the issues involved,” PGA Tour commissioner Tim Finchem said when the suit was filed that “the player handles that [arrangement] and [caddies] are employees of the player. We think that’s been a good system.”

Gene Egdorf of the Lanier Law Firm thinks it’s an unfair system.

“Even though the caddies are independent contractors and do not in any way work for the tour, the tour regulates their every movement, their clothing, and requires the caddies to wear the sponsor bibs without compensation,” Egdorf says. “Instead the tour solely pockets at least $50 million annually, perhaps more, from the caddies wearing the bibs.”

Many players have privately expressed their support for the caddies while others, like Greg Norman, who has long feuded with Finchem, have publicly backed their case. “I didn’t want to ask the players to support this,” Harms says. “Our first job as a caddie is to make life easier for our player. But if any players want to step forward and support the case, that would be welcomed.”

According to Egdorf, the central issue “is the right of the caddies to control their own bodies, likenesses and to obtain the financial benefits for the use of their likenesses.” Egdorf says: “I’m not aware of any other occupation where a non-employer can regulate and infringe upon a non-employees rights and profit so handsomely.”

Lanier filed the case in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California, a court that has sided with the little guy against larger entities in the past, including former UCLA basketball player Ed O’Bannon against the NCAA. Casey Martin got a favorable ruling on his Americans with Disabilities Act suit against the tour in the U.S. Court of Appeals Ninth Circuit, which is also in San Francisco.

Not surprisingly, perhaps, the tour is trying to get the case moved to Florida, closer to its Ponte Vedra Beach headquarters. Lanier argues that Northern California is a proper venue because the tour has an office in San Francisco, owns courses in Northern California and runs tournaments there. The decision on the venue likely will take several months, Egdorf says. Prior to that, the court will decide whether the tour has to turn over relevant financial documents, he says.

The tour could give the APTC the $4 million a year it wants or potentially risk losing $50 million in court. The tour took the Martin situation all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court before losing a costly battle both financially and in terms of its image.

The question is: Does it want to go down that road again?