Players 2020: PGA Tour caddies consider economic threat if coronavirus spreads

March 10, 2020
U.S. Open - Round One

Ross Kinnaird

PONTE VEDRA BEACH — Inside the caddie lounge at the Players Championship, across from the dining room, a printed sign on a small folding table blared a warning about the Coronavirus.

When Jim McGurk, Ryan Armour’s caddie, first saw the sign on Tuesday, he didn’t realize it was nothing more than a set of recommendations: wash your hands, be careful if you have respiratory issues, etc. He only saw the word “coronavirus,” and immediately assumed that the text would contain something more dire, such as a warning that the Players Championship was in danger of being canceled, or that a future tournament had been called off. When he actually read the message, he breathed a sigh of relief.

He wasn’t wrong to be worried—several major sporting events have already been canceled worldwide, and in the past two weeks both the SXSW music festival in Austin, Texas, and the BNP Paribas Open tennis tournament in Indian Wells, Calif., have fallen victim to the growing national concern about the pandemic. The latter cancelation is of particular concern, because, like golf, Indian Wells is an outdoor event—something thought to mitigate the potential spread of the virus.

As the global death toll from coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, rises past 4,000, the primary concern is the health and welfare of those infected. The secondary impact on the economy, however, will be enormous, and those most affected will be workers without full-time positions who are dependent on day-to-day or week-to-week work.

Caddies typically fall into that category. With rare exceptions, there is no guaranteed money, even for those who work on the PGA Tour. As Golf Channel analyst Brandel Chamblee said on Tuesday, a caddie can be fired because his golfer doesn’t like his pants. Literally.

“You can fire your caddie if you don’t like the pants he’s wearing, and they do it,” Chamblee said. “Ed Fiori famously fired his caddie. ‘Why did you do it?’ ‘I don’t know, I just got tired of looking at him.’ ”

Financial security lasts only as long as a caddie can work, and the extent to which a long absence from the Tour could affect a given looper varies depending on his situation.

Dale Vallely caddies for Abraham Ancer, and as he stood outside the caddie lounge preparing to head to the driving range, he spoke about the different tiers of caddies, and how the impact of a stoppage would hit them all in very different ways.

“For some guys, it would really suck, and for other guys it would be fine,” Vallely said. “If I didn’t have to work for a month, it wouldn’t be the end of the world. Other guys, their livelihoods are very dependent on week to week. If your guy hasn’t been playing good, and you’re not working for one of the better players, you want to be working.”

“This is the only job where you’re not guaranteed a job,” added Austin Kaiser, who caddies for Xander Schauffele.

“Play for your money,” Vallely said.

For now, nobody seems to be panicking. Mike (Fluff) Cowan, Jim Furyk’s longtime caddie and one-time bagman to Tiger Woods, knows that as hard as the mainstream economy has already been hit, it could quickly funnel down to the caddies.

“You can’t help but think about it,” he said. “You hear about it every waking minute if you watch the TV.”

Cowan doesn’t have the financial concerns of some of his colleagues, but at 72 he may be more physically vulnerable than most. He doesn’t dwell on it, but he pays attention to advice about hygiene. He summed up the predicament of caddies and golfers alike with a bit of gruff poetry: “It ain’t like we ain’t getting around crowds.”

McGurk, Armour’s caddie, said that he belongs to the group of caddies who couldn’t sustain being out of work for very long. After four or five weeks off the course, he’d begin to worry about finances. He and Armour will be going to the Dominican Republic in two weeks for the Tour’s Corales Puntacana Resort & Club Championship, and his wife is already nervous about the travel. But working is imperative, and absent any pandemic eruption, McGurk can’t think too deeply about it. He wants to go to the Dominican Republic, Armour wants to go, and so they’re going.

That trip also hints at a potential imbalance in the player-caddie relationship. Even if Tour events aren’t canceled, a player might decide to err on the side of caution, and while that might not hit his wallet too hard, the situation could be very different for his caddie.

For the moment, McGurk told me that when caddies talk about the coronavirus at all, they make jokes. There’s no panic, no sense of imminent doom, but it does linger in the back of their minds. Kaiser thinks the threat is blown out of proportion, while others admit that they have no idea how the situation will unfold. When asked what they would do in a hypothetical world where caddying was no longer an option, none had an immediate answer.

Vallely said, after some thought, that he’d be a starter at a golf course and gamble for his income, and as Kaiser contemplated his own answer, Vallely suggested that he could start a dog-walking service.

“A dog-walking service.” Kaiser turned it over in his head. “I don’t know.”

“What could you do?” McGurk asked rhetorically. “Mow some lawns in the neighborhood ... that’d be about it.”