Thursday, June 15, 2000
There they are, the professional golfer and the caddie, strolling down the fairway during a tournament, looking dapper and important. They''re probably sizing up the next hole or comparing notes on a competitor. It''s a given that they must be talking about golf, right?
Nah. Not really. "It''s like a walk in the park," says professional caddie Todd Newcomb, who works for one-time Senior Open champion Dave Stockton. "We talk about hunting and fishing, we talk about the stock market, and we talk about yard maintenance. Plus, he likes a good joke."
A walk in the park? That''s what a pet is for. Surely a caddie''s function extends beyond schlepping golf bags and telling good jokes.
"My primary goal is to help him prepare," Newcomb says of his role as an advance scout and research assistant. "I''ll show up two or three days early and really get a feel for the course. Dave doesn''t want to go out there and not know the course. It''s my job to know a particular course and have all the answers he needs when the tournament starts."
More than anything, Newcomb is there for support, be it physical, mental or emotional. While hefting 50-pound golf bags is certainly the most obvious part of his job, offering emotional support is just as important. The way he describes it, caddies are like traveling, well-paid bartenders: They make good money--up to $50k a year--and they do a lot of listening.
"You''re a best friend and you''re a sounding board," he says. "There''s a lot of psychology involved. You''re there for the highs and you''re there for the lows. You need to have thick skin."
Newcomb has been by Stockton''s side for 14 Senior Tour victories. "Winning the Senior Open in ''96 was real special," Newcomb says, using the word "we" with the devoted affection sports fans often reserve for their favorite teams. "We won by a couple of shots over Hale Irwin. I was very proud to be part of that."
But it''s not all about basking in reflected glory. Newcomb admits that the life of a professional caddie has its lows as well, just like the life of a professional golfer. For one, caddies are a dying breed.
"There are very few of us who do this for a living," he says. "There are only about 1,000 full-time caddies worldwide. It''s a lonely life. It''s difficult to hold down a relationship because you''re always on the road."
The caddying profession finds itself at an interesting crossroads as golf enters the new millennium. On one hand, the public profile of the professional caddie has never been higher. Bill Murray''s hilarious performance in the hit movie Caddyshack certainly raised the awareness of caddies in general, and today the hiring or firing of a caddie by a top pro is national sports news.
Unfortunately, the caddie is slowly but surely being replaced by that tribute to sedentary habits, the golf cart. This simple form of mechanized transportation is either a pleasant convenience or the end of a great tradition, depending upon who you are talking to. The golf cart industry has taken off in the last few yeras, and many courses now require golfers to purchase the use of a cart in addition to greens fees.
"Unfortunately the caddie program is on the way out," Newcomb says. "There''s just too much revenue to be made from carts, and a lot of people don''t like to walk. This is really a shame because caddying is a great part of the tradition of golf. Plus, for a lot of young golfers, caddying allows them opportunities to get started in golf, which under other circumstances they couldn''t afford."
So do caddies get the respect they deserve? "It''s getting better," says Newcomb. "I know my place and I just like to feel welcome. But I don''t expect a buffet table to be waiting for me."
Perhaps Newcomb will never have a buffet table waiting for him, but thanks to the Professional Caddies Association, he may be able to purchase affordable health insurance. The non-profit organization, which was founded in 1996 and now boasts over 2,400 members, provides both active and retired caddies with a wealth of opportunities, benefits and perks. But it''s the prospect of affordable health care that gets PCA founder and director Dennis Cone excited.
"This has been our breakthrough year," says Cone. "This is the first time we''ve ever been able to offer caddies health insurance. Thanks to a generous contribution from an anonymous donor, we are offering coverage to the 100 PCA members to sign up for just $25 for the rest of the year."
For most caddies, affordable health insurance is a huge bonus. Unlike the golf pros they work for, the income potential of most caddies is quite limited. Sure, there is an elite group that makes six figures or more, but the average salary for a caddie is about the same as that of, say, a journalist.
"The old traditional rule of thumb is that a caddie on the PGA tour makes $500-$1000 a week plus 10 percent for a win or seven percent for a top 20 finish," Cone says. "A caddie at a good club makes $500 -$800 a week, including tips. But the club caddie doesn''t have to worry so much about travel expenses."
So in other words, like that of a journalist, the life of a professional caddie is a labor of love. Translation: Don''t expect to get rich. But if you love golf, the view can''t be beat. "It''s almost a subculture," Cone says. "It''s the finest seat in the house and the adrenaline really flows. If you can''t be a pro, the next best thing is being a caddie."