WGA's Caddie Academy helps girls plot a course to lifetime success

Courtesy of the WGA

WGA's Caddie Academy helps girls plot a course to lifetime success

Amateur

WGA's Caddie Academy helps girls plot a course to lifetime success

Editor’s Note: This story originally appeared in the August 2017 print issue of Golfweek.

LAKE FOREST, Ill. – Melina Scofield burst into tears on her first day. Her mother, Martha, practically had to force Melina to get her stuff out of the car. Signing up for the Western Golf Association’s Caddie Academy – a seven-week, overnight program – was entirely Melina’s idea. But she was painfully shy.

So shy, in fact, that Mike Maher, WGA’s director of education, joked he wasn’t sure if Scofield even spoke English the first two weeks.

This, of course, is a look-at-her-now story. They’re all that way, to some extent. The Western Golf Association’s Caddie Academy takes high-achieving high school students with limited means and gives them an opportunity to shine brighter.

“It’s easy to rally around special young people,” Maher said.

Young people such as Scofield, who sat across from a professional journalist in the library at the Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart and thoughtfully answered questions for half an hour before helping give a tour. If there’s a shy bone left in Scofield’s wispy frame, she hides it well.

Scofield, 18, won a full tuition and housing scholarship to Northwestern through her caddying efforts, and used a bubble metaphor in the essay portion of her application to describe how her program experiences popped the insecurities that had held her back.

“I finally became free,” she said, grinning.

• • •

Erika Rodriguez hails from Chicago’s West Side and is double-majoring in radio/television/film and English at Northwestern. She’s the oldest child of Umberto and Maria Rodriguez, who immigrated to the U.S. from Mexico and are both undocumented citizens, making it difficult to find good work.

Former U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice shakes hands with Erika Rodriguez as KPMG’s Lynn Doughtie and Ayana Davis look on. (Courtesy of the WGA)

Erika was in the first grade when her mother was diagnosed with a brain tumor. She’s now cancer-free, but the sickness brought on cognitive challenges that have made it too difficult to work. Umberto has struggled with unemployment over the years, mostly delivering food for local Chinese restaurants. Right now he’s selling life insurance.

“I knew college was potentially unattainable for me,” said Erika, who applied for the Caddie Academy Program knowing little about golf beyond the name Tiger Woods.

Erika caddied for four years at North Shore Country Club in Glenview and now works as a counselor at the caddie program. She carried the bag of KPMG U.S. chairman and CEO Lynne Doughtie at a recent LPGA major. Doughtie’s foursome included former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice.

“They were all super humble, actually,” Erika said.

The Caddie Academy launched five years ago with 12 girls who were housed on the campus of Northwestern and worked at four Chicago-area clubs. The program, founded by Fritz Souder, was designed to boost the number of junior girls eligible for the Evans Scholarship, awarded to caddies from modest means.

“It was almost pure magic out of the gate,” Maher said.

• • •

Scofield’s first day caddying at The Glen Club “was like a culture shock.” She’d only seen golf played on TV before that, and believed the game to be relatively easy. She was taken by both the beauty and peacefulness of the North Shore club.

“I didn’t expect everyone to be so well-mannered,” she said, noting that golfers tend to tell the same jokes.

Melina Scofield at work on the course (Courtesy of the WGA)

As the program expanded – this year there were 85 girls caddying at 13 clubs – it moved to Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart.

All the caddies’ expenses are covered for seven weeks, and they pocket everything earned on the golf course. First-year caddies make an average of $1,500, and returners make well above that,
Maher said.

That’s significant, given that the average household income for this year’s group is below $30,000. Families having one less mouth to feed for seven weeks back home in places such as Philadelphia, Atlanta and Compton, Calif., also makes a difference.

These are life-changing weeks. Though they’re all high-achieving students, college exposure is often limited at home.

“We talk about college every day here,” Maher said. “Not only do we want to get their questions answered, we want them to know the answers to questions they don’t know to ask.”

Caddies are usually out the door by 6 a.m. Most have never stepped foot on a golf course before entering the program. Maher said they only ask two things of the girls: Work hard and be nice.

Beyond the obvious exposure to golf, teens spend four-plus hours daily with highly successful professionals, many of whom become friends and mentors. The communications skills alone are invaluable.

Melina Scofield speaks at a Western Golf Association event for the Evans Scholarship. (Courtesy of the WGA)

While first-year caddies take part in a book club, older kids are given standardized test prep material and guidance that most could not afford otherwise.

Scofield raised her ACT score by 10 points over the course of one summer. She turned a weakness in math not only into a strength, but a genuine love.

Scofield’s two older brothers are deaf, and though she and 19-year-old Rodrigo went to different high schools last year, they were taking the same level of math. Scofield, who is fluent in sign language and Spanish, realized her brother was being held back in math because he couldn’t rely on an interpreter for help. They’d work out problems together on a board in her bedroom.

The experience sparked Scofield’s dream to teach math to the hearing impaired.

“It has shown me how different their world is,” she said, “especially for education.”

In 2017, 270 caddies were awarded one of the Western Golf Association’s Evans Scholarships, which cover full tuition and housing. Six of the recipients, including Scofield, were part of the Caddie Academy. In all, 23 girls who have gone through the academy program have received full scholarships. Maher expects that number to triple in the next two years.

There’s a vision to roll out the program in other markets, but they’re still laying groundwork.

“Funding is not an issue,” he said.

Almost half the caddies in this year’s program were from Chicago, but few had seen the city through the eyes of a tourist. In addition to attending a White Sox game, caddies were treated to an architecture cruise of the city, a trip to the botanical garden and lunch in a corporate setting at The PrivateBank, where the teens received a lesson on financial literacy. For many, the field trip to Northwestern was their first visit to a college campus.

“We see this as a transformational opportunity,” Maher said. “We want to make sure these girls see their full potential before they leave here.”

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