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August 2018

Course Work

The resurgence of caddie programs are great for the game

By Steve Eubanks 

They lined the muddy cart path in their matching shirts and hats, apprehensive but eager to get to work. There were questions and banter: “Who do think you’ll get?” “I hope I’m in Michelle Wie’s group.” “What time are you out?” But all chatter stopped when the adult arrived. The leader of the group gave some last minute instructions and a pep talk before sending this crew of fresh-faced high-schoolers out on their jobs.

They would carry golf bags for the amateurs in the Tuesday pro-am at the KPMG Women’s PGA Championship at Kemper Lakes, just north of Chicago, in late June. And while the excitement about the event was unmistakable, there was also an air of confidence in these kids. While meeting the best LPGA professionals was something new, this was not their first rodeo when it came to caddying. That’s because the caddies that morning were all candidates for the Evans Scholarship, a program started in Chicago, that has provides four-year tuition and housing to more than 900 caddies a year.

One of those caddies, Tara O’Malley, who loops at Beverly Country Club in suburban Chicago, will start at the University of Illinois this month because of an Evans Scholarship. She let the emotions flow when she said, ““I am beyond grateful and excited for this amazing opportunity I’ve been given. This scholarship means everything to me. I’m so grateful for all of the people who have helped me along the way. I could not have done it without them.”

Hayley Stepek, who caddies at Ridge Country Club and will start at Miami University (Ohio) in September as an Evans Scholar, said, “I know that this scholarship will not only open doors for my college education but also my future career. My education and my faith are things that I’ve always prided myself on and I cannot wait for this next journey in my life to unfold. I’m incredibly blessed to be surrounded by so many positive and uplifting people who have led me to this point in my life: my mom, grandparents, teachers, friends, and especially my second family at Ridge Country Club.”

You don’t get those kinds of stories out of golf carts. You will never hear a member tell a story about his experience with cart #44 or hear anyone ask a question like “how is cart #12 doing?” Those bonds and relationships are only developed at courses that bucked the trend and kept their caddies; clubs that didn’t let the lure of golf carts strip away the luster of one of the great institutions in our game.

Over 10,000 caddies have gone to college on Evan Scholarships. Thousands more have developed life skills and forged relationships with people they never would have met otherwise. All are richer for the experience. 

“It’s hard to compare golf with a good caddie with golf in a cart,” said Chad Parker, general manager and director of golf at East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta. “Even with the latest GPS technology, golf with a caddie is just a different experience. We’re proud that, even with the more automated things you’re seeing in golf technology now, the caddie experience is still in demand and is growing. Caddies add a dimension to the round that you can’t get any other way.” 

And the caddie experience at East Lake serves an ever greater purpose. The golf course, once the home of the Atlanta Athletic Club and the place where Bobby Jones played his first and last rounds of golf, is located on the eastern edge of Atlanta in an area that was so riddled with crime and poverty that the Atlanta Police Department referred to it publicly as “little Vietnam.” Developer Tom Cousins bought the course in the 1990s, long after the Athletic Club had moved out to the northern suburbs. His vision was to revitalize the course while renewing the community. A charter school, mixed-income housing and a caddie program were all part of that process, as the neighborhood began to significantly improve.  

“The goal when the caddie program began was to provide employment, instill the values that you learn through golf and provide mentorship opportunities and relationship opportunities through the game,” Parker said. “Those goals have been achieved at many levels.

“There are too many stories to remember of people who met someone caddying and they’re now working for them,” Parker said. “That happens all the time. Our job as management is to say to that caddie, ‘Look, you need to take advantage of this opportunity. You’re being exposed to these successful people and they like you. They like your work ethic. They’re going to be able to open doors for you that you will never have opened otherwise.’ The success stories on that front are common. But that makes them no less extraordinary.” 

Course owners are also realizing the long-term value caddies provide to the game. As we look for ways to introduce the next generation to golf, the answer is to look at previous generations. Johnny McDermott, Francis Ouimet, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan, Seve Ballesteros, Lee Elder, Jim Thorpe: they became great golfers because they developed a love and appreciation for the game as caddies.

“It’s always been our intent with the caddie program, not necessarily to create world-beaters, but to use golf to teach life lessons,” Parker said. “But on a larger scale, caddie programs introduce golf to people who would not otherwise have access to the game. They meet people they would not otherwise have met without golf. And their eyes are opened to a new world.

“It’s hard to get someone who is 25 years old to get excited about golf if they have never been exposed to golf. Caddying is a way to get another generation into the game. And that’s a good thing.” 

Indeed, it is. 

Steve Eubanks is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and New York Times bestselling author. 

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