As my college years went by and around me people who had maxed out their student loans were taking second or even third jobs, the free ride I was on for tending pins and raking sand traps became harder to explain.
You were what? A caddie?
You got a scholarship?
A caddie scholarship?!
The looks they shot me weren’t too different from what a fourball player would flash after losing three ways to a pair of sandbaggers. The conversations always seemed to leave my fellow students with more questions than answers, and many would linger on that seeming oxymoron: caddie scholarship.
File all this under Golf is the Greatest of all Games—Reason No. 427. A Midwestern kid works summers at Olympia Fields or Minikahda or Muirfield Village, learns the caddie trade, flourishes in high school, shows financial need and earns a four-year, renewable, tuition-paying scholarship to one of several prestigious universities. Oh, and he (or she) gets to live in a fraternity-style house with other caddies.
The Evans Scholarship might be one of the best-kept secrets in golf, although no one actually tries to keep it under wraps. Since 1930, the Evans Scholars Foundation, based appropriately in Golf, Ill., has been awarding scholarships to caddies, who mostly attend one of 14 major universities and live in a chapter house that is part fraternity, part army barracks and filled with caddies from every kind of background.
“Most people really can’t believe it,” admits Gabe Ottolini, who recently graduated from Indiana University with a marketing degree. “They’ll ask if you caddie for the golf team. They can’t believe you get all your stuff taken care of, and that it lasts the whole four years.”
The notion that every resident living in the Evans Scholar houses is one of these foundation-blessed collegians also stirs disbelief.
“People visiting our house would look around and have trouble believing that all those guys caddied,” says Ottolini. “It’s such a mixed bag of people. That’s the last thing you’d think is the common thread.”
Ottolini, 23, was one of 800-some Evans Scholars enrolled during the 2000-2001 school year. He caddied at Meridian Hills Country Club in Indianapolis, then earned an Evans Scholarship by ranking among the top 25 percent of his high school class, getting recommendations from his club and surviving an interview process that dries the throats of each new crop of candidates. Andy Krop was a fellow Evans Scholar at Indiana who caddied at Woodmar Country Club in Hammond, Ind. He started caddying at age 12 and worked at the club for seven years, through high school and into his freshman year of college.
“I heard about the scholarship through some of the older guys and the club pro,” Krop says. “A lot of people have the misconception that we’re golfers and strictly here for golf. Or they hear we’re caddies but don’t realize this is a full-tuition scholarship and academics is a big part of it. They don’t see the full picture.”
The program was established by Charles “Chick” Evans Jr., an accomplished amateur golfer who won 54 titles during a long competitive career. In 1916, Evans became the first player to capture the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open in the same year. He later was compensated for his golf prowess, but, wishing to remain an amateur, Evans earmarked the funds for charity. And that’s how the Evans Scholarship was born.
The Western Golf Association became the program’s sponsor in 1930, the year the first two scholarships were awarded, and slowly the momentum built. There were 84 Scholars enrolled by 1950; that number swelled to 440 by 1960. For the last two decades, the number of grants in any given year has averaged 825, with approximately 125 going to women.
The program has sent forth more than 8,000 men and women. Most have spent their college days in Evans Scholar chapter houses located at Colorado, Wisconsin, Marquette, Illinois, Northwestern, Northern Illinois, Indiana, Purdue, Missouri, Miami (Ohio), Ohio State, Michigan, Michigan State and Minnesota.
The houses are owned and operated by the Evans Scholars Foundation, and maintained each year with a house fee paid by each scholar—a fee that is generally far less than they’d pay if they lived in a dorm or off-campus housing. Most Evans Scholars also work dining-hall jobs at nearby fraternities and sororities.
Although golf is not an overriding theme once college begins, it is without question a part of an Evans Scholar’s life. And caddying is the bond.
“Especially your freshman year. That’s the best way to get to know each other,” says Krop. “You start swapping funny stories about what happened as a caddie on the golf course. It leads you to thinking we’re all in the same boat down here.” Anyone reading this who has misplaced a member’s heirloom putter or had to suppress laughter while watching Mr. Smith ricochet one off a tree and onto his kneecap, knows how the lore gets compiled. Many scholarship caddies head back to restock their trove of stories when school lets out.
“A lot of us still caddie over the summer,” says Kate Rehfield, a senior at Purdue last year. A former caddie at Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago, she has two brothers and a sister who also earned the scholarship. “We’re one of the houses that is family-oriented,” she says. “We sit around and reminisce about being a ‘B-jock’ and working up to the ‘Honor’ caddie rank. About how golfers aimed for us on the range, who paid the best and the worst, the best loops we had.
“I think it helps you appreciate more why you’re here and what you’ve been given. If you’re on your own, you might take it for granted.”
Andy Alan is an anomaly in the Evans system. His home is Florida, where caddying is sparse at mostly cart-filled courses. But the club where he worked in Hobe Sound, Loblolly Pines, had a small caddie program that employed mostly adult caddies.
Alan read about the scholarship, and although there is no chapter house in his home state, he applied anyway and was awarded an Evans Scholarship to the University of Michigan.
“I couldn’t believe it when they told me I was going to come here for free,” Alan says. “Especially since I’m out of state. I could have gone to the University of Florida, but they strongly suggested I go to a university that has a chapter house. They believe it’s important for people to live in a house and experience the entire Evans program. I wasn’t sure at the time, but I’m glad I did. I can honestly say that if I didn’t live in the house, the Evans Scholarship wouldn’t mean as much to me, what it’s all about.
“The guys here … not everybody is the best of friends, but everyone gets along. We stick together. We’re proud to be Evans Scholars.”
Chapter-house life is an integral part of the program. Friendships are formed for life. “Caddyshack” viewings are not mandatory, but frequent. “We still watch it,” says Collen Evans, a Scholar at Marquette. “I know there is a copy floating around in the house. We have a big-screen TV in the basement and there was a big group watching it during finals week.”The Evans Scholars Foundation typically tries to place students at in-state schools to cut down on tuition costs. Nonetheless, it’s quite an expensive proposition to send some 800 kids to college each year.
In-state tuition at Indiana is about $4,000 per year, but at Purdue, the price is roughly $7,000 per semester—and going up all the time. The Evans Scholars Foundation pays for this through several fundraising programs. In the early days, Western Golf Association officials would pass the hat to cover tuition costs.
Now the Par Club program has thousands of members across the country who contribute a minimum of $50 a year. Gordon H. Euen, the WGA’s president from 1978-80 and now a member of its board of trustees, was the WGA’s scholarship chairman for four years and got the program cranked up from some 2,000 members in the early 1970s. “I never thought we’d see 10,000, but it didn’t take long,” says Euen. “There are 30,000 or so members now. And when you’ve got people contributing $100 or $150, it adds up. It was very rewarding for me.”
It’s also rewarding when Evans Scholars alumni step up in a time of need. That was the case at Indiana in the spring of 1997, when a fire swept through the living area of the chapter house, rendering most of the facility unlivable. Smoke damage was heavy and the heat so intense that trophies and photos melted. Fortunately, no one was injured, but suddenly some 50 students were without a place to live for the rest of the semester. And it was apparent their home at 1075 N. Jordan would not be ready in the fall, that it would have to be renovated or rebuilt.
Insurance would cover the costs to renovate, but Western Golf Association officials decided to see how much money they could raise. Evans alumni came through with more than $800,000, meaning the entire house could be rebuilt.
The following summer, one of the Indiana Evans Scholars was caddying for Davis Love III during the Chick Evans Memorial Pro-Am at the Western Open, the annual PGA Tour event in suburban Chicago. The tournament’s proceeds go to the Evans Scholars Foundation. Love heard the story about the fire and immediately wrote a check for $2,000, with one stipulation—that the money be used for a television.
That fall, the house re-opened with a brand new big-screen TV. Perfect for repeat screenings of “Caddyshack.”