Rita leaves legacy as beloved Tour caddie

Greg Rita (left, shown in 1996) carried the bag for several major champions, including John Daly.

Greg Rita (left, shown in 1996) carried the bag for several major champions, including John Daly.

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His passion for life and for being a caddie was to be admired, and when he spoke with great conviction that warm May day in 2008, Greg Rita put you at ease. There was a cancerous tumor, chemotherapy had taken its toll, he felt weak, and he wasn’t quite ready to strap a big, heavy bag to his back.

All of that was true, but so was this: “If there’s a way, I’ve got the will to get through this.”

As he spoke, Rita sat among the people with whom he felt an unbreakable kinship – caddies, golfers, tournament volunteers. He wasn’t well enough to caddie, but Rita wasn’t about to miss a chance to renew acquaintances at the Players Championship.

There was talk that day of a possible return to a way of life that had been nurtured decades earlier at the Greater Hartford Open in Wethersfield, Conn. Joe “Gypsy” Grillo, Bruce Edwards, Joey LaCava – they were just some of Rita’s Connecticut caddie colleagues who made the PGA Tour their home, not to mention a better place.

“Greg was part of the class who started to improve the image and the professionalism of the caddies,” Curtis Strange said. “He and Bruce Edwards were out in front with that, part of the regime that changed things for caddies.

“They showed up, they were dressed properly, they knew the game, they acted properly.”

With Rita on his bag, Strange won U.S. Opens in 1988 and ’89. In 1995, Rita worked for John Daly in a memorable British Open triumph. But if it was a part of his legacy to be tied so closely to three major championship victories, Rita was always quick to put that in perspective.

“A lot of caddies have had chances, but I was fortunate that when my guys had chances, they finished them off,” Rita said. “And I like that word, ‘fortunate.’ That’s what I’ve been. Fortunate.”

Rita gave credit to Strange, Daly, Scott Hoch, David Duval, Mark O’Meara – the players for whom he worked the bulk of his PGA Tour years – and he cherished the friendships with his colleagues, men who truly represent a huge slice of the game’s flavor.

“It’s being around the golf fraternity that I miss,” Rita said that day. “There are good people in this game.”

He was so right about that, but as Rita soon found out, there are good people elsewhere, too. Such as those within the Boston Red Sox family who read Rita’s story and were moved when the caddie talked of one aspect to his motivation for fighting the insidious cancer.

A lifelong Red Sox fan, Rita that day in 2008 said that his son, Nicolas, was 3 years old and “when he’s 5, I’ve already decided I’m taking him to Fenway Park.”

Red Sox personnel didn’t think he should have to wait. That September, at a time when the PGA Tour was playing at the Deutsche Bank Championship in Norton, Mass., Rita was the team’s guest of honor. Not only did the Red Sox treat Rita and his family to great seats in a game against the White Sox, but the longtime caddie was asked to throw out the first pitch.

Rita was speechless when he got the news.

“I’m going to have to take a deep breath and hope it works out,” Rita said before that game.

For the pitch, it did. He delivered a wonderful toss that night in Fenway Park.

The fight with cancer was another story. It did not work out, though it wasn’t for a lack of courage and fortitude. On his 54th birthday, last Saturday, Rita succumbed after a long, hard fight with brain cancer.

He was a good man who handled a heavy bag and an even heavier burden with great dignity. His profession and the game he loved dearly were enriched by his dedication.

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