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George Peper: Going Down?

Like elevator operators, caddies are really an unnecessary tradition in this day and age

By: George Peper

Call me a curmudgeon, but I’m of the firm conviction that caddies, as an element of 21st century golf, are somewhere between superfluous and annoying.

They’re elevator operators—they know every inch of their route, but is that really so noteworthy? They’re the guys who stand in the bathrooms of fancy restaurants, turning on a faucet, proffering a hand towel, and waiting for a tip.

I don’t understand the clubs and resorts who proudly point to their “walking” courses and all but require their members to take caddies. If they really believe golf is a walking game, that it should be played as it was—and still is—in the British Isles, such establishments would allow at least three alternatives: 1) carrying your own bag, 2) pulling a hand cart, or if those two options are too taxing 3) walking beside a powered hand cart. There’s not a club in Scotland that doesn’t allow that.

The self-styled traditionalists who cling to the notion that caddies are integral to the fabric of golf should take a look at how things have changed in the hundred years since little Eddie Lowery schlepped Francis Ouimet’s sac to victory at Brookline. Or even the half century since I was a caddie. Back in 1963 I got five dollars for an 18-hole loop—tip included. In today’s equivalent that’s $38—a number that seems pretty reasonable (and granted there are still a handful of places in the U.S. where caddies may be had for that fee). But in most places it’s more, and in some places it’s much more. Caddie fees at the top private clubs and resorts can run anywhere from $50 to $100. That’s a lot to pay someone to shoulder a bag and read yardages off a laser or GPS device.

Not long ago, a friend of mine with near perfect attendance at a posh private club in Florida made a startling statement. “I pay $600 a week in caddies fees,” he said. This fellow belongs to a similar club up north, so that works out to about $30,000 a year. He might as well hire a valet.

Such obscene fees might be easier to stomach were the recipients latter-day Lowerys—enterprising young kids with a love of golf and a need for some extra cash to finance their education. To be fair such kids still exist, thanks to groups such as the Ouimet and Evans Caddie Scholar programs. But their numbers are dwindling and the sad truth is that America’s leading clubs and resorts—beginning with the likes of Augusta National and Pebble Beach—have abandoned any attempt to encourage local kids and instead have outsourced their caddie program to Caddiemaster Enterprises, a company that finds and trains professional caddies and then contracts them out across the country. Most (but not all) of these guys are excellent caddies, many of them aspiring pro golfers, but essentially they’re guns for hire, itinerant workers who follow the sun.

And these are the good caddies. I won’t begin to describe, because you’ve probably experienced yourself, what it’s like to have a caddie who is sullen or slow or loquacious, or all-knowing. After four or five hours with such an individual, you feel as if the fee should be coming to you, not him.

As a corollary to all this, let me make a stark admission: I love playing in a motorized cart—and not because I’m inordinately lazy or decrepit. Although I’m a bit of both, I manage to walk the equivalent of 18 holes on a treadmill most mornings. No I like carts because for me the greatest joy of golf is playing the shots, not sauntering between them, and the fastest way to get from shot to shot is in a buggy, even a shared buggy. Besides, carts offer other advantages marked over caddies—they never lag behind you, they never give you a wrong club or a bad read, they never stifle a snicker when you four-putt, and at the 18th green you never have to decide how much to tip them.  

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