TOUR CADDIE LIFE, 2018
The old days were tough, but more money brings more pressure.
Mike christensen never had any intention of becoming a caddie when he graduated in 2000. His dream was to play on the PGA Tour. If that didn’t work out, he had his degree in sociology. He played mini-tours for several years, often spending time with Kevin Streelman, a college teammate. But by the end of 2007, Christensen was beginning to think about graduate school or looking for a job. ▶ “It was just time,” he says. “Time to get on with my life.” ▶ And then fate intervened. Streelman was heading back to Q school, and Christensen’s cousin, Mark, was supposed to caddie for him but had a last-minute conflict, so Streelman asked his old teammate to step in. ▶ “He made five birdies on the last six holes to make it on the number,” Christensen says. “Turned out to be life-changing for both of us.” ▶
Streelman wanted Christensen with him for second stage. Christensen said yes.Then, the finals.When Streelman made it through to the tour, he asked Christensen if he would consider coming out with him for a year.
“I figured, why not?” Christensen says. “I thought the travel would be fun, and the potential to make decent money was there if Kevin played well.”
Streelman made more than $1.3 million as a tour rookie, meaning that Christensen made about $100 000 – far more than he’d ever made playing mini-tours, and probably considerably more than he would have made at an entry-level job in corporate America. Plus, it was fun.
So, he agreed to come back for one more year.And then another.
It was all good, until a Sunday afternoon in 2010 when Streelman began the final round of the Arnold Palmer Invitational tied for sixth, meaning he played in one of the last groups. Late Sunday afternoon, a huge lightning storm swept through Bay Hill, and the players were evacuated from the golf course. Everyone headed for shelter. Except the caddies. “They wouldn’t let us inside,” Christensen says.“Kevin and the other players did everything but beg, pointing out it was dangerous outside. No.The rules said no caddies in the clubhouse – period.There were probably no more than 20 of us still on the course at that point, but that didn’t matter. It was frightening and humiliating. I was really shocked.”
Tony Navarro and Mike Hicks wouldn’t have been the least bit shocked.
“I remember in Memphis, at Colonial Country Club, we were literally required to stay inside a pen in the parking lot until our player arrived,” says Hicks, who came out on tour in 1981.“Atlanta wasn’t a lot better. There was no pen, but we had to stay in one place until our player got there.They didn’t want any of us moving around on our own.
“And the clubhouse? Are you kidding? No way.”
Navarro remembers the pen at Memphis, too. He came out on the tour in 1978, riding a Greyhound bus from his home in Moline, Illinois, to Glen Abbey Golf Club in search of a bag for the Canadian Open.A couple of months later,“I got Slugger White,” he says, laughing, referring to the longtime PGA Tour rules official.“I thought I’d travel for a year or two and go home to college or get a job at John Deere. I still haven’t gone home.”
Hicks, like Navarro, was a teenager just out of high school when he joined the tour three years later. His first bag was Mike McCullough. Six years later, Hicks became Payne Stewart’s caddie and eventually part of one of golf’s most iconic moments:Stewart’s winning putt at the 1999 US Open at Pinehurst.The little guy jumping into Stewart’s arms is Hicks.
Navarro has also had great moments while caddieing for Jeff Sluman and Greg Norman, among others.Today, Navarro caddies for Nick Watney. Hicks, who has been on and off the tour since Stewart’s death, works for Vaughn Taylor.
Both have made a good living. Both love the privileges caddies have now that weren’t even thought about when they were young.
“It’s a different life,” Navarro says.“When I first came out, I can remember sleeping in gas-station bathrooms to save money.You could get in there at night, lock the door and feel safe. I slept in cars and in orange groves.
“If you stayed in a motel, it was usually four to a room. Now, it’s completely different. But I wouldn’t trade those days. Today, caddies make a lot more money. They’re treated with a lot more respect. But I’m pretty sure they don’t have nearly as much fun.There’s just too much money at stake.”
The money ratchets up the pressure everyone feels. One thing that hasn’t changed on tour is the old caddie mantra: “If your man’s going bad, he’s going to fire someone. It can be his wife or his caddie. Firing his caddie is a lot cheaper.” The joy of indoor plumbing
Today, a lot of caddies make six figures – often well into six figures. Many are college graduates; often they’re players like Christensen who weren’t quite good enough to make it to the tour. Some, like Lance Ten Broeck, are former tour players. Sometimes, they’re family members – like Phil Mickelson’s brother,Tim. Most are white.
That’s all very different from the old days. Years ago, many caddies came from the clubs where tournaments were being played or were caddies at seasonal clubs – like Augusta National – who would come out on tour when the club closed for the summer.
“A lot of them were great caddies and real characters,” says Neil Oxman, who first caddied in the early 1970s to make enough summer money for college and then law school.“They taught the young guys how to be caddies. But as the money went up and players were allowed to bring their own caddies to all the tournaments, things changed.”
“Indoor plumbing and food,” says Jim Mackay, Phil Mickelson’s longtime caddie, who came out on tour in 1990.“Those are the two biggest changes.When I was first out, if you wanted food, you went to a concession stand. Sometimes you got discount tickets, sometimes not.And no one went inside a locker room or a clubhouse.”
Now, caddies are always allowed inside the locker room at the start of the week and at the end of the week.At the end of the Honda Classic in March, they were allowed to shower once their player was finished playing for the week.There is clubhouse access now at some tournaments – though not all.
And the tournaments are now required to give them shelter during a dangerous weather situation.“I’m really proud of the improvements our tournaments have made for caddies,” says Andy Pazder, the tour’s executive vice president and COO.“I think we’ve come a long way and done a lot for the caddies – which is the right thing to do. They deserve it.”
But it isn’t all hearts and flowers between the tour and the caddies.Three years ago, 168 caddies filed a $50-million class-action lawsuit against the tour, asking for health insurance and a share of the money the tour is paid by title sponsors to have their corporate logos on caddie bibs.
Hicks’ name is on the lawsuit as the lead plaintiff in Hicks vs PGA Tour, but that’s not because he led the charge for the suit.“I signed the original petition,” he says.“When the suit was filed, I was off the tour.They decided to use my name because I’d be less likely to get hassled by the tour since I wasn’t out there at the time.”
The case was dismissed by a judge early in 2016 but was appealed later that year and is still under appeal.As a result, the tour won’t comment because, as Pazder puts it,“It’s still under adjudication.”
In court, the tour took the position that caddies are paid for wearing the corporate logos – through purse money. Most players agree with that position.
“One of the things a title sponsor pays for is having its logo all over the place during tournament week,” says Stewart Cink.“If they weren’t given that opportunity, they’d pay less, and the purse would be smaller. We’d make less, and so would the caddies.”
The larger issue with most caddies is health insurance. For years, the caddies had no health insurance, and many – if not most – couldn’t afford to buy individual health insurance. In recent years, the tour
‘I THOUGHT I’D TRAVEL FOR A YEAR OR TWO AND GO HOME TO COLLEGE OR GET A JOB AT JOHN DEERE. I STILL HAVEN’T GONE HOME.’
has offered to pay up to $2 000 a year in reimbursements for medical costs.
“That’s nothing for guys with a family,” Hicks says.“Plus, they 1099 us (the caddies pay taxes on the $2 000). By the time you wade through the paperwork and pay the taxes, it’s really not worth it.”
Navarro, who has two daughters, says he pays about $20 000 a year in insurance to cover his family.
“We should do a better job with that,” Cink says.“There should be a way so that if a caddie works a certain number of events in a year, he’s eligible for a group-insurance plan the next year, for as long as he’s out here.”
Nothing like that will happen, though, until the lawsuit is resolved one way or the other. Four years ago, Robert Garrigus, a PGA Tour winner, and Tim West, who has run pro-ams and corporate hospitality for more than 20 tournaments a year for a quarter-century, came up with a plan for an emergency fund available to caddies whose family had a health catastrophe.
The idea was to get players to contribute to the fund and then ask tournaments to provide matching funds. It never really got off the ground.
“We had raised some money and were making progress,”West says.“Then came the lawsuit.We couldn’t very well ask the tournaments to provide matching funds for a group that was suing them for $50 million.”
The money is still in an escrow account, and West hopes the fund can be revived once the suit is resolved.
Navarro signed on to the lawsuit as much out of loyalty to his colleagues as anything.
“Don’t get me wrong,” he says.“I think things could be better for caddies, but overall, they’re pretty darn good.Things are very different out here now. I remember those days in the South when we were put in pens. Let’s be honest:A lot of that was racial.”
In those days, most caddies were guaranteed only $25 a week – and they paid their expenses.The only way to make money was for the player to make the cut, in which case the caddie got 5 percent of his winnings.A top 10 brought 7 percent, and a win brought 10 percent.Those rates have stayed essentially the same, although weekly salaries are much higher now and some longtime caddies have contracts with players that pay them more.As the purses grew, so did the money caddies were making.
During the 2016-’17 season, 102 players on the PGA Tour made at least $1 million,