Tuesday, March 28, 2017

For the Love of Caddieing

Some are household names among golf fans. Mike (Fluff) Cowan—and his walrus mustache—comes to mind. A few struck it rich, such as Steve Williams in his 13 years with Tiger Woods, and Jim (Bones) Mackay, who has worked with Phil Mickelson since 1992. But those are the exceptions, and they work on the PGA Tour. Among caddies, they are the haves.

The have-nots are those who shoulder bags on the LPGA Tour, trying to survive where the prize money—and potential income—is one-fifth of what’s available on the men’s tour, with the same lack of job security, healthcare and pension.

Looping on the LPGA Tour is a labor of love laced with economic hardships requiring perseverance, imagination and a supportive family. It’s a life where veteran caddies say only about 30 percent last more than 10 years. Yet, a hardy handful of lifers have blown past the quarter-century mark.

John Killeen, 58, is among those captivated by the lifestyle that is alien and often absurd. He has been a caddie on the LPGA Tour for nearly 35 years, with Patty Sheehan, Juli Inkster, Ayako Okamoto, Meg Mallon, Cristie Kerr and others, before landing his current gig with Mirim Lee, winner of last week’s Kia Classic.

Last year, when Killeen was still working for Angela Stanford, he said goodbye to his wife, two teenage kids and home near Atlanta for a swing that took him to the Bahamas, Florida, Thailand, Singapore, Arizona, California, Hawaii, Texas and Alabama. From mid-May, when he took a week off for his son’s high school graduation, until the Olympics in August, Killeen had only one other scheduled week off.

How do you make a life like that work financially and emotionally? For starters, you need a lot of help from your friends. Imagine that house you shared with your buddies in college and the fun you had. Now imagine that house moves around the country—one golf tournament after another. That’s what life is like for Killeen and a handful of his fellow caddies who share living quarters when possible to save money and find sanity in each other’s company. They love the life, each other, golf and the competition. It’s not the money that keeps them chasing this nomadic existence.

In recent years, Killeen was one of eight caddies who rented a house at the Bank of Hope Founders Cup in Phoenix. I spent a week with them, and there are few experiences more valuable and fun for a journalist than hanging with caddies. They know everything—or at least think they do. And they know how to have a good time. (...)

Eking Out a Living

... “You have to finish in the top 40 [on the money list] out here to have a significant year,” says Killeen, who in 1984 at age 23 and planning to be a stockbroker, told his mother and girlfriend in Portland, Ore., he’d be back after a two-week stint caddieing, then came home eight months later and said he’d found his calling.

In Phoenix, the eight men in the house paid $430 each for rent. There were two rental cars, plus Castrale’s car he drove from Palm Desert, Calif. Food and drink came to $125 a man, with the rental cars totaling $100 each. Castrale says the seven guys who flew in averaged about $250 for airfare. That put the total expenses per person at $905 for the week, much less than it would have cost to stay in a hotel, not to mention food and drink.

“Some weeks, like Asia events, all we pay for is food and hotel because we have no rental cars and 99 percent of the players pay for international caddie flights,” says Castrale. “But then Hawaii and San Francisco, for example, I spend $1,500 at least. Overall, $1,000 to $1,200 per week is our typical average expense for the 25 to 30 events played.”

The way it works, the caddies say, is they get on average a guarantee of $1,000 to $1,500 for each week the player competes. If your player misses the cut, that’s all you get. On average, a caddie gets 5 percent of a made-cut check, 7 percent of a top-10 check and 10 percent for a win. Some players are more generous than others.

Now what kind of money are we talking here? No. 40 on the LPGA money list last year—Moriya Jutanugarn, older sister to player-of-the-year Ariya—earned $446,948 in 29 starts with two top-10 finishes. Those two top-10s earned $170,895, with the caddie’s 7-percent share coming to $11,962.65. The other 22 cuts made earned $276,053, and 5 percent of that is $13,802.65. Assume the caddie got $1,000 a week, and the total for the year would be $54,765.30 before taxes. And then there is about $35,000 in expenses. That’s a break-even proposition. (...)

Although it’s fun to recite the caddie creed of “Show Up, Keep Up, Shut Up,” the job is way more complicated than that. Pretty much the only time off is the weeks your player is not competing. Monday and Tuesday used to be an opportunity for a caddie to sneak in some golf. Now those days are reserved for working with players on the range or playing a practice round.

The days of the hard-living bag-toter who would close the bars at night and work the next day through bloodshot eyes are mostly gone. These loopers are more than mere porters lugging around a 45-pound staff bag. Caddies have evolved into a mix of mathematician, psychologist, cartographer and bodyguard, all while remaining a Sherpa.

“Oh, my, those early days,” says Killeen, smiling. “At our house in Oakmont in 1992 [for the U.S. Women’s Open] we had empties stacked up this high,” he said, holding his hand over his head. “What do I like the most about this job? The people. The travel. The fact I have half the year off.”

And Killeen clearly relishes his role as house father of the group.

by Ron Sirak, Golf Digest |  Read more:
Image: J.D. Cuban
[ed. See also: Tommy's Honour, coming soon.]