We had about 2 hours notice……
The direction from upstairs was pretty direct. “He’s coming in at noon, wants to play around 1:00. Make sure he gets the best caddie.”
Arnold Palmer was playing a practice round for the 1994 US Senior Open at Pinehurst # 2. I was the caddie master. Or as my 10 year old nephew once said “the master caddie.”
Seriously? The King? Arnie? The guy in all those old black and whites from the 1960’s. Master champ 4 times? 1958. 1960. 1962. 1964. The guy who revived the British Open? The Pennzoil guy…. They named a drink after him? Drove some silly tractor? That guy??
No other info was given, other than he had 2 buddies playing with him so they’d need 3 caddies. Dow Finsterwald, a great player in his own right and some bazillionaire airplane guy.
I went to the window and announced to the caddies sitting there “You’re not gonna believe this! Arnie is playing around 100 PM! Gonna need a great effort…..” I was somewhat shocked by the lackadaisical reply. The 4 guys playing wist didn’t even nod. A couple guys sitting on the perimeter on the beat up coaches kind of shrugged. Then 1 guy said:
“Palmer? Palmer is playing at 100?”
When I said yeah, expecting a whoop and a holler, not a single guy expressed any sort of interest, or inquisitiveness or anything. What the…………
At 24 years of age, I quit my cushy corporate job, moved to Pinehurst and tried to play professional golf. My brothers and sisters (all 9 of them) applauded. My parents were horrified. “You’re doing WHAT????” So I did what anybody in their right mind would do, I grabbed a low paying job with absurd benefits. Caddie Master was at the top of the list. While I made nothing essentially, I could do whatever I wanted to at the resort. (fast forward a few decades, oh my goodness, has that position changed……” Read this Rick Reilly Sports Illustrated article if you are interested in the demise of a rich, flavorful, warm, purely southern tradition. Coach makes an appearance.
How could these guys not be frothing at the mouth to get Arnie’s bag? It was just a practice round, no real pressure. His reputation of being fair, friendly and a big tipper was well known. What the heck? So I approached the wisest and longest serving caddie there, a guy named Fletcher Gaines, and asked him “Hey Fletch, how come none of the guys want Palmer’s bag?” Fletch, now in the Caddie Hall of Fame, passed away in 2010. Among caddies and the smarter members, he was royalty. There are too many stories to even try to impart how ingrained and part of the Pinehurst culture Fletcher was. Here’s 1:
Exxon Oil’s top execs were in town once, the top 12 guys. (Some guy named Rex Tillerson was in the group) They only wanted to play #2 and money was not an issue. They wanted the best caddies and would pay handsomely for the privilege. I was at the tip of that spear. I controlled who, what, where, when, how and most importantly, how much? Another call from upstairs came (same clueless guy as above) with the direction “Make sure Fletcher gets the CEO”. OK, I could do that.
It’s difficult to describe how rich and pointedly descriptive the caddie-player experience is. The golfer is doing something he loves. Pinehurst # 2 is an ABSOLUTE DESTINATION, a gem, a miracle, Donald Ross’ masterpiece. US Opens, Ryder Cups and countless other PGA events and world class amateur championships have been held here. It’s the American version of golf’s Nirvana, rivaled only by Augusta, Pebble Beach, St. Andrews and a select other few. To be able to play that track with a caddie like Fletcher Gaines was the epitome of the game’s history and gravitas. (Among many caddie accolades, Fletcher caddied for Hogan, DeMerrit, Byron Nelson and in the Masters for Bing Crosby’s son, Nathaniel Crosby.)
So 5 hours later, when the CEO came storming up to my window after the round, I was a little nervous. When a player was pissed off by his caddie (or simply blamed his horrible play on the caddie-very COMMON), the caddie master was the guy who caught the brunt of his ire. Put another way, complaints outnumbered complements by 10-1, although Pinehurst’s caddies were among the best trained and most knowledgeable anywhere. It’s the state of things. People with a lot of cash often crap on people with no cash and no power. I got it. I was still gonna play # 2 myself in about 30 minutes for $0…..
“You are NOT GOING TO BELIEVE what Fletcher said to me!” the CEO started. There was a hint of glee in his voice however, and his eyes didn’t have that edgy anger, more like a dumbfounded-ness. “We’re on the 4th hole, long par 5, and I hit my my drive way left into the love grass. Like 8” love grass.”
For you laymen, love grass is a beautiful, long flowing grass indigenous to the Sandhills in North Carolina, where Pinehurst is located. It grows in clumps and is exactly the OPPOSITE location you’d want your golf ball to come to rest in.
“But the ball was sort of lying on a flat sandy lie between the love grass clumps so I was sure I could get a club on it and advance it enough down the fairway for a short 3rd. So I asked Fletcher “How far am I?”
Knowing Fletcher, I cringed internally when I heard the guy recount the conversation. I knew Fletch. He didn’t care if this guy was the CEO of Exxon or the OCD teacher from Laurinburg…..
“Fletch dutifully answered “245 yards sir”. “So I thought about it” the CEO continued, “I really thought I could get my 4 wood on that ball, maybe run it up close to the green. It was worth a shot. Give me my 4 wood Fletch.”
I braced myself. I knew Fetch. Like I said he didn’t care…..
“And do you know what Fletch did? He pulls out my sand wedge, hands it to me and says “We don’t want to be here ALL DAY. Sir.”
Now there are guys with $$ who are cool (a fraction) and there are guys with $$ who are assholes. (a larger fraction). THANK GOD this guy was cool. He laughed, pulled his buddies over, told anybody who would listen the whole story. Phewwwww.
And Fletch got his normal C-Note. Check out the ever present Monte Cristo in his right hand.
“Hey Fletch, how come none of the guys want Arnold Palmer’s bag” Fascinating reply. “They nervous. A’int none of them think they good enough.”
That left 1 choice. I would caddie for Arnie. Twist my arm………
I remember that confident stride to the range. I was on the range with his clubs, waiting. As he approached, everybody in the area was pretty stoked. 64 years old but man, it was ARNIE!! What followed was a 4+ hour round right next to the guy, step for step, through an 18 hole round of golf. It was REALLY, REALLY COOL!!
“They tell me you can play.” Let that one sink in. Arnold Palmer said to me “They tell me you can play.” That’s a little bit like Wayne Gretzky saying “I hear you skate.”
He was far more engrossed with his 2 buddies obviously than the caddies. Everything was pretty workmanlike the 1st 9 holes. Serious golf, prepping for a senior Major championship, working yardages, recalling the course (Palmer won the North-South Amateur in 1948. The North-South, held in Pinehurst every year since 1901, is considered one of the top 5 amateur championships in the US.)
10th hole: 595 yd par 5. We fore caddied on that hole, meaning we went ahead roughly 300 yards to watch the drives land, allowing for easier identification especially if the tee shot was errant. Palmer ripped it dead straight, probably 280-290. I met him at his drive.
“How far to carry that fairway bunker”? he asked as he handed me his driver and pulled his 3 wood. LONG before GPS devices and Mr. Garmin, we knew yardages by heart. “237 from this pine tree to the front edge of that left bunker.” Seriously…….
As I backed away for him to hit, he said “Hey Jim, you got my driver head cover?” The head cover is a bothersome golf tradition. Silly covers that do nothing really, but easy to lose. So I looked calmly at first and then more and more frantically as it became clear that I had just LOST ARNOLD PALMER’S HEAD COVER!!! Are you shitting me……… And I was the Master Caddie…
My bumbling was palpable. “Uh, I….see…..uhhh, I guess….. ummm….it must……..I…….well……it wouldn’t be too ………uhhhhh…….” I morbidly checked all the bag zippers, knowing the answer. “I’ll go back, hold on.”
I started to jog back to the tee, some 300 yards away to retrieve it. The first few strides were horrifying. I mean really? I was excited to work for Palmer but man, to screw up would not be cool. So I picked up my stride, half sprinting as I hit 75- 100 yards.
All of sudden I heard a VERY LOUD SHOUT from the players.
It was Palmer-
I turned and continued to back paddle actually, all those years on the basketball court assisting me in not falling down. As I eyed him from now over 100 yards, he slowly reached into HIS BACK POCKET to reveal the “LOST head cover.” That bastard knew all along, made me THINK I lost his freakin’ head cover, and then made it 100 X FUNNIER by making me think I LOST IT and then to run and get it when he had it all along.
TWICE. I had to now run back…….. He was basically giggling when I got back.
It’s fascinating to me that in recounting these stories, they are made indelible by the HOLE THAT THEY OCCURRED ON. Golfers will understand this. Golf is an intimate sport, you fight the elements, you get to know the terrain, the undulations, the bunkers, the greens, etc. It’s super easy to recall events EXACTLY WHERE THEY HAPPENED ON THE GOLF COURSE.
On the 12th hole, a shortish par 4 of 390 yards demanding a left center tee shot, he hits a pretty solid tee shot exactly as described, maybe a little shorter at 260-65 when he kind of got pissed off. “God dam it!!” he exclaimed. I hit that solid, about as good as I can hit it, and it goes 260-70. That sucks. These guys are hitting it by me all the time now. Drives me crazy. I gotta find 15-20 yards. Just gotta do it.”
Then it came…….
“Jim, you’re a good player. Do you think I should have a fuller shoulder turn or focus more on getting my hands higher at the top?”
Let that sink in…..
Arnold Palmer was asking me MY ADVICE on his swing………You KNOW this is true because it is TOO RIDICULOUS to make up……
There was a memorable little snippet on 16, reachable par 5 about 520. Arnie hit 2 solid shots 40 feet from the hole for eagle. 1st putt he leaves about 4’ short. With that familiar knock kneed stance, he proceeded to push his 2nd putt right, not even sniffing the hole. This was a practice round mind you.
“Keep YOUR DAMN HEAD STILL!” he belted with a high decibel level. As we walked to 17, I thought to myself “Man, if Palmer still moves his head occasionally on 4 footers, I bet that will help me.” Since that time, I have missed a few 4 footers but never because I moved my head.
Pay time is on 18. He knew I was the caddie master and he also knew (as did everyone else) that the other 2 players were NOT PAYING. “How much you guys get here, with a good tip?” he asked. The other guys were among the best caddies in Pinehurst.
“$50 bag”, I said.
So you hear some stories about this or that that may seem embellished or inaccurate, but I wouldn’t apply that standard here. I have good eyesight. Palmer pulls a wad of $100 bills that had to be $5000 or more. Maybe $10000. It was a lot.
He rips off 3 and hands it to me. “You take care of the other guys.”
Arnold Palmer was polite, competitive, engaged, conversational, sincere, funny and very, very memorable.
He hit the ball really well too.