The Morning Read • Andrew Blair • March 2, 2019
Caddies emerge from the shadows, take center stage and lead their audience on a memorable and captivating journey in the new documentary called Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk that debuted in early February at the Santa Barbara (Calif.) International Film Festival.
It’s no secret that golf can be a lonely, isolationist sport because the game has traditionally been known as player versus course. But caddies often act as teammate, motivator, navigator, psychologist, adviser — even judge and jury — no matter the skill level of the player swinging the club, a concept magnified and celebrated in Loopers.
Well told and documented wonderfully in the film, most of the world’s best players admit that their successes, especially at the highest levels, are partly because of the influence of a good caddie — not in spite of them. Too, for the average player, having a caddie adds a little flair, panache and enjoyment to a round.
The film’s production traces its pedigree to former Augusta Chronicle writer and Morning Read contributor Ward Clayton and film executive Jim Packer, both of whom love the game and its history. Clayton is also the author of the book, Men on the Bag: The Caddies of Augusta National, while Packer is a member at Bel-Air Country Club in western Los Angeles, where he developed a kinship with his longstanding caddie.
Most loopers go unrecognized, a dynamic Packer sought to rectify.
“(Jim) always thought that caddies got the short straw — what they do, how they deal with people in guiding them around the golf course and interacting with them psychologically — he felt that story needed more depth and could be told,” Clayton said. “The intention of this was not only for the people that are golfers, but for people who are outside of golf to understand what role the caddie has and what they do. If you think of any sport, it’s the only one where you have somebody standing right beside you when you hit your shot.”
Packer, the picture’s executive producer, and Clayton successfully pushed the idea of the project that recognizes the oft-overlooked patrons of the game. Director Jason Baffa and writer Carl Cramer were primarily responsible for capturing video, words, scenes and images, but Clayton and Packer, given their longtime connection to golf, ensured that the integrity, flavor and nuances that are unique to the game, were preserved.”
Narrator Bill Murray — Carl Spackler from Caddyshack fame — and a former caddie in his own right, guides the film marvelously, injecting appropriate flavor, tone, voice inflection and targeted humor without being overbearing.
Indeed, Murray, who caddied with his brothers at Indian Hill Club in Winnetka, Ill., as a kid, sets the stage early with an almost Alfred Hitchcock cadence to his voice, noting, “To acquire a caddie is to have an ally in the battle against the elements, the golf course and life itself.”
By and large, Loopers' roots are traced from the game’s very founding as basically a stick and ball game, according to early literature and lore. Just as in yesteryear, caddies today are most prevalent at courses in the British Isles and in Ireland at such hallowed halls as Ballybunion where “we believe that the game of golf is best experienced by walking with a caddie,” according to the club’s website.
Truth be told, the red-nosed, scruffy-haired codgers are part of the experience overseas — after all, Americans must be inoculated into the game and play as it was meant to be. Colorful language, rolled eyes and wrinkled brows are not uncommon in answering the inevitable “you want me to hit it where?“ inquiries from players.
Veterans like Martin Barrett, former Captain of Lahinch Golf Course in Ireland, believes that taking a caddie on a links layout ought to be a requirement, a point he drives home unmistakably in the documentary.
“If you are going to play a links golf course, you must hire a caddie,” he declares. “I guarantee you — you put an American out here without a caddie and they put the ball in the rough down the right — you cannot trust your eye on a links golf course if you have not been used to it.”
Without a hitch, six-time major championship victor Nick Faldo provides validation of the point in a clip a few seconds later: “That’s 10,000-year-old sand, you know? Compacted. It’s quite an art today, as you can imagine.”
At golf’s highest levels, caddies have been a major story line in players’ successes. Who can ever forget Bruce Edwards, suffering from the cruelties of ALS — Lou Gehrig's disease — caddying for Tom Watson at the 2003 U.S. Open, where Watson authored a first-round 65? Edwards soldiered on with the legendary Watson, but was so ill that at one point he was unable to even relay a yardage via the spoken word to Watson. Edwards and Watson left everyone with lumps in their throats and tears in their eyes — including themselves.
The Watson and Edwards team formed innocuously in 1973, after Edwards, at the urging of fellow caddie Neil Oxman, approached Watson in a parking lot in St. Louis and offered to caddie for the player for a year.
“Hold on here,” Watson recalls of the encounter in the film. “Let’s just go one week at a time.”
They wound up walking shoulder to shoulder on tour for nearly 30 years. The two formed an almost unspoken connection that often makes for the best caddie-player relationships. Tiger Woods and Steve Williams had it. Williams, who sometimes seemingly acted as both caddie and enforcer given Woods’ huge galleries, was on his bag for three of the icon’s four victories at the Masters and 13 of his 14 major championship wins.
Faldo and Fanny Sunesson were both serious and hardworking, making them the perfect on-course tandem. She was alongside Faldo during his prime in the 1990s and helped him shake free of the “Foldo” grasp the British tabloids routinely resurrected when he couldn’t close at majors. Faldo and Sunesson won four majors together.”
Players who won the Masters such as Ben Crenshaw and Fuzzy Zoeller did so with a major assist from Augusta National caddies who seemingly knew every curvature and blade of grass at the iconic club. As revealed in the film, both Carl Jackson (Crenshaw’s caddie) and Jariah ”Jerry” Beard (Zoeller’s) knew a secret about navigating the layout’s greens that not many can claim (and we won’t spoil it for you).
Crenshaw won twice (1984 and 1995) under Jackson’s watchful eye and they worked together at Augusta National for 39 years.
With his victory in 1979, Zoeller became the first Masters rookie in nearly a half-century to claim the major. But he admittedly had no idea how to successfully manage his game around the course and relied heavily upon Beard, whom he described as a “seeing-eye dog” leading a man around a course.
Nowhere was Beard’s assistance more apparent than on Zoeller’s deciding putt.
“It’s about four inches right — don’t leave it short,” Beard instructed Zoeller just before both watched the decisive 8-footer at the par-4 11th hole disappear into the hole. Some 40 years later, Zoeller, who outlasted Watson and Ed Sneed that week, remains the last Masters rookie to win.”
The film does a wonderful job of marrying video and pictures to words not only through the experiences of World Golf Hall of Fame members and the game’s greats, but those who have a special kinship with the profession. Among them is Mike Kiely, caddie-master at Canterbury Country Club in the Cleveland suburb of Beachwood, Ohio, for half a century.”
The human element is also celebrated through the story of Bel-Air caddie Greg Puga, who grew up in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles. Puga gained an affinity for golf and went on to win the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship in 2000. The triumph earned him a spot in the Masters the following year where he played alongside Crenshaw for nine holes and was paired with Fred Couples in the Par-3 Contest. Though he admittedly doesn’t consider his story one of fairy-tale proportions, Puga’s love for the game took him from the hardworking, blue-collar area of Los Angeles all the way to Magnolia Lane.
“No matter where you come from or where you were brought up, it can be done through hard work and dedication. I am living proof,” Puga said. “And there’s no excuses. I didn’t come from a wealthy golf family. I didn’t do it myself; friends helped me. I caddied two days a week at a country club and got to play on Mondays. I thought, ‘This is pretty nice.’ I started getting requested (to caddie) and it snowballed from there.”
The film isn’t all fawn and flora, though. Some of the most moving and coarsing parts feature the stories of caddies who were regarded as second-class citizens, relegated to a caddie pen and not allowed in clubhouses. They could play at the course where they worked, but only on days when the course was closed (usually on Mondays) and even then, were only permitted to play certain holes.
Tour caddies were once almost a gypsy bunch who traveled together via beer-filled vans and, like a ragabond band, often stayed four to a room. That said, for some, minorities in particular, the film leaves open to interpretation whether or not the hardships were worth it for those who used caddying as a gateway to overcoming some of the game’s barriers.
“You know, when I started on the tour (in 1967), we had over two dozen blacks and Hispanics playing the tour. Where do you think these guys came from?” Lee Trevino asks rhetorically on screen. “They came from the caddie ranks. (Jim) Dent, (Lee) Elder, me, (Charlie) Sifford — they all came from the caddie ranks.
Times have changed and the film cites the Tiger-effect for growing purses. These days, the best caddies can carve out a comfortable living. Some of the best get 10 percent of a player’s earnings, meaning caddies can make more than $1 million if they get a “name” bag.
That’s not easy, though, and there is sometimes right place, right time luck involved. Michael Greller, for example, was teaching sixth-grade math in Washington before using smooth talking to land Jordan Spieth’s bag.
Greller successfully helped keep his player together after Spieth pushed his drive 60 yards right into nowhere country on No. 13 at the 2017 Open Championship at Royal Birkdale. Spieth recovered, made bogey — and credited Greller with keeping him calm down the stretch. Later, Spieth acknowledged that the victory was as much Greller’s as it was his. The two have become close friends.
No matter their notoriety or earnings, caddies, by and large, are seemingly united by a sense of solidarity and a "having-been-there" conscience. That’s why many — spoken or otherwise — believe Matt Kuchar, despite his apology and later improved payment to caddie David Ortiz, badly bungled his handling of the now-infamous compensation situation, apology or not.
Theoretically, Kuchar’s headline-making gaffe is the exception. That said, those who make a business (and profits) speculating, often wonder what the caddie, not the player, did wrong when it comes to a separation at the high-dollar level, however supposedly amicable.
Review the footnotes and there’s been considerable buzz about the Woods-Williams breakup, the parting of ways between Phil Mickelson and longtime looper Jim "Bones" Mackay and the breakup between Rory McIlroy and J.P. Fitzgerald. The afterward offers little compassion to the caddie. Untangle the Gordian knot and the connect-the-dots theory goes that said player is going to enjoy a never-before-seen spike in performance and earnings with a new man on the bag and voice in the ear, no matter the record of their prior and currently-dispensed looper.
On an organic level, in the U.S., caddies at public courses are a rare breed and are mostly the domain of swanky private clubs and resorts. Tones of triumph still reign in the modern era. Mike Keiser, the owner of Bandon Dunes, was told the course, much less caddies at the tucked-away southern Oregon resort, would never take, but the caddie program is flourishing there.
The most successful grassroots and feel-good caddie program is the Chick Evans Scholarship Foundation that was established in 1930. The grants provide full tuition and housing college scholarship for golf caddies that is renewable for up to four years. The requirements to apply are a strong caddie record, excellent academics, demonstrated financial need and outstanding character.
Today, the Evans Scholarship raises more than $60 million a year from more than 27,000 donors, a fact delivered eloquently by narrator Murray.
The numbers are impressive in and of themselves, but words and pictures are complemented by faces and stories, nowhere exemplified better than by Evans scholar Zoe Welz, whose mother died of breast cancer. By her own admission, the Evans Scholarship afforded Welz the resources to attend college.
“It has changed my life and it continues to do so every single day,” Welz says in a grab-your-Kleenex moment.
After graduating from the University of Colorado in May with a degree in Environmental Engineering, Welz founded and is chief executive officer of Drovr, a Boulder, Colo.-based agriculture technology company.
One of the most impactful voices (and penetrating looks) comes from looper and former tour caddie Roosevelt Richardson, who has caddied at Bel-Air for untold years and, as Clayton rightly notes, “caddying is in his blood.”
Richardson pays an ode to caddies who work at it professionally and those who carry the bag to stoke their passion for the game.
“It’s more than just the money with me — it’s the satisfaction of seeing somebody do something that is very, very hard. That’s the fun part about it,” Richardson emphasizes in a soul-revealing moment. “That’s the thing with caddying. That’s the true caddie. I wouldn’t trade it for nothing in the world. My last 30 years have been great. I don’t have a lot, but it’s been great.”
Baffa counts the Richardson interview as one of his favorite moments, partly because his intention was to highlight both the caddies who are routinely recognizable, while also tapping into the "every man" looper’s connection and involvement with the game.
“My hope is that with the timing of this film is that it does enlighten people and how much, on a non-professional level, it can enrich the experience — and does enrich the experience,” Baffa said.
His goal might as well read "mission accomplished" in the credits. For golfers and non-golfers alike, Loopers is a must-see.
Loopers is showing at multiple film festivals around the U.S. and Europe through late spring. There is a possible limited theatrical release this summer, as well as planned availability via various streaming services.