Even in the well-buffered world that is golf—even in our world, in other words—it's a wonder that some kids make it.
Malachi Zeitner, son of an Iowa golf professional and the nephew of another, lost his mother to drugs and jail when he was not much more than a toddler. When he was 8, his father, Brandon, got married to another woman and moved to Chicago, where he took a job as an assistant pro, and, when the marriage failed, succumbed to an alcoholic habit he'd kept secret from his family. He died in 2007.
Malachi, then 12, moved back to Sioux City, Iowa, to live with his grandparents and might still be there if it weren't for a meeting about caddies his uncle attended in Ohio, and the conversation it inspired.
"So I've come back from this Evans Scholarship selection meeting," says Brad Zeitner, head professional at Brookside Golf and Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, "and I'm telling my wife, Beth, how cool an experience it was listening to these kids who are applying for the scholarship, how I had tears in my eyes and all, and I finish, and she says—give her the credit—'Well, I don't know much about caddieing, but based on what you're telling me, what about Malachi? What if he came here and lived with us and caddied at Brookside?' That pretty much set the ball rolling."
It continued rolling through three summers of caddieing, strong grades, and a selection meeting at the Maketewah Country Club in Cincinnati much like the first one Malachi's uncle had attended. The adults at the meeting—donors, scholarship directors, many former caddies themselves—wanted to know if Malachi, in addition to his strong caddie and academic records, was a solid kid, a kid with character. They were also curious about why he'd chosen dentistry. Malachi told them he decided to be a dentist about the time he moved back to Iowa from Chicago, when things got rough. "I'd heard somewhere that dentists got more free health care than any professional. I needed that."
"The last question they asked him was what getting this scholarship would mean to him," recalls Uncle Brad. "Malachi said, 'It would mean I could give my kids the things I didn't have.' As everyone took that in, the room went absolutely silent. One of the gentlemen stopped it there. 'Malachi, I think that's enough,' he said. Mal tells me later, 'I didn't get a chance to thank everyone.' I said, "No, you thanked them. You just didn't know it."
In 2012, Malachi Zeitner won the Evans Scholarship, a full ride, including housing, to Miami University in Ohio (where tuition runs about $31,000 a year), and he has lived without charge in a house of 40 former caddies for the past three years. He'll graduate this May, dental school ahead.
"To be honest, I probably wouldn't be in college if it weren't for the scholarship," Malachi says. He's also a big fan of the communal living that's part of the Evans experience. "I got to school the first week, and I felt like we had a family in the house."
'THE GREATEST UNTOLD STORY IN GOLF'
Stories like Malachi's make you wonder how this 85-year-old scholarship remains a secret, but that's somewhat the case. "When people say we're the greatest untold story in golf, that kind of drives me crazy because it is partially true," says John Kaczkowski, president and CEO of the Western Golf Association (WGA), which supports and raises funds for the Evans, including about $3 million a year from the BMW Championship, formerly the Western Open. "Shame on us. But outside our footprint people often don't know about us."
That footprint, mainly in the Midwest and Far West but expanding, is not small. In 2015, the Evans Scholarship tuition budget, covering 910 scholars, was $16 million. In 2015, the WGA added 250 scholarships to 19 universities like Michigan (and most of the Big Ten), Notre Dame, Marquette, Colorado, Oregon and Miami of Ohio. Almost all live in Evans chapter houses. (If the idea of reconstituting the caddie yard at the college level strikes you as a sketchy idea, consider that the average grade-point average of an Evans Scholar is 3.24 and that the leading Evans house, Northwestern, has an average of 3.37.)
Given the decline of caddieing in most parts of the country and the Evans' rather stern academic requirements, the acceptance rate for applicants after pre-screening is currently a remarkable 33 percent. In 2015, for example, 250 of 743 applicants were awarded the scholarship.
The hand-wringing over the decline of caddies in golf most often centers on the loss of newcomers to the game, but for thousands of kids it's much more than that—lessons in life to begin with, and a way to earn cash. But it's also increasingly a path to a debt-free education, at a time when the average college undergrad leaves school $30,000 in the red. Hundreds of scholarships—offered by clubs, golf associations, sometimes by individuals—send tens of thousands of caddies to college every year: The J. Wood Platt in Philadelphia, the Ouimet in Massachusetts, the Widdy Neale in Connecticut among the leaders, spending millions each year to send caddies to school. If there were no other reason to caddie, or to encourage caddieing, scholarships would suffice.
"I don't consider the caddie scholarship as a reward for hard work. It's not an employee benefit, if you will," says Ellyn Plato, director of development for the Westchester Golf Association Caddie Scholarship that covers clubs in nine counties in New York and Connecticut, and will award 275 scholarships worth more than $1 million in 2015. "It's a life-changing experience, just as caddieing can be a life-changing experience. To many kids it means the difference between going to college and not going." Though Evans academic requirements mean that some of its candidates get other offers as well, that's not the case for those like Westchester's and others, based solely on financial need.
What sets the Evans Scholarship apart, however, is that from the time it was conceived by the great amateur Chick Evans in the 1920s, it has always delivered full tuition and communal housing—for all four years if students maintain good standing. It places winners at Evans chapter houses, while other stipends support students in the schools they've chosen, with no community living.
Evans, in effect, pre-qualifies "need-based" candidates for the universities, delivering kids who graduate at a 95-percent rate. With its size and its ability to deliver high-quality students with genuine financial need, the Evans Scholars Foundation is able to secure tuition at a fraction of what it might otherwise cost. At the same time, universities may receive more dollars per need-based student than they would on their own.
"We help them find worthy students who might not even apply to that school otherwise," says Jeff Harrison, the Evans Scholars Foundation's senior vice president of education. "It's really a win-win-win: a win for us, a win for the university, and most of all, a win for the student." Harrison points out that these "partnerships" have allowed Evans to maximize donations by keeping tuition payments relatively flat when they might be rising for the average student.
HOW CHICK EVANS GAVE BACK
Like a lot of good ideas, this one came from Mom. After winning the U.S. Amateur and the U.S. Open in 1916, Evans wrote a book and made golf instructional recordings, for which he was to receive royalties. When he was reluctant to turn professional, his mother suggested he create a fund for caddies. He persuaded the WGA to administer the scholarship and sent its first two recipients to Northwestern in 1930.
This past January, the Evans graduated its 10,000th scholar. Much of the funding today comes from the organization's donor program. More than 27,000 Par Club donors contribute at least $250 a year, often much more. More than 450 clubs and organizations are members of the Western Golf Association. Recently, board member and WGA director (not alumnus) Mike Keiser, creator of Bandon Dunes and Cabot Links, devised a "match play" initiative doubling gifts of $2,500 or more. It also helps that the roster of Evans alumni includes folks like Sam Allen, CEO of Deere & Co.; Bishop Joseph Binzer of Cincinnati; Tom Falk, chairman/CEO of Kimberly-Clark; Air Force Lt. Gen. George Muellner, retired; Matt Desch, CEO of Iridium; and hundreds of other civic stars.
This is a fair time to point out, by means of disclaimer, that my brother and I were two of those 10,000 Evans graduates (one of whom significantly weighed down the aforementioned GPA averages). For Bill and Mary Carney, with a family income of about $40,000 a year back then from my father's two jobs, the idea that two of their six children would be going to the University of Michigan with tuition and room paid ... well, that was a miracle. That miracle has been experienced by dozens of caddies at Dearborn Country Club near Detroit, where we caddied and where one supporter made it his job every year to get every member to contribute.
This past year I watched our gift come full circle when Ari Rexhepaj, who came to this country with his parents from Albania six years ago and was an ever-present part of life at our club in Connecticut, Brooklawn Country Club, win the scholarship, too (to Miami of Ohio). Ari, like Malachi, is unstoppable. "Caddieing has been great," Ari told me once. "You learn a lot about people. You learn to read people like you learn to read putts. Most times you get it right." Ari thinks that skill will come in handy in international business.
About a quarter of Evans Scholars are female. Lesya Shenyuk is a freshman at Marquette University and a graduate of the WGA's Caddie Academy, a summer program that takes girls from neighborhoods lacking caddieing opportunities, houses them at the Northwestern Chapter House and buses them to jobs at clubs around the area.
For four summers, Lesya caddied at the Glen View Club. The daughter of Ukrainian immigrants who did not speak English when they settled on Chicago's South Side, she will be among the first in her family to earn a college degree. Like Malachi and all of the Evans finalists, Lesya got the "What would it mean?" question to end her interview. "I just started crying," she says. "I was crying for two minutes. Then the whole room was crying. It was a crying party."
PUSHING TO THE EAST COAST
The WGA's goal is to place and maintain 1,000 scholars in school annually by the year 2020, raising the annual tuition and housing bill to $22 million, and that will come mainly from its push East, where caddie programs thrive. "Our goal is to penetrate that East Coast corridor. That's where the caddies are," Kaczkowksi says. "And what better place [for fundraising] than the financial capital of the universe."
The Metropolitan Golf Association reports that about 80.6 percent of its clubs in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut offer caddie programs, many a mix of high school kids and older professional caddies. Massachusetts has an estimated 30 clubs and 3,000 caddies. The Golf Association of Philadelphia, says Brad Kane, director of its J. Wood Platt Caddie Scholarship program, includes some 50 clubs with caddies. He estimates there are probably another 25 clubs across the state with caddie programs.
Working with extant scholarship programs in the East is also part of the Evans plan. It has partnered with the New Jersey Golf Association and the Golf Association of Philadelphia (GAP) to co-brand scholarships for caddies in those areas. With the GAP, Western Golf has awarded four "Platt Evans" scholarships, three to Penn State and one to Miami of Ohio.
Not all the Evans stories are as dramatic as Ari's, Lesya's or Malachi's. Some family challenges are as "normal" as a parent laid off from work, a family illness, or simply a household income that can't cover today's tuitions. But sit in on a selection meeting, and you sense that the recipients share their grit. Call them nice kids—and they are—but they're tough kids, too, who might have made it on their own but snapped up a great opportunity when they—or their aunt and uncle—saw it.
"I give him credit," Brad Zeitner says of his nephew. "He came here and left his friends, agreed to live under our rules, and he never gave me one bit of grief about it. One time I said to him, 'You know, Malachi, you see these folks at the club who have their beautiful cars, or they come out and get to play golf on Wednesday afternoon. You have to know something. That doesn't just happen. They've made sacrifices. They worked crazy hours. They did a lot of things, made a lot of sacrifices to allow them to get what they've got ...' And I'm giving him this spiel on sacrifice—he was probably 16 or so then—and he says, 'Uncle Brad, you don't have to worry about me. I'm going to make something of myself. I'm going to be somebody.' "
Makes you want to take a caddie.
THE CADDIE ACADEMY
Sometimes a girl comes to caddieing, and sometimes caddieing comes to the girl. Four summers ago, the Western Golf Association created its Caddie Academy, recruiting highly qualified potential female scholars (often identified through high school scholarship programs) who might not have a caddieing opportunity near them. The caddies are housed at the Northwestern University Evans Scholarship House and bused to caddie opportunities at eight clubs on Chicago's North Shore. ACT test preparation is also part of the program. This year, 43 girls (90 percent minorities) came from cities including Chicago, Little Rock, Los Angeles and Washington, D.C. The program is supported in part by a $300,000 donation from Fritz Souder and his family, and this year resulted in seven attendees receiving Evans Scholarships. For more information, see wgaesf.org. —Bob Carney
HOW TO APPLY
Applicant caddies are sponsored by a club and are usually shepherded through the process by a member, golf pro, caddiemaster, alumni and/or a WGA director—about 550 ambassadors, many of them Evans alumni. The requirements: good grades (2015 winners averaged a 3.8 grade-point average and 28 on the ACT); a good caddieing record (2015 winners averaged a total of 155 loops); financial need; and good character, attested to by the sponsoring club and the applicant's high school. For information and an application form, visit wgaesf.org. —Bob Carney