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Documentary views golf history through eyes of caddies

Orlando Sentinel
Published: 6/15/2019 10:16:35 PM
Modified: 6/15/2019 10:16:33 PM

ORLANDO, Fla. — The golfer-caddie relationship can span 18 holes or a lifetime.

Whatever the case, the bond is unique and integral to a player’s success and enjoyment of the game.

The new documentary Loopers: The Caddie’s Long Walk explores and celebrates these partnerships and, in many cases, friendships that have developed during the course of the game’s rich history.

The 80-minute film is alternately educational, enlightening and emotional for those who enjoy golf, history or stories of human connection. Written by Carl Kramer, directed by Jason Baffa and narrated by actor Bill Murray, Loopers will be available on DVD this fall.

Based in Southern California, Baffa has focused his work on surfing’s global subculture. In making his first golf film, Baffa drew on experiences playing the game with his father and uncle.

“This project has reconnected me with a special time in my life, and I feel inspired to tell this unique and relatively unknown story of the caddie,” Baffa said. “I grew up playing golf with my dad and his brother. I have great memories of walking 18 early on a Sunday so we could get home and watch Nicklaus, Faldo or Crenshaw finish.”

Growing up outside Chicago, Murray and his six brothers caddied at Indian Hill Club, earning as little as a few dollars a day for guiding golfers around 18 holes — or in caddie parlance, “loops.” Murray’s career as a comedian and actor later took off due to roles like Carl Spackler, the eccentric and unhinged caddie in the 1980 classic Caddyshack.

These days, some real-life caddies have themselves become rich and famous in a profession with blue-collar, hardscrabble roots across the Atlantic Ocean in the home of golf.

Loopers traces the history of caddies to Mary Queen of Scots, at one time credited with originating the profession during the 16th century, though this historical claim has since been revised.

Irrefutably, the first caddie of renown is Tom Morris Sr. “Old Tom” became the original caddie master at storied St. Andrews and the professional game’s first great player, winning five of the first eight Open Championships and fathering a son who won four more.

In Old Tom’s day, a caddie’s value was as much as a retriever as a resource for information on the course layout and the conditions. Golf balls known as “featheries” were not inexpensive, costing 2 to 5 shillings, or the equivalent of $10-$20. Producing these hand-sewn round leather pouches stuffed with chicken or goose feathers and coated with paint was tedious and time-consuming.

In the early part of the 20th century, an estimated 300 golfers from Carnoustie, located in Angus across the water from St. Andrews, emigrated to the United States, providing caddies and club makers to help grow a fledgling sport.

One of the so-called “Carnoustie 300” was Stewart Maiden, who followed his brother, James, to the States and succeeded as the head professional at Atlanta’s East Lake Golf Club in 1908. There, Maiden would instruct a young Bobby Jones, who would go on to become one of the game’s all-time great players.

After Jones retired in 1930 at age 28 to pursue his career in law, he turned his attention toward building a premier golf course that eventually would become Augusta National. The iconic venue would become host to the Masters tournament in 1934 and boast a caddie yard made up of knowledgeable locals — most of them African American — who had helped clear the land for the course.

The caddies at Augusta National are some of the key figures in Loopers, beginning with Willie “Pappy” Stokes. He was the course’s first caddie master and would carry the bag for four different Masters winners.

Given players were required to use the local caddies, Stokes’ brethren would go on to guide some of the game’s legends around the hallowed grounds en route to the green jacket given the tournament winner.

These caddies’ keen knowledge of Augusta National’s twists and turns and treacherous putting surfaces led Jack Nicklaus to team with Willie Peterson for five of his six Masters wins and Arnold Palmer with Nathaniel “Iron Man” Avery for The King’s four green jackets.

Fuzzy Zoeller, who in 1979 became the last champ to win his Masters debut, gave caddie Jerry Beard a lion’s share of credit for the career-making win.

“It was like a blind man with a seeing-eye dog,” Zoeller said. “He led me around that golf course.”

No golfer-caddie bond at Augusta National might have been stronger than the one shared by two-time winner Ben Crenshaw and Carl Jackson, who were together for 39 Masters. Their hug on the 18th green at the 2015 tournament was one of the many touching moments during Loopers.

Long before that warm and tearful embrace, the cold and sad reality of caddying in the modern era had ended the tradition at Augusta National and upended the lives of lower-class men counting on income the tournament provided.

Tom Watson helped open the door for players to bring their own caddies in 1983, allowing him to team up with longtime sidekick, Bruce Edwards.

Watson’s two Masters wins, in 1977 and 1981, were without Edwards. But the two men shared more than golf. The love and mutual respect developed over more than 20 years on the course carried them until a bitter conclusion, when Watson’s caddie and friend succumbed to ALS.

The Watson-Edwards pairing is one of the many highlighted in Loopers.

Hall of Famer Nick Faldo and Fanny Sunneson formed a rare male-female team; Tiger Woods and Steve Williams joined forces to dominate the game for a decade; Phil Mickelson and Jim “Bones” Mackay entertained TV viewers with their lengthy debates and dramatic wins; and 20-something Jordan Spieth and Michael Greller, a former math teacher, are a team in every sense of the word.

Loopers also shines a light on caddies who rarely, if ever, have enjoyed the spotlight.

Greg Puga grew up in East Los Angeles and went on to caddie at Los Angeles’ Bel-Air Country Club. Along the way, he developed into quite a player, winning the U.S. Mid-Amateur to qualify for the 2000 Masters.

The Evans Scholars Foundation, the brainchild in 1930 of famed amateur golfer Chick Evans, raises $60 million annually and has awarded college scholarships to more than 10,000 caddies. Among them is Zoe Welz. Without the Evans scholarship, Welz would not have been able to attend college to study engineering because of a long, costly battle with cancer her mother lost in February.

“It’s changed my life, and continuing to do so every day,” Welz said.

During one of the lighter moments of Loopers, caddies from Lahinch Golf Club in Ireland sit around a table, sip pints of beer and share laughs and stories about their trade. Subtitles are used to help viewers unaccustomed to the thick Irish brogue.

The caddie subculture is one fewer and fewer golfers will come to understand outside of the British Isles, where loopers are as commonplace as the rain, wind, knee-high heather and neck-deep pot bunkers.

Exclusive U.S. clubs, like Augusta National, or high-end public courses like Pebble Beach, Bandon Dunes or Streamsong Resort, located 90 minutes south of Orlando, offer caddies. Generally, though, the golfer-caddie experience is less and less accessible and available due to golf carts equipped with GPS tracking and offering comfort and ease.

Loopers is a pleasing, poignant reminder of what has been lost: Two people joined at the hip with the common goal of conquering a difficult game and enjoying every step of the way.

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