By Dale Leatherman
“Putt ’er right here,” said Billy, pointing the flagstick at a spot on the green that seemed impossibly wide of the line. But after a few holes on one of Scotland’s most revered courses, I had come to trust my caddie completely. I stroked the ball and watched it curve and drop into the hole. Billy smiled and touched the tip of his flat cap. Retrieving the ball, he hoisted my golf bag and set off for the next hole, wiping imaginary specks of dirt from my putter.
On most courses in the British Isles, walking with a caddie is how the game is played. There are no motorized carts. Even if I’d had a choice, I would have walked with Billy. After all, it was Scotland, where the tradition stretches back hundreds of years.
The caddie’s role has evolved over the past few centuries. Once a simple job of toting equipment, caddying at the world’s top courses and clubs now requires extensive training and expertise, changing the game for beginners and professionals alike.
Before golf bags came to be, players carried a handful of clubs. The load was well shy of today’s 18, but the aristocracy found it burdensome and had servants tote their equipment.
Golf historians agree that the term “caddie” originated from “le cadet,” the French word for young boy. Often the youngest sons of the aristocracy, these boys were traditionally tasked with menial chores.
“Most of us are very skeptical that the word ‘caddie’ originated with Mary, Queen of Scots,” says Scottish golf historian Roger McStravick, who is currently working on the book, “St. Andrews—In the Footsteps of Old Tom Morris.” The erroneous theory is that French military cadets carried clubs for royalty, and that the queen (an avid golfer) brought the term “caddy” or (the preferred) “caddie” with her when she returned home from France in 1561. In fact, at that time, the French weren’t playing golf.
“The word ‘kati’—for carrying tea—has been around for centuries,” McStravick adds. “ ‘Caddie’ may simply be a Scottish variation of it.”
Having a servant carry one’s clubs caught on quickly in Scotland, the birthplace of golf. Errand boys—and girls—who delivered water in Scottish villages gravitated to golf courses, and the caddie profession was born.
“In the 16th century, only people of inherent wealth or [military] status had leisure time for golf, and they called upon their ‘cadets’ to carry their clubs tucked under one arm,” says David Joy, a native of St. Andrews, Scotland, who has written several highly acclaimed books on golf history. He is currently working on a book titled “Caddies to the Fore,” which traces the history of the golfer’s best ally. “In the United Kingdom we have had male and female caddies from the beginning. Even now the St. Andrews Links Trust has females among their regular caddies.”
The stereotype of the Scottish caddie may be a wiry, weather-beaten fellow with a slouch cap and a thick brogue—but the opposite is true in Asian countries, where caddies are almost always women. These caddies pull trolleys or ride on the back of motorized carts carrying players and bags rather than lugging the heavy golf bags over their shoulders. Players sometimes hire more than one caddie—one to handle clubs and the other to shade the golfer with an umbrella. The women are well-trained, and politely offer savvy advice to golfing tourists, if asked.
“There’s a wide spectrum of caddie usage,” says Hal Phillips, managing director of Mandarin Media, who has observed and reported on Asian golf since 1992. “Caddying provides viable employment, especially to women, in poorer countries like Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and China. Even in advanced economies like Korea and Japan, caddying is good work for women—often older women who are married and looking for pocket money. In contrast, in the U.S. it’s largely seen as a job for kids—a job that doesn’t pay enough for adults.”
Anthony Pioppi is an American golf historian and author of the golf book, “To the Nines.” He also loves caddying, and has been “on the bag” for golfers all over the world. “On links courses in the British Isles, golfing tourists are lost without a caddie,” he says. “How could they not be? The designers of those layouts intended for golfers to play the course many times before they understood the strategy.”
Pioppi explains why caddies are not as prevalent in the U.S. as they are in other countries: “The money that golf clubs make from cart fees is the only reason the use of caddies died out on daily fee and lower-end private courses. In the end, considering the maintenance on carts, cart paths and terrain, the clubs aren’t making as much money from carts as they suppose.
“It’s taken about 30 years for the effects of eliminating caddies … to show its impact on the game,” he adds. “I think it’s one of the overlooked reasons for the decline in golf participation. Caddying used to be the breeding ground for future golfers. Kids came to the golf course to make money and, in the end, took up the sport.”
A more recent threat to the caddie profession is the ubiquitous golf GPS, which can give even a novice player an accurate yardage to the green. What it can’t do is calculate the effect of wind, elevation changes or texture of the grass. A good caddie can tell you all of those things—and more. Whether you’re a beginner or a scratch player, a caddie can also advise on club selection and where to hit the ball to set up your next move. Rather than simply being a valet for your clubs, your caddie can be a coach, course strategist and affable companion who helps you shake off a bad shot.
Fortunately, Americans don’t always have to travel across the pond to enjoy the unique experience of playing with a caddie. They are still an option at upscale golf resorts throughout the country, including Sea Island Golf Club.
Answering the Call
“A caddie is essentially a tour guide on the course, and an important element in the guest’s overall stay,” says James Loggins, manager of Sea Island’s caddie program, which is organized through Caddiemaster. The Florida-based company hires, trains and oversees caddies at some of the top resorts and private clubs in the world. Loggins, who has been with Caddiemaster for nearly a decade, knows the impact that a great caddie can have on more than just a guest’s golf experience.
“A player will spend four to five hours with a caddie every day—more than any other person at the resort,” Loggins says.
“Guests often play several times and request the same caddie. During their stay they will only spend two or three hours with a waiter or bartender, an hour with a masseuse, and perhaps 15 or 20 minutes with other staffers. So caddies can impact the guest experience more than any other resort personnel.”
For seven years now, Loggins has helped provide experts and caddies that elevate Sea Island golfing experiences. “Almost all of our caddies are hired locally and undergo an intensive training program,” he explains. “We have about 80 on staff—a mix ranging in age from 18 to 65. Two are women. As long as they can carry two bags and do the job, we have no restrictions.”
All potential caddies must have some background in golf before being accepted into the training program, where they learn the nuances of each course and how to calculate yardages, read putts, tend flagsticks, clean clubs and balls and take care of all course maintenance (raking bunkers, replacing divots and fixing pitch marks). All the player has to do is hit the ball.
Caddies also learn about Sea Island’s history, the PGA TOUR McGladrey Classic held on the resort’s Seaside and Plantation courses, and the Davis Love III Foundation that hosts the tournament and benefits several charities.
Jason Williams, who’s caddied at Sea Island for eight years, says, “I never go to work with a frown on my face. I work in one of the most beautiful places in the world, and the Sea Island courses are amazing. And I like people. When I graduated from college, jobs were hard to find in western Pennsylvania so I trained to be a caddie at Laurel Valley, a private club. I found that I loved it, and have never wanted to do anything else.”
The caddie training at Sea Island was demanding, adds Williams. “You have to be physically ready to handle this job, and they put you through the paces for three days, with a lot of running and carrying two bags. I started the training with eight other people and was the only one who made it through.”
Players on Sea Island courses have three options for playing with a caddie: One player can walk the course with one caddie carrying his or her bag; two players can walk, sharing a caddie who carries both bags; or four players riding in carts can have a forecaddie, which is included in the greens fee.
“A forecaddie really hustles,” Loggins says. “He’ll position himself 150 yards out from the tee and calculate the yardages on all four tee shots before the cart pulls up to the first ball. He’ll move from player to player all the way to the green, and then read all of the putts in order. Along the way he’ll clean clubs and balls, rake bunkers and repair divots and ball marks on the green.”
Though carts and forecaddies are useful options, “Sea Island is a big believer in using caddies in the traditional way, which means walking the course,” says John Wade, Sea Island Golf Club’s head golf professional. “All three courses are very walkable, with no extreme elevation changes. The views are great and the distances from green to tee are generally short.
“Walking gives you a different perspective,” he explains. “You can see the terrain and the different angles, but the experience is even better with a caddie who knows the hazards and distances and understands the greens. He can give you a lot of confidence and improve your score.”
Loggins agrees that a caddie’s course knowledge is valuable, especially on the Seaside Course where the PGA TOUR McGladrey Classic is played. “If you’ve never played the course, there are target lines you have to know,” he says. “Miss them and you’re in the marsh, through the fairway or in some other trouble. The greens are also very tricky. On all three layouts, the courses’ main defense is the greens. Caddies can save players five or six strokes per round just by reading putts.”
In addition to providing help with the course, caddies are also an integral part of a well-maintained course. Wade explains that caddies decrease cart traffic, resulting in healthier grass with fewer tracks. “Caddies are also more adept at fixing divots and pitch marks and raking bunkers than most golfers—and they hold the flagstick instead of dropping it on the green,” he explains.
“Unlike other sports, golf allows players at any level to have the same experience as the best players in the world,” Wade adds. “Most of us will never know what an NBA or WNBA basketball player feels like on the court or what it’s like for an NFL football player on the field. But when you walk with a caddie on a Sea Island course you’re following in the footsteps of golf professionals like Davis Love III or Matt Kuchar or Zach Johnson. You’re playing the courses they play and having much the same interaction they do with their caddies.”
Caddies on the Rebound
Reasons such as the ones presented by Loggins and Wade—better-maintained courses, deeper knowledge of the layout, ambassadorship toward guests and an overall better golf experience—have caused more clubs and golfers to embrace caddies’ services in recent years.
“Golf was definitely hurt by the economic downturn,” says Loggins. Motorized carts, GPS and rangefinders have all impacted the caddie business, but Caddiemaster has continued to see steady growth since 2007, in large part because of the phenomenal growth of golf in China, where even daily fee courses employ caddies. “In the U.S., high-end clubs like
Sea Island recognize that nothing beats the one-on-one experience of playing with a caddie. It’s the height of personal service.”