2005: Time for clubs to get back in the loop
It was in a bar the other night that I found the elixir for golf’s participation problems, and the difficulty in bringing young people into the game. It came from a couple of college graduates who insisted on buying me a drink.
I actually knew both fellows, for they were longtime caddies at the club to which I belong. They had spent several summers lugging bags across our course - reading putts, walking off yardages and coddling golfers of all ages and abilities. They had even received modest educational stipends from a scholarship trust we had started to help them through college. Now, they were off in the business world, one toiling for a New York investment bank and the other running a lucrative chiropractic practice.
Maybe it was the Patron Silver, so soothing and welcoming on a brisk winter’s eve. Or perhaps it was the worries I had heard so many industry bigwigs express during last year’s Golf 20/20 conference in St. Augustine, Fla., and the concerns they shared about all the people who were either shunning the game or leaving it altogether. But two shots into my reunion with the former loopers, I suddenly hit upon a workable solution to the issues of participation, one that not only seemed sensible but also was devoid of politics and the sort of theoretical altruism that causes realists to gnash their teeth.
It was about caddies and once again making them a significant part of the golf landscape.
Consider these two fellows. They had started caddying in their early teens, and not only enjoyed summer employment for the better part of a decade, but also learned how to play (thanks primarily to open caddie play on Mondays). They became quick studies on rules and etiquette (mostly because of caddie clinics they regularly attended and simple observation during dozens of rounds). When they were finally ready to leave college, as well as the club membership they had served for so long, they had all the necessary credentials to becoming contributing members of our golf society.
They carried middle-range handicaps. They understood such essentials as keeping a good pace of play and faithfully repairing every divot and pitch mark. They felt comfortable in and around pro shops and confidently played whenever they traveled. They also could rib, kibitz, harangue and deride their opponents and playing partners with Trevino-like prowess.
In other words, they were everything the powers of golf want to produce each year, players with the financial and emotional wherewithal to tee it up 20 or 30 times per year. And how did they get that way?
Not by building a handful of executive courses in high-need areas, or, as one speaker at that Golf 20/20 gathering suggested, by repainting a Pinehurst pub so it appeared brighter and more hospitable to distaff golfers.
No, they got that way by caddying. And nothing is able to educate so many potential golfers, and entice them not only to start playing a true sport for life but also remain a part of it for decades, than that vocation.
Problem is, caddie programs have disappeared as quickly as persimmon.
A number of America’s top golf clubs and resorts have these programs, but they employ mostly pro jocks who already are part of the golf world. Sadly, most of those spots have little or no time for loopers of high school and college age, and that also appears to be the case with the types of golf and country clubs that used to utilize scads of local youths but became addicted over the years to the easy revenues of golf cart fleets. A lot of these facilities just got lazy and quit enforcing rules deeming that caddies be used at certain times. Or they stopped employing caddie masters and running the kinds of clinics that made the youngsters proficient loopers. They also forgot about explaining to their memberships the benefits of putting local teens to work, not only as a way of giving back to the community but also in getting to know a handful of young people and participating in some small way in their maturation.
The result is that perhaps the best pipeline into the game was shut down, one that cost next to nothing to run. All it really required was an emotional commitment, a supervisor to keep the caddie pen running smoothly and an understanding of what caddies mean to golf.
The powers that fret about the problems of participation in golf would be wise to consider a nationwide program that addresses the caddie issue and gets clubs back into the loop. Chances are, it will work better than anything else they have tried.
And who knows, an old caddie may even want to buy them a drink one day.