The perks and pressures of the modern tour caddie
Photo by GLYN KIRK/AFP/Getty Images
Mike Christensen never had any intention of becoming a caddie when he graduated from Duke in 2000. His dream was to play on the PGA Tour. If that didn’t work out, he had his degree in sociology. He played mini-tours for several years, often spending time with Kevin Streelman, one of his college teammates. But by the end of 2007, Christensen was beginning to think about graduate school or looking for a job.
“It was just time,” he says. “Time to get on with my life.”
And then fate intervened. Streelman was heading back to Q school, and Christensen’s cousin, Mark, was supposed to caddie for him but had a last-minute conflict, so Streelman asked his old teammate to step in.
“He made five birdies on the last six holes to make it on the number,” Christensen says. “Turned out to be life-changing for both of us.”
Streelman wanted Christensen with him for second stage. Christensen said yes. Then, the finals. When Streelman made it through to the tour, he asked Christensen if he would consider coming out with him for a year.
“I figured, why not?” Christensen says. “I thought the travel would be fun, and the potential to make decent money was there if Kevin played well.”
Streelman made more than $1.3 million as a tour rookie, meaning that Christensen made about $100,000—far more than he’d ever made playing mini-tours, and probably considerably more than he would have made at an entry-level job in corporate America. Plus, it was fun.
So, he agreed to come back for one more year. And then another.
It was all good, until a Sunday afternoon in 2010 when Streelman began the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational tied for sixth, meaning he played in one of the last groups. Late Sunday afternoon, a huge lightning storm swept through Bay Hill, and the players were evacuated from the golf course. Everyone headed for shelter.
Except the caddies.
“They wouldn’t let us inside,” Christensen says. “Kevin and the other players did everything but beg, pointing out it was dangerous outside. No. The rules said no caddies in the clubhouse—period. There were probably no more than 20 of us still on the course at that point, but that didn’t matter. It was frightening and humiliating. I was really shocked.”
Tony Navarro and Mike Hicks wouldn’t have been the least bit shocked.
“I remember in Memphis, at Colonial Country Club, we were literally required to stay inside a pen in the parking lot until our player arrived,” says Hicks, who came out on tour in 1981. “Atlanta wasn’t a lot better. There was no pen, but we had to stay in one place until our player got there. They didn’t want any of us moving around on our own.
“And the clubhouse? Are you kidding? No way.”
Navarro remembers the pen at Memphis, too. He came out on the tour in 1978, riding a Greyhound bus from his home in Moline, Ill., to Glen Abbey Golf Club in search of a bag for the Canadian Open. A couple of months later, “I got Slugger White,” he says, laughing, referring to the longtime PGA Tour rules official. “I thought I’d travel for a year or two and go home to college or get a job at John Deere. I still haven’t gone home.”
Hicks, like Navarro, was a teenager just out of high school when he joined the tour three years later. His first bag was Mike McCullough. Six years later, Hicks became Payne Stewart’s caddie and eventually part of one of golf’s most iconic moments: Stewart’s winning putt at the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. The little guy jumping into Stewart’s arms is Hicks.
Navarro has also had great moments while caddieing for Jeff Sluman and Greg Norman, among others. Today, Navarro caddies for Nick Watney. Hicks, who has been on and off the tour since Stewart’s death, works for Vaughn Taylor.
Both have made a good living. Both love the privileges caddies have now that weren’t even thought about when they were young.
“It’s a different life,” Navarro says. “When I first came out, I can remember sleeping in gas-station bathrooms to save money. You could get in there at night, lock the door and feel safe. I slept in cars and in orange groves.
‘I THOUGHT I’D TRAVEL FOR A YEAR OR TWO AND GO HOME TO COLLEGE OR GET A JOB AT JOHN DEERE. I STILL HAVEN’T GONE HOME.’
“If you stayed in a motel, it was usually four to a room. Now, it’s completely different. But I wouldn’t trade those days. Today, caddies make a lot more money. They’re treated with a lot more respect. But I’m pretty sure they don’t have nearly as much fun. There’s just too much money at stake.”
The money ratchets up the pressure everyone feels. One thing that hasn’t changed on tour is the old caddie mantra: “If your man’s going bad, he’s going to fire someone. It can be his wife or his caddie. Firing his caddie is a lot cheaper.”
THE JOY OF INDOOR PLUMBING
Today, a lot of caddies make six figures—often well into six figures. Many are college graduates; often they’re players like Christensen who weren’t quite good enough to make it to the tour. Some, like Lance Ten Broeck, are former tour players. Sometimes, they’re family members—like Phil Mickelson’s brother, Tim. Most are white.
That’s all very different from the old days. Years ago, many caddies came from the clubs where tournaments were being played or were caddies at seasonal clubs—like Augusta National—who would come out on tour when the club closed for the summer.
“A lot of them were great caddies and real characters,” says Neil Oxman, who first caddied in the early 1970s to make enough summer money for college and then law school. “They taught the young guys how to be caddies. But as the money went up and players were allowed to bring their own caddies to all the tournaments, things changed.”
“Indoor plumbing and food,” says Jim Mackay, Phil Mickelson’s longtime caddie, who came out on tour in 1990. “Those are the two biggest changes. When I was first out, if you wanted food, you went to a concession stand. Sometimes you got discount tickets, sometimes not. And no one went inside a locker room or a clubhouse.”
Now, caddies are always allowed inside the locker room at the start of the week and at the end of the week. At the end of the Honda Classic in March, they were allowed to shower once their player was finished playing for the week. There is clubhouse access now at some tournaments—though not all.
And the tournaments are now required to give them shelter during a dangerous weather situation. “I’m really proud of the improvements our tournaments have made for caddies,” says Andy Pazder, the tour’s executive vice president and COO. “I think we’ve come a long way and done a lot for the caddies—which is the right thing to do. They deserve it.”
But it isn’t all hearts and flowers between the tour and the caddies. Three years ago, 168 caddies filed a $50-million class-action lawsuit against the tour, asking for health insurance and a share of the money the tour is paid by title sponsors to have their corporate logos on caddie bibs.
Hicks’ name is on the lawsuit as the lead plaintiff in Hicks v. PGA Tour, but that’s not because he led the charge for the suit. “I signed the original petition,” he says. “When the suit was filed, I was off the tour. They decided to use my name because I’d be less likely to get hassled by the tour since I wasn’t out there at the time.”
The case was dismissed by a judge early in 2016 but was appealed later that year and is still under appeal. As a result, the tour won’t comment because, as Pazder puts it, “It’s still under adjudication.”
In court, the tour took the position that caddies are paid for wearing the corporate logos—through purse money. Most players agree with that position.
“One of the things a title sponsor pays for is having its logo all over the place during tournament week,” says Stewart Cink. “If they weren’t given that opportunity, they’d pay less, and the purse would be smaller. We’d make less, and so would the caddies.”
The larger issue with most caddies is health insurance. For years, the caddies had no health insurance, and many—if not most—couldn’t afford to buy individual health insurance. In recent years, the tour has offered to pay up to $2,000 a year in reimbursements for medical costs.
“That’s nothing for guys with a family,” Hicks says. “Plus, they 1099 us [the caddies pay taxes on the $2,000]. By the time you wade through the paperwork and pay the taxes, it’s really not worth it.”
Navarro, who has two daughters, says he pays about $20,000 a year in insurance to cover his family.
“We should do a better job with that,” Cink says. “There should be a way so that if a caddie works a certain number of events in a year, he’s eligible for a group-insurance plan the next year, for as long as he’s out here.”
Nothing like that will happen, though, until the lawsuit is resolved one way or the other. Four years ago, Robert Garrigus, a PGA Tour winner, and Tim West, who has run pro-ams and corporate hospitality for more than 20 tournaments a year for a quarter-century, came up with a plan for an emergency fund available to caddies whose family had a health catastrophe.
The idea was to get players to contribute to the fund and then ask tournaments to provide matching funds. It never really got off the ground.
“We had raised some money and were making progress,” West says. “Then came the lawsuit. We couldn’t very well ask the tournaments to provide matching funds for a group that was suing them for $50 million.”
The money is still in an escrow account, and West hopes the fund can be revived once the suit is resolved.
Navarro signed on to the lawsuit as much out of loyalty to his colleagues as anything.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says. “I think things could be better for caddies, but overall, they’re pretty darn good. Things are very different out here now. I remember those days in the South when we were put in pens. Let’s be honest: A lot of that was racial.”
In those days, most caddies were guaranteed only $25 a week—and they paid their expenses. The only way to make money was for the player to make the cut, in which case the caddie got 5 percent of his winnings. A top 10 brought 7 percent, and a win brought 10 percent. Those rates have stayed essentially the same, although weekly salaries are much higher now and some longtime caddies have contracts with players that pay them more. As the purses grew, so did the money caddies were making.
During the 2016-’17 season, 102 players on the PGA Tour made at least $1 million, and 52 more made at least that much on the European Tour. That means about that many caddies made at least $100,000—some considerably more. It also means players expect more. During 2017, three longtime, high-profile player-caddie relationships ended: Mickelson and Mackay split after 25 years; Rory McIlroy fired J.P. Fitzgerald, the only caddie who had ever worked for him as a pro; and Jason Day decided that Colin Swatton, his longtime mentor and teacher, would no longer caddie for him.
“Sometimes you have to make tough decisions,” McIlroy said after his split with Fitzgerald. “Believe me, it wasn’t spur of the moment. I gave it a lot of thought.”
Mackay believes one way for a caddie to have a long-term relationship with a top player is to not get too close. “There were times when I just decided I had to give Phil some space,” he says. “He was always great about offering me a ride on his plane. It was tempting, but sometimes I said no.”
Money has also brought another new element to the player-caddie relationship: agents. Once upon a time, player-caddie relationships almost always started in parking lots. Caddies always knew when a player was looking for a new caddie and would approach players as they got out of their cars on Tuesday.
That’s how Tom Watson and Bruce Edwards got started in St. Louis in 1973. Oxman, Edwards’ close friend, pointed Watson out to Edwards in the parking lot and said, “He doesn’t have a caddie. Go ask him.”
Edwards did, offering to work for Watson for a year. “We’ll try it for a week,” Watson said. They kept trying it for almost 30 years. Edwards didn’t get to caddie for Watson in his two Masters victories because Augusta National didn’t let tour caddies work the tournament until 1983. Now, most caddies will tell you Augusta treats them better than any other event. When the new practice range opened in 2010, a new building was also built for caddies, complete with lockers, showers and a daily buffet many players choose because the food is at least as good as in the locker room. Some players never even go to the locker room.
“There’s no need,” says Cink, who has a locker in the caddie building. “You walk out of that building, and the range and the parking lot are right there.”
McIlroy is another who doesn’t make the trip inside the clubhouse. “I might have been there once last year,” he says. “At most.”
Nowadays, it’s often an agent who contacts a caddie about working for a player. “It’s more like going through a committee than just dealing with a player,” says Mike (Fluff) Cowan, who has had three bags—Peter Jacobsen for 18 years, Tiger Woods for three and Jim Furyk for 19—for most of his career. When Cowan worked for K.J. Choi for several weeks this year when Furyk wasn’t playing, it was Choi’s agent who called him.
“Sometimes,” Cowan says, “you deal with the agent, the teacher, the psychologist. You feel like you’re running for office.”
After Oxman got his law degree, he opened The Campaign Group, which does media and advertising for Democratic candidates around the country, but he continued to caddie. Since Edwards’ death from ALS in 2004, Oxman has caddied for Watson whenever his real job allows. “Caddieing was completely different when I came back,” Oxman says. “It had become a profession. A lot of the old stories about caddies no-showing from week-to-week or day-to-day were true. Now it’s a real job, and it’s not a job you want to lose if you’ve got a good bag.
“As soon as I came out again, I knew I had to get in better shape,” Oxman says. “I lost 30 pounds. You have to understand technology, too—ShotLink, how to use a range finder properly. There’s no excuse anymore for a bad yardage or a bad read.”
In fact, technology has evened the playing field for caddies in many ways.
“Anyone can walk inside the ropes nowadays, pick up a bag, grab a yardage book, read all the lines on the greens book [showing the break and slope] and do a decent job,” Navarro says. “The old-time caddies had, I think, a better feel for the game. They could really read greens, and they knew what to say to a player. They weren’t afraid to disagree. Nowadays, a lot of guys are yes men because they don’t want to lose their job. They’re making too much money.”
Oxman’s successful career in politics means he’s never afraid to tell Watson what he thinks.
“Four years ago at Newport Beach, Watson was seven under par on a par 71 through 16 holes,” he says. “He had never shot his age. Anywhere. It was important to him. Walking to the next tee he says, ‘Hey, two pars and I shoot 64.’ He was 65 at the time. I said, ‘Tom, this is like baseball. You never talk about a no-hitter. Go sit on that bench while we’re waiting, and don’t say another word.’ He went and sat by himself, didn’t say anything until he was finished, and made a par and a birdie to shoot 63.”
Although caddies have come a long way since the days of the pen in Memphis and trying to find cover in a thunderstorm, they still deal with frustrations. “Heck, someone had to almost die before they started letting us wear shorts,” Hicks says.
Caddies being allowed to wear shorts in hot weather had been an issue for years. In 1997, the United States Golf Association allowed them for the U.S. Open—which is why Hicks was wearing shorts during his famous Pinehurst hug with Stewart.
“I wouldn’t want to lug those bags around on a hot day in long pants,” David Fay, then the USGA executive director, said at the time. “Most of us wear shorts to play in hot weather. Why shouldn’t caddies be allowed to wear them?”
The tour disagreed. Then, in July 1999, in 93-degree heat in Chicago—with the heat index over 100—Garland Dempsey, caddieing for John Maginnes, collapsed on the 15th hole at Cog Hill Golf & Country Club during the third round of the Western Open. He was having a heart attack, and his heart stopped on the fairway before CPR brought him back in time to get him to the hospital and save his life. Two weeks later, the tour decided to let caddies wear shorts.
Caddies have become celebrities in recent years because of parabolic microphones that pick up their conversations with players. When Mackay and Mickelson split last spring, he was quickly offered a job with Golf Channel. Everyone who follows golf knows Bones—the nickname put on Mackay by Fred Couples years ago—almost as much as they know the top players.
“I never saw it coming,” Mackay says of the TV opportunity. “I had a bunch of offers for other bags right away, but the Golf Channel thing came up, and I figured, why not give it a try?” Now, he still walks golf courses for a living—he just carries a microphone instead of a 40-pound golf bag. And he never has to worry about access to the clubhouse.
Christensen finally gave up caddieing after five years—four years more than he thought he’d be on tour. Streelman qualified for all four majors in 2011, and Christensen wasn’t going to miss that. Streelman asked Christensen for one more year, in 2012, because he thought he had a shot to make the Ryder Cup team. When it became apparent that wasn’t going to happen, Christensen told Streelman he thought it was time for him to go home to Minnesota. He now works in business development at Medtronic, a medical-device company. Frank Williams, another longtime tour caddie, has Streelman’s bag.
“I still miss it sometimes,” Christensen says. “I remember Kevin’s first tournament in 2008, in Hawaii. It was, needless to say, expensive over there. So, to save money, I shared a room with Kevin and Courtney [Streelman’s wife]. Two queen beds. When Kevin made the cut that week, it felt like we’d won because it meant we both had some money in our pocket.
“Sixteen million dollars in winnings [for Streelman] later,” Christensen says, “I doubt if Frank ever has to share a room with Kevin, Courtney and the kids.”
And, wherever Williams sleeps, it’s a long way from a gas-station bathroom.
Photography by GLYN KIRK/AFP/GettyImages
DISPUTES LINGER BETWEEN CLUBS, CADDIES
By Peter Finch
Set just 25 miles east of Manhattan, Garden City Golf Club offers its members respite from their everyday burdens: a comfortable old clubhouse, a rolling, pastoral golf course that Golf Digest ranks as No. 46 in the United States, and a team of seasoned caddies.
Yet it’s also the site of an ugly legal dispute over those caddies, their working conditions and their pay. A former looper, Robert Wiggins, has sued the all-male club in federal court claiming it fails to pay caddies minimum wage or overtime and that it doesn’t make contributions on their behalf to Social Security, Medicare or unemployment insurance.
The core of his argument: The club treats caddies like employees—requiring them to be there at certain hours, to wear a hat with the club’s logo, to work on projects other than caddieing—but pays them as independent contractors based only on the hours they spend carrying golfers’ bags. That’s not only unfair, the Wiggins suit contends, it’s illegal. Garden City’s president, Brian Nelson, says the club isn’t able to comment while the lawsuit is ongoing.
This is a conflict that has plagued the golf business for decades. Though the Department of Labor under President Trump has backed off Obama-era guidelines that made it harder to call caddies independent contractors, many clubs remain exposed to potential lawsuits, IRS inquiries, or both, says Brad Steele, vice president of government relations and general counsel of the National Club Association. Florida’s Streamsong Resort faced a similar suit to the Garden City case a couple of years ago. The suit was settled.
Some are planning to take the caddie/golf-club relationship in new directions—ones that could head off these sorts of problems. Among their leaders are Adam Corson, a PGA professional who used to work on staff at Dick’s Sporting Goods, and Kurt Seifert of 4 C Caddies, a company that manages caddie programs at 10 East Coast clubs. They’re the co-founders of the U.S. Caddie Association, which launched in early March with this mission: “To preserve, promote and protect the traditions of caddieing through the great game of golf.”
The association is charging caddies $10 to $25 a year, depending on their age.
In return, members get access to moderately priced worker’s compensation insurance (paid for with a small upcharge to golfers who hire them), and they can work at any club affiliated with the USCA. Clubs pay $250 annually for their memberships. They get guidance from the association on how to make sure caddies remain independent contractors in the eyes of the law.
“It’s as good a vehicle for solving this age-old dilemma as has surfaced in my 26 years of practicing law,” says Greg Keating, a partner at Choate Hall & Stewart, who has represented multiple clubs in employment disputes.
An entrepreneur named Dave Cavossa is coming at the problem from a similar, if slightly different, angle. He’s got a smartphone app called CaddieNow that connects loopers with golfers, much as Uber connects drivers with people needing rides. Launched two years ago, it can find you a “true independent contractor” caddie at 110 clubs within the United States, and he’s aiming for 200 clubs by year-end. Both player and caddie are affiliated with the app, and meet at the club with the club’s permission.
A similar app called Baggr offers caddies at courses in Wisconsin and around Pinehurst, N.C., among others. The USCA intends to partner with both of these apps, and others that might come along, to find work for its members, Seifert says.
A new initiative called Carry the Game seeks to bring more young people into golf through caddie programs. Created by the Western Golf Association, it has the backing of the USGA, the PGA of America, the World Golf Foundation and The First Tee, among others. Its goals include becoming “a resource for anyone interested in becoming a caddie or forming a youth caddie program,” and it will offer “best practices on creating and managing programs.”
That kind of advice might’ve come in handy in Garden City, where former caddie Robert Wiggins has filed a second suit claiming racial discrimination caused him to quit working there. His departure from Garden City is a story involving a club employee allegedly holding a sex toy near Wiggins’ mouth while he dozed and someone taking a photo, which then appeared on social media.
“Can you imagine?” says his attorney, Neil Frank.
“Who would do a thing like that? We have a discrimination claim for millions. He was so embarrassed he had to leave his job, because people were making fun of him.”
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