Commentary

Saunders: Love of the game keeps Pinehurst caddie going at age 81

bsaunders@newsobserver.comJune 16, 2014 

Just as a golfer pulls out his favorite club when facing a tough shot, so do golf writers pull out Willie McRae when trying to broaden their subject’s appeal.

Why wouldn’t they? McRae has a remarkable story to tell, and he loves telling it.

He is 81 and still caddies at Pinehurst 70 years after he started, but longevity is not his claim to fame. Oh no. His story is fascinating even to people who, like I, don’t know a divot from a duck hook. (Real golf terms I looked up for this story.)

Here’s why. The man has carried the bags for and handed putters and drivers to four U.S. presidents, countless golf legends, business titans and everyday Joes who deign to slap around some dimpled balls on the famous course.

‘On the Bag’

Here’s another reason: The dude who once was barred from playing at Pinehurst Resort because he is black is now in its Caddie Hall of Fame and has a son who is the course pro there. His grandson is a caddie.

I talked with McRae last week during the U.S. Open, as he signed copies of his biography, “On the Bag,” written by Rob Taft. Find it at www.stevenspublishingcompany.com.

As McRae chatted with people, John Wolfangel, the book’s publisher, cited the presidents in chronological order. “Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford.” Then there were the golf legends he named: Bobby Jones, Arnold Palmer, Walter Hagen, Gene Sarazen, Ben Crenshaw, Chi Chi Rodriguez.

What, I asked Wolfangel, made McRae such a sought-after commodity on the links?

“He loves people, loves working on the golf course,” Wolfangel said. “It’s a given that he’s an excellent caddie – one of the best ever.”

Any caddie who wants to continue being one knows the importance of diplomacy. Despite prodding from me, McRae stayed true to that caddie code. C’mon, man, I asked, who are some jerks you’ve caddied for, people you just didn’t like, people who ruined a good day on the beautiful course?

He said he couldn’t think of any. “If you’re going to be a caddie, you have to enjoy it” regardless of who you’re working for, McRae said. “Otherwise, you might as well not do it.”

Nice and nasty

I asked him, then, about specific historical figures. Nixon?

The best golfer of the presidents, he said.

But what kind of dude was he?

“Oh, he was very nice.”

Bobby Jones? “He was a nice guy. He was a real nice guy.”

After talking with him, I found a recent Associated Press interview in which McRae was not diplomatic.

“The only person I really didn’t like was Sam Snead,” he told the reporter. “He was one of the nastiest guys that ever played golf.”

McRae began caddying at 10, he said, when his father, also a caddie, told him it was time for him to start working and took him over to the Pinehurst course. His dad, he said, gave him one important piece of advice for a caddie, advice that probably works in other areas of life, too: “Keep up, shut up.”

No wonder everyone wanted him on their bag.

He caddied until he was drafted into the U.S. Army, where he played the game. He was good enough, both Wolfangel and McRae said, to possibly qualify for the PGA tour, but he was ahead of the curve. The first black golfer, Charlie Sifford of Charlotte, wasn’t allowed to play on the tour until 1961.

McRae said he hasn’t played recently because of various ailments. “I’m fixing to start back this year.”

McRae didn’t work the men’s tournament last week and doubts that he’ll work the women’s tournament this week. “I won’t know unless they call me. I ride a cart now, and they won’t let me ride it” in the major tournaments. “I probably could walk it, but them bags are too heavy,” he said, laughing robustly.

McRae’s knees and back may be ailing, but he could probably lift those 40-pound bags with that hearty laugh and heartier spirit.

Saunders: 919-836-2811 or bsaunders@newsobserver.com

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