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Undercover Caddie: The hardships of tour life

June 10, 2021

Illustration by Freak City

One of my first events 30 years ago was the PGA Tour’s old Tucson Open. I remember seeing caddies who looked beat up. They were not so much standing next to their bags as they were angled over them, their bodies overloaded by this invisible weight. I recall being sad and almost embarrassed for them. It just seemed like they had let themselves go. I called my dad and told him about it, promising that wouldn’t be me.

What a stupid kid I was. Now I’m one of those guys bent over the bag who looks like a sparring partner for the heavyweight champ.

We are by no means athletes, but our work is a workout. We were getting our steps in well before step-counting became a thing, and we did it carrying a 40-pound bag. That type of activity offers health benefits but can do a number on you, too. People think we all have back problems. Some do, but more often we pull something picking up or putting down the bag. If you’re wondering why most of us don’t use two-strap bags, it’s because guys find one strap easier to maneuver. And, to be honest, you don’t look like a pro two-strapping it. We’re more likely to have problems with our knees and hips. It’s all about how you manage the pain.

We don't work 52 weeks a year, but we also don't get many breaks. It's hard to miss extended time for major surgery unless your player tells you your spot will be there when you return. Knee arthroscopy“clean and go” as we call it—is probably the most common procedure out here. Anything else is Advil and ice.

Being in the sun six times a week can wreck your skin if you’re not careful. It can also drain your energy, and the more tired you are, the more prone you are to mistakes. But what I realized—almost too late—is that the physical stuff isn’t the hardest part. It’s the psychological hurdle of signing up to be a vagabond. I’m in a different bed every week. My first 10 years, I would room with so many caddies that I was lucky to get a bed at all, much less one to myself. That lack of consistency can affect your body and your sleep. Flying isn’t easy; neither are eight-hour road trips. Then there’s the diet. The tournaments do a great job now of providing a healthy spread, but that wasn’t always the case. It used to be a steady rotation of dollar burgers and deli meat. I didn’t complain. I was in my 20s, but I didn’t really understand what that diet was doing to me.

Financial stress is also a factor. If you aren’t with a top-60 player, you aren’t saving money. That might be OK if you’re single but not if you’re supporting a family. I’d say upward of 120 regular caddies struggle with bills. Also, players outside the top 60 are more prone to slumps and switching caddies. Anyone with tenuous job security knows this can age you faster than a call from the IRS. It wasn’t until I was in my late 30s that I finally stopped looking at missing consecutive cuts as a disaster. We’re also competitors. We want our guys to succeed, and we take their setbacks as hard or even harder. Yes, we’re part of a team, but a lot of what happens is out of our hands, and that doesn’t exactly alleviate our stress.

Back to family. Forget money; it’s difficult to have a strong relationship when you’re away that often. You don’t want to be the person who wakes up and realizes your job cost you love, and trust me, there are plenty of examples out here of that. I’m happily married, but we met late in life, too late to have kids of our own. It is a “what if” that took me some time to come to peace with.

When I was starting out, several vets warned me to pace myself with how I handled myself socially away from the course. People might think the job is all fun, but there aren’t as many laughs working at the course as you might think. We get those off the course, and often it involves sitting around a table with beers. I have a lifetime of stories because of those nights. When you’re sharing a common area with three other caddies, it’s hard not to have a couple of drinks a night. But if you don’t manage it, it will manage you.

Caddies used to sit and watch their guys warm up on the range. Now we’re the ones warming up, getting our stretches in. Quality sneakers and ice-gel packs are essential. Arm-guard sleeves look ridiculous, but they keep our arms cool and unburned. The massage-therapy guns help, but nothing is better for your body than a few laps in the hotel pool. The bond we share with each other is also important for airing out complaints and knowing none of us is alone.

After 30 years, my mind and body have a few scars, but I still love it. The spirit is still there, and I love to compete. I might be bent over at times, but at least I’m still here. —WITH JOEL BEALL