By David DeSmith
The residents of Elie, Scotland—a quiet, seaside village 13 miles south of St. Andrews—are well accustomed to seeing golfers descend on their town to play the iconic links course there. But the group of men who clambered off a coach last February with golf travel bags in tow hadn’t come to Elie on a golf holiday. These men were on a very different mission: to see if training for a month to be professional caddies could help them calm the storms raging inside their minds—storms that had followed them home from the battlefield.
Six veterans stepped off that bus—three from the UK, two from Canada, and one from the U.S. Each had been recommended for this first Caddie School for Soldiers by veteran support groups in their home countries. Each hoped that he’d find peace on the frost-covered links of Scotland, and find purpose in the process of exploring a new career.
The Caddie School was the brainchild of Don J. Snyder, an American author who had written in his book, Walking With Jack, about the two summers he spent learning how to caddie in St. Andrews. There he was struck by the brotherhood that exists between caddies, and he later seized upon the idea that the experience he’d had might be of real value to soldiers returning home from war.
“Caddies and soldiers have a great deal in common,” said Snyder. “They’re intensely loyal—they never give up, no matter what happens. They’re physically tough, with the hearts of sled dogs. They carry themselves with a weary dignity. And they are almost always refugees from some other life.
“Soldiers returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were coming home tormented by PTSD, in addition to their physical injuries. Many were taking their own lives—far too many, and at an alarming rate. I felt certain that working as caddies, marching across beautiful ground every day, and leaving their stories behind while they entered their golfers’ stories, would be a healing that could save lives.”
With help from St. Andrews Legacy, an organization that brings wounded soldiers to Scotland as part of their recovery, and the Kohler family, who donated use of The Duke’s Course in St. Andrews for training sessions, the CSS kicked off on February 1. For the next 28 days, the men shared a stone house overlooking the Elie golf course. They lived together. Took their meals together. Went to the 19th Hole Pub together. And trained together, under the tutelage of Davy Gilchrist, twice Caddiemaster of the Year in Scotland, and David Scott, Master PGA Professional at the Duke’s.
They learned everything from golf rules and course etiquette to how to club a player in a five-club wind. On Sundays, Snyder took them around the Old Course, pointing out its hidden bunkers and preferred lines of play. But what they learned about themselves may have been even more valuable that what they learned about caddying.
“Soldiers coming back from war are often strangers to themselves,” said Snyder. “They have to adapt to the real world, but they don’t really know who they are. And when you’re a stranger to yourself, you don’t really believe in yourself anymore. You don’t know which version of yourself to believe in. But when you work as a caddie, and you earn the trust of a stranger every day, you begin to get some of that belief in yourself back.”
In the end, the CSS had different benefits for each soldier. For some, it was realizing that it was possible to learn a new trade and regain a measure of self-belief. For others, it was the chance to be part of a band of brothers again—an important part of the healing process.
Englishman Simon Jones said that the CSS helped him take his mind off things and “recuperate not just physically but mentally… It helped me focus, and it’s given me a new goal now. To hopefully find a career in the golf industry as a caddie.”
Fast-forward several months and both Jones and his fellow CSS alum Scotty Hale had found jobs as caddies—Simon at Royal Liverpool and Scotty in St. Andrews—while other CSS veterans had similarly found new purpose in their lives. Troy Killingbeck, one of the Canadian soldiers, will be returning to Elie in February 2020 to help instruct the second class of CSS veterans. Also in 2020, a film about the CSS is slated to premiere.
“These men gave everything for their countries,” said Snyder. “If the CSS can save a single soldier, our efforts will have been richly rewarded.”