Editor’s LetterNovember 16, 2015

Greatness in Pajamas

Legends: Chick Evans with Yogi Berra at Pinehurst in an undated photo.
Legends: Chick Evans with Yogi Berra at Pinehurst in an undated photo.

When I was a young man and just starting to kick around at Golf Digest, I was often introduced as an "Evans caddie scholar." Wrong on three counts, I'd protest. I had once met Chick Evans, but I was not one of his foundation's award winners.

I had never caddied in my life, if you don't count the time I drove a getaway cart in a big-money match at the muny of my misspent youth. And by no means or description was I ever a scholar.

While a journalism student at Northwestern in the 1970s, my curiosity led me to looking up Chick Evans in the Chicago phone book, calling him and visiting his Lincoln Park apartment on a fall afternoon. He was in his late 80s by then and greeted me at the door wearing bedroom slippers, a pajama top and brown corduroy pants with the pajama bottoms sticking out at the ankles. He invited me into his living room, where there was a driving-range mat on the floor and plastic golf balls strewn all around. We talked for a long while until he stood up abruptly and said, "So you want to see the old Chick Evans swing?" The 1916 U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open champion dragged a ball over and smacked it against the wall, rattling across the wooden floor. The next bounced off the fireplace, another off a lamp. It was something the Oldest Member would do in a P.G. Wodehouse story. Eventually I stood up and thanked him and left. I knew I'd write this paragraph sometime.

Aside from Bobby Jones, who gave us the Masters, and Arnold Palmer, who taught us how to love the game, the guy in the pajamas gave more back to golf than anyone else before or since.

Thirty-six years after his death, the foundation is sending almost 1,000 caddies a year to college—good colleges like Northwestern and Notre Dame—on a completely free ride. If you don't believe me, read Contributing Editor Bob Carney's moving story in this issue. This issue is dedicated to Golfers Who Give Back, and Editorial Development Director Craig Bestrom did the cover stories on modern-day athletes following in Evans' footsteps.

But there's something special about getting kids to pick up a golf bag and having it change their life. My friend James R. Hand, the former USGA president who turns 99 in January, likes to say, "Everything good that's happened to me in my life can be traced back to caddieing."

"The things that stand out still," says Carney, an Evans Scholar at Michigan in the 1960s, "are the mistakes. Tending a flag for Dr. Picard and not being able to pull it out of the hole, then watching as the putt banged against the flagstick. Losing the ball of a very good player in a regional women's tournament and watching her traipse back to the tee to hit again. It was daunting at first to feel that you had someone else's round in your hands, even a little bit. An early taste of responsibility."

It changes who you are. "Having been a caddie, you tend to get interested in the caddies who carry your bag later in life," Carney says. "At Royal County Down, I had a rather intense man named Tim. Trying to make conversation, I asked him how long he'd been a caddie. 'Oh, I'm not really a caddie,' he said. 'I'm a longshoreman. But we're on strike.' And how long have you been on strike, I asked. 'Seventeen years,' Tim replied."

Senior Editor Peter Morrice acquired his sense of humor from caddieing: "One day I'm on Yogi Berra's bag, and he's hitting the ball all over the place. Frustrated, he says, 'I've played here too many times this week. Good thing I'm not playing here this weekend.' Yogi's pals had a sense for when he was about to drop a Yogi-ism, so one guy says, 'Where you going this weekend, Yog?' He says, 'Saturday I'm playing in Philadelphia, and Sunday I'm playing in Pennsylvania.' " (Read, "Warm Memories of Yogi at the Golf Club)

The last word belongs to our resident evangelist, Deputy Editor Max Adler: "A lot of high school work opportunities involve being outside and making cash, but there is no better job than caddieing. I got to play golf at Ekwanok Country Club in Vermont three evenings a week, all while knowing whatever cash I saved for college would be effectively almost doubled by my caddie scholarship, which was awarded to all full-time caddies there. Now, whenever I visit a course that is cart-mandatory, I wince to think of all the local teenagers who are being denied the great experience I had. In addition to growing strong legs and shoulders, you absorb how successful people speak and think.

"For all the faff about growing the game, there is one clear answer: Pay kids to work at the golf course, and their passion to play the game will follow. It's really that simple. Too many caddie programs are overrun by professional caddies of adult age who command wages that are probably too high, or at least so high that they contribute to the decline of caddieing. Let's bring back middle school and high schoolers. There's no more certain way to cultivate the next generation of golfers.

"More than the occasional stroke-saving read or yardage, a good caddie keeps you in the game," Max says. "Carrying your own bag or chugging along in a cart, it's too easy to quit when your game goes south. The presence of someone carrying your bag prevents most people from giving up. And always trying is what the game's about."