As Dickens said, ‘it was the best of times, it was the worst of times.’ Charles must have seen into the future and my great adventure of 1977.
I was 32 years old and had taught World history to 9th graders in Kansas City for six years. I needed a break. I had moved to Sante Fe, NM in 1976 and already experienced a great change from my 8 to 3 world in Kansas City.
One weekend I drove to Las Vegas to see my old boyhood friend from Jefferson City, Perry Leslie, who was now playing on the PGA Tour. When Perry asked me to caddy for him on Tour, I jumped at the chance.
In 1977, the Tour started the first week of January in Phoenix. My drive from Sante Fe on New Year’s Eve involved 10 degree temperatures and a snow packed Interstate 40 until I reached Flagstaff, AZ. Then one the best experiences of my life began as I made my way south on Interstate 17. The snow and cold slowly gave way to warmer temps until I reached Phoenix. The high was “only” 63 that day in Phoenix, but it marked the end of snow and cold for me as I would ‘follow the sun’ for the next three months on the PGA Tour.
The term ‘rabbit’ was given by someone to those Tour players who had no status and thus had to ‘hop’ from site to site to play in the Monday qualifier. Perry was one of those guys, along with 60-70 others, playing for 4-5 spots in the tournament by way of qualifying on Monday. Don’t shoot 72 or 73, because that usually won’t make it. Shoot under par or wait another week to try.
Such was the case with us on the first two Mondays in Phoenix and Tucson. “He” shot 73 and 72 respectively and missed both qualifiers. (Tour caddies routinely use ‘we’ if the score is good, ‘he’ if not so good. That practice continues to this day!) The 72 in Tucson was memorable for me, as I’d never seen anyone, let alone my pal Perry, make seven birdies and seven bogies in the same round.
While Perry and his wife flew to Monterey, CA for the ‘Crosby,’ I drove up the coast in my 1973 Vega station wagon with their cat, Tippy.
This is like turning to the last page of a novel, but I’ll tell you that this was the only time in three months that Perry made it past a Monday qualifier and into the tournament itself. I could not have asked for a better round, as Perry shot 69 at the Del Monte CC and got us into the event that was played at Pebble Beach, Cypress Point, and the Monterey Peninsula CC. I can still close my eyes and hear the surf pounding on the rocks at Cypress Point. Not a more beautiful place on this earth have I seen…
We were in our rooms in Carmel, after a practice round, when we watched the Sunday final of the Tucson event. To our joy and amazement, a friend of Perry’s from the mini-tours, Bruce Lietzke, made an 80 foot putt on #18 to win the event. (Bruce was somewhat ‘famous’ even back then for not practicing his golf. He was able to unpack with his swing intact and often go right to the course and play well.) Bruce’s winning share was $40,000 that Sunday, and he would win again three weeks later in Hawaii and make another $48,000. My last teaching salary in 1976 was $12,492, so Bruce’s take seemed like enough to guarantee his retirement. Speaking of money, my arrangement as Perry’s caddy was $125 per week and 5% of any prize money he won. With Motel Six already at ‘Motel Nine’ in 1977, 5% of 40,000 would have gone a long way for me. When a player misses the cut in a tour event, he gets zero—zilch, nada. Therefore, I was pretty much stuck at $125 a week…
But…I got to play a lot of golf on the Monterey Peninsula! I played one hole, #7 at Pebble, during one of Perry’s practice rounds. 128 yards, downhill, no wind. I hit a wedge to 20 feet and made the putt. I was, and am today, one-under at Pebble.
The next week in San Diego marked another miss in Monday qualifying. Perry skipped the next three events and we agreed to meet on Saturday, Feb. 19 at Inverarry CC in Florida.
But two good things came out of San Diego. First, Perry introduced me to Bill Rogers, another mini-tour buddy of his. Bill had a friend from Texas, Mike King, who was coming out to caddy for him. Mike and I would be roommates for the next two months, starting in San Diego.
Second, Perry introduced me to Jim Albus after he had missed qualifying in San Diego. I ended up caddying six rounds for Jim, two practice rounds at Torrey Pines and four tournament rounds in the event. Big payday? Uhh, no. Jim paid me $100, but he won only $119, so I guess he thought the math was right.
After San Diego, I drove back through Kansas City to check on getting my ‘old’ teaching job back, then on to Florida and the Tour stops there.
THE HOME STRETCH
At Inverrary, Perry missed the Monday qualifier again. Shot a 74 that got us into a 21 for 3 playoff, and bogeyed the second hole that gave us another week off to practice and get ready for the next Tour stop in Orlando.
Looking back, this was the low point in my caddying experience as I slept in my car for four nights in Ft. Lauderdale. Ever the optimist, I figured things had to get better. Not necessarily, as I would find out…
In Orlando’s Monday qualifier Perry amazed me with seven birdies. But he also made five bogeys and a double to make the playoff for the first alternate into the event.
A week later he shot 76 at Doral for another baleful Monday. I did get a loop with another of Perry’s friends, Tony Cerda, but Tony shot 76-72 to miss the cut. Tony paid me with a crisp $100 bill..
Since our tee time the second day had been at 7 AM, I went back to the motel for some relaxing at the Holiday Inn pool. But returning later to the room, I found that I had been robbed of that $100. I called the police and they came and filled out a report. But since it was my word against the maid’s, I got no satisfaction—nor did I get that missing $100 bill back.
This was the turning point in my adventure. It looked like I would need to break into the CD I had bought in Santa Fe, but that was actually a bit relaxing knowing I wouldn’t have to keep living ‘hand to mouth’ if I didn’t want to—and I didn’t…
There was no Monday qualifying for the next event, the Tournament Players Championship at Sawgrass CC outside Jacksonville, FL, as the top 144 players on the PGA money list got in automatically.
Another of Perry’s friends, Carlton ‘Slugger’ White, needed a caddy for the event and I got the job. (‘Slugger is now the head rules guy on the PGA Tour, and you’ve probably seen him out there from time to time helping the tour pros with a ruling.)
The wind at Sawgrass was really blowing that week and scores we correspondingly high. One day Bruce Lietzke figured that the guys in the event had a “worst ball” score of 95! Most weeks a worst ball would be right around par, or under par.
Slugger made the cut with a 76-75 in the first two rounds and I got a thrill as ‘we’ were paired with Gene Littler and Miller Barber in the third round. Slugger made $652 and paid me $140 for the week—whoopee!
After two and a half months living in motels and my car, I decided I needed a bit of a break. I drove to Washington, DC to visit my mother for a few days before getting back to my job of ‘following the sun’ on Tour.
Greensboro, NC was our next Monday qualifier, and it may have been the worst as Perry shot an 80 and missed by miles. He subsequently suggested that we split up for a while, and I couldn’t disagree as I too was getting discouraged. Perry introduced to me Tour Pro Mike Long who missed qualifying at Greensboro but was playing in Hattiesburg, MS the next week and needed a caddy. (Hattiesburg was the event on Tour for those who didn’t qualify for the Masters that week.)
Hattiesburg became memorable for me for several reasons. First, I got a chipping lesson from Tour Pro Bill Rogers that paid off for me several times as a player during the next 40 years.
Second, I somehow survived going out onto the range to shag balls. I felt I was back at Ft. Sill, OK in the Army with all of the ‘incoming rounds.’ I can’t believe no caddy was seriously hurt, but the Tour Pro generally know where their golf ball is going..
The third memory was not a good one. Somehow my player Mike Long and his fellow competitor Jim Dent managed to hit each other’s ball on the 11th fairway resulting in a two shot penalty for each. I got the ‘silent treatment’ from Mike the rest of the day, and it got really quiet in our group. Mike did pay me $115 for the week despite his unfortunate penalty.
That Sunday evening, April 10th, I settled in to watch the final round of the Masters on my color TV at the Days Inn. Seeing fellow Kansas Cityan Tom Watson win the Masters with a curling 18 footer on the 17th made me smile—and also made me think of home.
After almost 8200 miles I decided that I had seen enough of America and the life of a Tour caddy. So, I pointed the car west and returned home to Kansas City to resume my teaching career.
I fully retired in 2012 after 40 years in the classroom, but never forgot that different ‘classroom’ as a Tour caddy in 1977.
PS. Six months after I left the Tour, Perry teamed up with Fuzzy Zoeller for a fifth place finish in the Disney World Four Ball.