The caddie is making a comeback. Of the 120,000 rounds played last year on the three courses at Oregon's Bandon Dunes, 80,000 of them were with a caddie, the most of any golf course in the world.
Is the caddie making a comeback?
The highest-paid sports star in New Zealand is Steve Williams, the man who carries Tiger Woods’ bag and apparently takes 10 percent of everything Woods wins — which is quite often.
But we’re talking more about everyday golf — if you can call paying $150 for green fees and a caddie on top of that an everyday occurrence.
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The caddie is making a comeback. Of the 120,000 rounds played last year on the three courses at Oregon’s Bandon Dunes, 80,000 of them were with a caddie, the most of any golf course in the world.
The new love of links golf and the disdain for the cart path has resurrected caddies not only there, but at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin and, now, Chambers Bay near Tacoma.
A golf course just looks better and routes better without the intrusion of asphalt or cement driveways. But at what cost?
In the caddie quarters at Chambers Bay they have a dozen bags hanging on the wall, light bags with legs, bags they press into service when the guy from Chicago shows up with his PGA Tour, leather-sided, heavily loaded monster bag. The guy who has never been out of a golf cart, let alone carried his own bag.
American golf had become basically a motorized game. When Bandon Dunes decided it would go all the way back to links golf and that included the prohibition of carts, the stage was set for the return of the caddie, the fellow who carried a big bag and offered sage advice.
No longer are the caddies kids or toothless old men, however. A dozen at Bandon Dunes, in fact, are women.
The caddies at Chambers Bay come from diverse backgrounds.
“I just love it,” said Nate Spitzer, a 32-year-old mortgage banker who in these slow economic times pleases his passion and pays his bills by carrying a couple of bags over the seven miles of sand dunes at Chambers Bay.
“I work outside in incredible scenery, I set my own hours, I help people enjoy themselves and I have access to the golf course,” said Spitzer. “I’ll have to admit I’m enthralled by Chambers Bay.”
Spitzer is not alone. In addition to high school and college guys trying to earn a few bucks, the caddie corps at Chambers also has a bunch of retired guys who don’t need to work but like being on the course.
A “few bucks” can be as much as $150 a day, depending on the quality of the caddie, how many bags he or she carries, and the generosity of the players.
“We started out recruiting kids,” said Brian Haines, the caddie master at Chambers Bay, “but then a lot of older golf enthusiasts showed up. They’ve got the experience we are looking for.”
To get an idea how big the caddie renaissance is, Bandon Dunes has nearly 300 caddies in its recently erected $1 million “shack” near the practice facility. It has a high-tech TV and large lunchroom and locker room for the employees.
At Chambers Bay, where there are 170 caddies, the lure for the older guys is the chance to play one round for every five you caddie.
For the kids there is chance for a college scholarship.
There are 19 students attending the University of Washington on an Evans Scholarship, money dedicated for tuition and housing at the UW or WSU for kids who meet the entrance standards and have worked in the golf industry, historically as caddies.
There are similar programs throughout the country.
When Bandon Dunes began using caddies, it had to educate cranberry farmers and out-of-work loggers about golf. Many had never been on the course before.
On my first round at Chambers Bay, a member of our foursome had to teach his caddie how to carry a bag. He was holding it in his arms like a grocery sack.
But that was before the course was picked to host the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open, before good players realized they could make money and get free golf by sharing their knowledge with others.
The term caddie, according to golf historians, came from the Scots’ inability to pronounce the French “cadet,” the name for the young soldiers who as part of their tour were asked to first carry Mary Queen of Scots’ extra clubs around the shaggy dunes of her country.
Ben Hogan caddied to make money, and in the process learned the game he would come closer to perfecting than anyone else.
But with carts and public golf, the caddie basically disappeared except for professional tours and at a few private clubs. Seattle Golf Club operates a caddie program, but few other clubs do.
“Links golf offers so many options, and there is so much to know about a course,” said Spitzer, “that I think people really enjoy a good caddie.”
There is also the matter of shouldering the load during what amounts to a tough, seven-mile walk.
At Chambers and Bandon, caddies are independent operators. The courses take no percentage of the money exchanged between player and caddie. The courses do, however, set a minimum bag fee, $35 at Chambers and $55 at Bandon.
The tip given the caddie often equals the bag fee.
John Tipping, writing in the Pacific Northwest Golf Association magazine, pondered the question of how much to tip a caddie.
He totaled the cost of the round (say $245 including green fees at $195 and the caddie bag fee of $50) and concluded that if you paid that for dinner, you most certainly would tip at least 15 percent, or $36.75.
“Sounds reasonable,” wrote Tipping, “but consider that a waiter does not stick by your side for four-plus hours. A waiter does not grab your salad fork for you [choosing your club]. A waiter doesn’t dab that gravy spot off your shirt for you [raking bunkers]. And a waiter doesn’t provide the kind of useful information a caddie would provide.”
Caddies often carry the bags of two different players, doubling their payday. Caddies at Bandon sometimes do two bags on two different rounds.
Spitzer, who is now training caddies, said the bottom line is helping the player enjoy his round and save a few strokes.
“Some players are afraid that the caddies are judging them,” said Spitzer, “which is absolutely untrue. We want to help them enjoy the day.”
Says the caddie manual, “take it upon yourself to make the golfer have a great time regardless of his score. You are the ambassador of Chambers. The harder you work and the more fun you have, the more positive experience the golfer will have.”
If players are new to links golf, Spitzer tries to get with them on the practice green, where he explains the virtues of putting from off the green and of chipping off the firm, sparse fairways with a less lofted club.
“I think they enjoy the different types of shots you have to play,” said Spitzer. “I know I do.”