Pinehurst caddies know more about US Open course than the players

acarter@newsobserver.comJune 11, 2014 

— In mid-May, during a tournament at Pinehurst No. 2, a mix of caddies, some bare-faced college kids, others grizzled vets, hung out in the caddie shack tucked behind the 18th green before the start of play, passing the time with jokes and stories.

They wore green caddie bibs with the Pinehurst logo on them – the symbol representing the course that will be broadcast to the world during the next two weeks during the U.S. Open and U.S. Women’s Open, a back-to-back spectacle unlike any in the history of golf.

Large galleries will undoubtedly follow stars like Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson this week and, in the next, Morgan Pressel and Lexi Thompson. But the course will play a leading role, too.

And nobody knows Pinehurst No. 2 – hosting the U.S. Open for the third time – better than the guys who make their livings toting bags around it, one step at a time, day after day, year after year. Pinehurst employs about 110 caddies who work on all nine of its courses.

Players often employ their own caddies, and most of Pinehurst’s crew will be watching golf the next two weeks. One will work during the men’s Open and about a dozen will caddie next week during the women’s tournament.

Some of the caddies, guys like Eddie MacKenzie, have been working here for decades. Nobody has been around longer than Willie McRae, who started caddying at Pinehurst when he was 10 years old.

“My daddy was a caddie,” McRae said recently. “And they needed 500 caddies back in the day, so they got the schoolboys from school – the ones that wanted to caddie – and they started them at 10 years old. And I had just turned 10, May the 19th, 1943, and that’s the day I started caddying.”

It was McRae’s birthday – 81 and still cracking one-liners. Still working, though these days instead of carrying bags he rides in a cart – one of two men allowed the privilege of riding on No. 2, which otherwise forbids carts.

McRae, his missing thumb the result of a factory accident in 1970, has no shortage of stories. About Ben Hogan and the 1951 Ryder Cup at Pinehurst. About caddying for Gene Sarazen and course designer Donald Ross.

McRae was inducted into Pinehurst’s inaugural Caddie Hall of Fame, and that Pinehurst even has such a thing speaks to how much it values caddies and their profession. The feeling, among the caddies, is mutual: Short of a pro tour, what better way to make a living on the bag than at Pinehurst?

“It’s just the tradition that brings people here – that brings the caddies here,” Bob Scheirer, a longtime caddie, said recently.

The caddying profession seems something out of a bygone time. Caddie programs exist in a lot of places nowadays – Caddie Master Enterprises runs the caddie program at Pinehurst and at courses like Whistling Straits and Pebble Beach, among others – but for a while, caddying seemed in trouble.

The years passed and golf carts became standard, a part of the game. Range finders, too. Those things, in some ways, made caddies obsolete, and for years they disappeared from courses they knew better than anybody.

“At one point, it was really dead,” said Charlie Spain, another longtime Pinehurst caddie who spends parts of the summer working in Wisconsin and parts of winter working in Florida. “And then with the growth in golf, it’s picked back up.”

While Spain, 57, described the relative prosperity of caddying, Schierer spoke up: “I pay my bills often.”

Caddy talk

One thing caddies like to do is debate things. Best player they’ve caddied for. Most difficult hole. Winning score of the U.S. Open.

They debated the merits of caddying, talking in a way only caddies can talk, a mix of playful chatter and useful advice.

“It depends on the player, too,” said MacKenzie, 70, who believes he was the second white caddie to work at Pinehurst.

“You want to make sure they have a good time,” Spain said.

“But some people don’t want to hear you talk at all,” MacKenzie said.

“And that’s when you don’t talk,” Spain said.

McRae, who Spain calls Pinehurst’s “godfather,” spoke up.

“That’s why you’re supposed to show up, keep up and shut up,” he said.

McRae spent decades working at the golf course in the days of the segregated south. Caddying back then, at least at Pinehurst, was an all-black job. Best anyone can remember, Pinehurst didn’t have a white caddie until 1983. That was Jeff Ferguson, another Pinehurst caddie hall of famer.

“They had to get some caddies from somewhere because the other caddies were running out,” McRae said.

McRae is missing his teeth these days, and his voice has a rustic quality. Talking with him is like thumbing through a decades-old history book, the pages worn but the stories sharp.

“We would go to school until 12 and then they would bring you over and (you’d) caddie in the afternoon,” he said. “About six days a week. Sunday, we went to church. … And it was real nice and the people were so nice. And by you going to school, sometimes the people would give you more money.”

When he first started McRae said he made $1.75 for carrying two bags, plus a 50-cent tip. McRae said it “was a lot of money” then.

“You could buy 25 cent worth of candy and it’d last you all week,” he said.

The tips aren’t bad

McRae caddied for Donald Ross, who designed Pinehurst No. 2, and for the owners of Pinehurst – the men of the Tufts family. Every now and then, McRae said, one of them would look down at his shoes and tell him he needed new ones. They’d send him to the store, where a fresh pair awaited.

Caddying has become a more lucrative venture these days. Pinehurst’s caddies now make $55 per bag – or $25 per bag if they’re “forecaddying,” which means working with a group of golfers, walking ahead and spotting balls and offering yardage distances.

The tips aren’t bad. Pinehurst recommends $30 per bag for a walking caddie but tips are often larger.

“I’ll typically double the bag money,” Spain said.

Jimmy Smith, Pinehurst’s caddie master, has “no doubt,” he said, that his staff knows Pinehurst No. 2 better than anyone. The best golfers in the world arrived here earlier this week for their final preparations before the U.S. Open, but a lot of them came earlier for a practice round.

Some enlisted the advice of Pinehurst’s caddies for help in handling the greens, which are notorious. McRae said Hunter Mahan asked him for advice on how to putt well here. Jason Gore, remembered for his valiant play in the 2005 Open at Pinehurst, practiced with a Pinehurst caddie.

On the women’s side, Pressel used a Pinehurst caddie when she played here recently, Smith said.

If anyone knows the course, it’s McRae, MacKenzie, Spain and Scheirer. They’ve collected their knowledge through years of walking No. 2, of studying it.

They have come to know which way the greens roll, and why. They’ve come to understand putts of deception, and when it seems the ball will break one way they know it will go the other.

“The curious thing about reading the greens – you can read the greens right,” said MacKenzie, who wears a tie when he caddies on Sundays to pay tribute to those who came before him. “It doesn’t necessarily mean the guy’s going to hit it right.”

Time to work

You never know who’s going to show up at Pinehurst. One day, it’s the NFL’s Manning brothers, Peyton and Eli. Another, it’s course regulars.

McRae, MacKenzie and the other longtime caddies are customer favorites, and they’re often requested.

Smith, the caddie master, anticipated more than 10 of his caddies would work the U.S. Women’s Open next week, and that maybe two would carry bags this week. It turned out that only one Pinehurst caddie, Sean Duggan, will work the men’s U.S. Open.

Duggan, 41, is caddying for Andrew Dorn, an amateur on the college golf team at Coastal Carolina. Duggan caddied for Dorn when he won the North and South Amateur last year at Pinehurst No. 2, and when Dorn found out he made the U.S. Open – he had been an alternate, and entered the field when Thomas Bjorn withdrew – one of the first people he called was Duggan.

“I just had a funny feeling when I picked up my phone and I saw Andrew Dorn,” Duggan said. “I said you know what, I bet this is it. Then I saw that he got in. My response was good job, great job – get down here and compete. That was my first thing.”

Duggan had a brief pro career and has been a caddie now 15 years – eight of them at Pinehurst. Until last week, he said, he had worked 55 consecutive days. He smiled at the thought that he likely knows the U.S. Open course better than any other caddie in the field.

“I would think so,” Duggan said.

For Pinehurst’s other caddies – McRae, MacKenzie, Scheirer and Spain included – this week offers a chance to watch the drama unfold on the course where they make their living.

They all have their memories. Scheirer caddied for Danny Lee when he won the U.S. Amateur on No. 2. McRae has written a book about everything he has seen at No. 2. He started to tell one of his favorites when Spain stopped him.

“Not the Hogan story, please,” Spain said.

Without missing a beat, McRae went on.

“I was out in the Ryder Cup in 1951 and it was 32 degrees in November,” he said. “Ben Hogan come out there – a little man with an overcoat. I looked at that guy I said, ‘He can’t play no golf.’ He shot 32-34. And I said then, I said, ‘Yeah, he can play.’ And (he) never did take the overcoat off for 18 holes.”

This week, McRae will be signing copies of his book, “On the Bag,” at the course. Scheirer said he likely wouldn’t watch the Open. Spain said he’d be here, taking it in.

“The last two Opens its been here, I’ve been sitting around saying, well, this putt’s going right to left, you know, and you know where the putts go,” Spain said. “It’s pretty cool, to know the golf course and get a feel of what they’re doing.”

Everyone has a prediction of the winning score. Smith, the caddie master, was thinking it could be 5-over par. MacKenzie and Scheirer, they said even par would win. McRae went low.

“I think the score is going to be a little bit lower than the last time,” he said, referring to a score lower than Michael Campbell’s victory with even par in 2005.

McRae’s prediction caused an uproar among his colleagues. They went like that, back and forth, until it was time to leave the shack and go to work.

Carter: 919-829-8944; Twitter: @_andrewcarter

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