NEW YORK CITY — I have to admit I was impressed. These didn’t sound like youthful caddies. They presented themselves as impressively credentialed young adults ready to take on the world. It was enough to make me look back and realize that while my own resume wasn’t nearly as well-formed as theirs are today, my teen years spent in the caddie yards were real character builders.
The occasion for these thoughts was a five-and-a-half hour session in midtown New York City’s Union League Clubs listening to 16 regional finalists interview for an Evans Caddie Scholarship. The award, overseen by the Chicago-based Western Golf Association, entails a full, four-year ticket (tuition, room and board) to undergraduate study at one of 18 universities across the country where Evans Scholars are accepted. We’re talking major schools here: University of Michigan, Marquette, Purdue, University of Washington, Ohio State, Notre Dame, Penn State and more.
The addition of Penn State to the roster signifies an expansion of the program eastward. What started as a Midwest-based caddie scholarship program back in 1930 with a dozen or so beneficiaries has grown to the point where there are now 10,830 alumni of the program, with 985 currently enrolled, funded to the tune of $23 million. Their college achievements are impressive. Data show a 95 percent graduation rate and a cumulative GPA of 3.3. Among the many goals of the program are promoting diversity - about a quarter of the recipients are women; an equal share are minorities. 40 percent are first-generation college students and nearly half come from families with annual incomes under $70,000.
This year’s award winners will be announced in a few weeks. I attended the regional session, one of a dozen held around the country, under condition that I observe without divulging any particulars as to candidates, qualifications or outcomes.
But I did come away convinced about one simple thought: Youth caddie programs are good for golf and they are really good for the youth who participate. Here’s why:
Recruitment into golf
The game has suffered because the widespread use of golf carts has prevented generations of postwar youth from learning about golf early on. What better way to attract new golfers than to let them experience first hand as youngsters the beauty of the game, the natural splendor of the course, and the benefits of earning money along the way? Plus, they gain access to the grounds through playing privileges on a Monday or Tuesday, to (private) courses they would never otherwise be able to play unless as guests of members.
Recruitment into the professions
What better motivation for a kid than to realize that there’s a living to be made in golf – as a greenkeeper, golf professional, manager or in food and beverage operations? Kids today need role models and they need more exposure to realistic professions. Caddieing can provide that. It also brings youth into contact with adults who are in a wide range of professions – law, medicine, finance and industry. What better way for kids to get realistic feedback on what careers are like than by spending four or five hours with (presumably) successful folks in those trades?
The value of hard work
A lot of jobs that used to be standard for teens are gone. Nobody delivers morning newspapers on their bicycle, for example. Department stores (remember them?) no longer hire 16-year-old stock clerks. And as any fast food franchisee can tell you, it’s virtually impossible to recruit high schoolers willing to work hard. Yet caddieng demands just that – showing up early in the AM, ready to do physical labor and asking of people a skill like patience because much of the work involves hanging around waiting. All of those are valuable life skills. The sooner they are learned, the better.
I loved the culture of the caddie yard. I learned how to deal with bullies, choir boys, career drunks and drug addicts, moonlighting firemen and school teachers and kids who just didn’t like me because I was Jewish. I get the sense now that teens don’t learn the skills of negotiating differences and rely too much on adult intervention (like school counselors or shrinks) rather than dealing with conflict.
The value of expertise
It was very empowering for me to realize that I knew the golf course and knew the yardages. This gave me a great sense of power and accomplishment. It helps being able to share insider information with your player, like how the 150-yard marker right of the 4th fairway is actually 156 (I never told any of the other caddies about this fact). And as I became more attentive to the contours and breaks of the golf course, I felt like I had some valuable knowledge that gave me a competitive advantage. To discover this as a teen was transformative.
At that point I realized that rich people can be stupid just like everyone else and that there’s nothing to fear – or even admire – about them.
Never being afraid of anyone
I’ll never forget as a 14-year-old handing my caddie chit to my player for him to check the 18 hole or 9-hole box. Here was the property manager of the Empire State Building, unable to figure the form out. At that point I realized that rich people can be stupid just like everyone else and that there’s nothing to fear – or even admire – about them. As golfers they were all equals. As people there was nothing special about them. And from that point on I learned never to be intimidated by powerful people - not politicians, athletes or millionaires. It’s another one of life’s great lessons, and the sooner learned, the better.
Seeing through to people’s character
There’s an old adage about you learning everything you need to know about someone by playing three holes of golf with them. It’s old and an adage because it’s true. That’s especially the case when, as a youngster, you loop for an adult and watch them – how they handle their shots, the rules of golf and their relationship with you. You find out there are all kinds of people and that there’s no necessary relationship between their public persona or profession and how they handle themselves privately. It's a lot more complicated than whether they play by the rules of golf or play fast and loose with them. It’s also about how – and whether – they relate to you; how they talk about their spouses and kids; whether they have a sense of humor about themselves or take themselves deadly seriously and blame you (or the golf course) when something goes awry.
Caddieing is the greatest laboratory for lifetime learning. Good on the WGA’s Evans Scholarship Program for recognizing that.