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Carrying clubs and carrying on tradition – with pleasure

We were sitting in a golf cart out on the course at Quail Hollow Club on a fresh morning, early enough that were no players out yet. We were out there just to talk and listen and smile at a few memories.

Milton Murray, better known as Pepper, looked around the quiet, manicured fairways lacing through the trees, the shadows crawling slowly back off the green and silent lawns, the leaves stirring almost imperceptibly in the gentle breeze.

"This is a beautiful place to work," he said.

The fairways are his workplace and, in a way, his home. He's a caddy.

There are not a lot of them around anymore. Golf carts replaced them at most courses, replaced the bag carriers but not their heritage. Pepper has survived and if you painted a picture depicting Charlotte golf, he would be in it.

He's 66 years old but you wouldn't guess he had that many years on him. Sixty-six and he works four nights a week at the uptown Marriott and caddies three or four days a week at Quail Hollow or Charlotte Country Club. His services are so coveted, most of his work is by appointment. Players call him to arrange for him to caddy for them.

Except for 13 years when he worked for a trucking company, he has been caddying since 1953. The legs are still strong, he said. He recently worked 36 holes on one of the hottest days of the year. A member of his group fell out. He didn't.

After all these years, the nuances of the courses are etched in his mind. He knows where to hit the drive, how the wind blows, how the ball bounces, the subtleties of the putting greens and the psychology and when to offer it.

When he was nine years old, Pepper asked if he could caddy at what is now Carolina Country Club.

"Sutt Alexander (the manager) said, 'You're not big enough to caddy,' " said Pepper. "I started crying and he said, OK, he would give me a job shagging balls. He would hit practice balls and I would pick them up for 50 cents a bag. At the end of the week, I had five or six dollars. My mom didn't understand where I got my money. I told her I had a job and she laughed.

"When I was a kid I thrived on caddying. I'd get up at 5, walk to the course and caddy 36 holes. I got 75 cents a round and big tippers would give me another dollar. That was a lot of money back then."

Pepper has caddied in several PGA Tour events but had no aspirations to stay out there for long.

"I've had a lot of opportunities to go out on tour," he said, "but I felt like my job was here with the members. It's work but it’s a pleasure to me to be in an environment with golfers."

Caddies know their job, usually better than their players know their games. They also know their players. Pepper has had to deal with all kinds of temperaments and takes it as just part of the job.

"Most of the members have been great," he said. “Some want to do so good and don't, and that can create a problem, but when the round’s over, there's a handshake and an appreciation."

Sitting there in the cart, surrounded by an achingly beautiful golf course, we talked about many things, about how most golfers have a tendency to hit too little club and about how most want to hit at the ball instead of swing at it. About the old days back at Carolina Country Club when I played there and he caddied there and the days were always sunny.

Pepper. Mention that name in Charlotte where there are golfers and someone will know him. He got the name when he was a kid, shooting marbles. He lost his marbles and pitched a fit with a lot of pepper in it.

What it is that golfers share with their caddies is hard to define but it is there, a palpable kinship. Caddying, after all, is not common labor. There’s hundreds of years of tradition in it, and, for those who know and love the game, a hint of nobility.

Pepper has walked thousands of miles, a bag of clubs on his shoulder, and he speaks often of how fortunate he was to do that and to share the hours and the days and the game with the members.

"People have been so good to me," he said. "I'm just a blessed person. I always thank God for Charlotte Country Club and Quail Hollow. When I go, I'm going to take them with me in my heart."

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