The legendary Walter Hagen was an energetic stripling of twelve and in the seventh grade when one day he chanced to glance out the window of his classroom and saw two golfers sauntering down the fairway of the Rochester Country Club shouldering their own bags. The irrepressible call to the caddy yard got the better of young Hagen who effected a hasty exit through the window when the teacher's back was turned and legged it to the clubhouse. The episode marked the end of Hagen's formal education, but when it came to hustling on the golf course, Machiavelli could have taken young Walter's correspondence course.
Hagen's waggish exploits later made the Rochester Country Club famous, for like so many preeminent golfers--from Ben Hogan to Johnny Revolta and a Shinnecock Indian by the name of "Big Jim" who won the U.S. Open in 1896--it was as a caddy that Hagen learned the game and went on to perfect it.
The memory of the cocksure Hagen still lingers on in the Rochester caddy yard where a handful of regulars troop in every morning to while away the summer days waiting for an 18-hole circuit (or "loop," as it's known in caddy lingo). One of these select loopers is Harvard junior John Bartlett.
Bartlett, who is currently a stalwart on the Crimson golf squad, had little notion of the Hagen mystique when he joined the caddy ranks at the age of fourteen and began to forge his near-scratch golf game. He received a guiding hand from club pro Sam Urzetta, an ex-caddy himself who won the U.S. Amateur crown in 1950 after a playoff with Frank Stranahan.
After three seasons, Bartlett went on to become the top caddy at Rochester. He explains his success by saying, "I always tried to work really hard and that's why I did so well." Bartlett is currently semiretired but says, "I still come out for the big events."
One of the biggest events of recent years was the U.S. Women's Open held at Rochester in 1973. Bartlett teamed up with LPGA pro Cathy Hite and quickly became her number-one fan and confidant.
Bartlett supplies a stirring commentary on his 72-hole stint with Hite in the pro tour limelight. "The first day she started great guns. I remember she eagled the ninth for a 36. On the tenth she just crushed her drive." Hite hove her second shot on the par five dogleg out of bounds and ballooned to a 45 on the back nine. "She finished 25th or 30th," Bartlett adds by way of a post mortem.
"You'd be surprised how many people come out of the woodwork," says Bartlett to explain the superabundance of caddies who show up for tournaments. After a tournament is over, Bartlett says, the caddy yard slips back into its characteristic languor, broken only by occasional run-ins between rambunctious, latter-day Hagens and the caddie master, synonymous with the long arm of the law.
Bartlett's pungent assessment of his caddiemaster is "this guy was like your hard-ass Marine sergeant. He used to waste guys in the caddy yard. There were some caddies who just had no scruples. They used to do all kinds of disgusting things on the course. But they didn't stay around long; the caddiemaster took care of them." His voice trailed off.
Bartlett and his fellow caddies imbued with a missionary fervor, have gone a long way towards propagating the game. Another notable golfing afficionado was a British army captain named Joseph Cambell, who had his humble origins as a caddy in Glasgow. Cambell was commanding the British stockade in the Bahamas when he got a craving for the links. He set to work fashioning makeshift clubs out of bamboo saplings and used knots of the native lignum vitae tree to mold golf balls. Cambell laid out a course on the parade grounds below Nassau, and gold was born in the New World.
The art of looping involves more than mindless drudgery, although the nickname "mule train" persists in many caddy yards. During the U.S. Women's Open Bartlett paced off exact yardages before each round and rose every morning to watch P.J. Boatwright, the venerable executive director of the USGA, attend to pin placements. "Every time he found the right place his face would light up with a sadistic smile," Bartlett remembers.
Caddies in the pre-modern era of golf also put in a hard day of work. Before wooden tees were ever invented, small mounds of wet sand served the purpose. The result was that caddies traipsed along the fairway with troughs of wet sand slung around their necks before it dawned on the members of the Innerleven golf course in Fife, Scotland to install stationary sand boxes on each tee.