SBJ/June 10 - 16, 2002/Opinion

Caddies carry the future of golf, too

The U.S. Open golf tournament will tee off Thursday at the Bethpage State Park Black Course in Farmington, N.Y., and by all accounts the layout will give the assembled experts a stern test. Long, and with more sand than Ishtar, it's so tough under normal conditions that there's a warning sign posted on its first tee, like for a black-diamond ski run. After the sponsoring U.S. Golf Association added its characteristic wrinkles, more than a few contestants probably took the precaution of increasing their life insurance coverage.

But what really sets Bethpage Black apart from past Open venues is its status as a public course. Sure, the tourney has been held at Pebble Beach and Pinehurst, resort courses that ostensibly are open to one and all, but I've paid less for a month's rent on a good apartment than it costs to play a round on those. Bethpage's tariffs — $31 on weekdays and $39 on weekends — fit nicely into the average person's price range. These days, they're downright cheap.

As a consequence of the scheduling, the USGA is taking bows for democratizing The Humbling Game, and while there's something to that assertion, it comes up short. Except for a decade or so after golf's late-19th century establishment in this country, there always have been places for the hoi polloi to chase the dimpled ball.

The rub, then and still, comes in the grooming of golf's upper crust of players. No muni-course U.S. Open will put the wherewithal for mastery of the game of large spaces and long hours, best learned young, within the reach of the less-than-affluent.

In past years, the function of introducing the athletically talented sons of the working class to golf fell to the caddy shack and its environs. It was there that kids got to handle golf clubs and find out what they could do with them. Many courses, both private and public, set aside a day (usually Monday) when the caddies could take to the greensward to try out what they'd picked up.

Sometimes, the youngsters would sneak out on the course early or late to get in extra whacks. Sometimes, the local pro would volunteer a tip or an encouraging word. Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and many more of golf's early greats learned the game in that way. Indeed, they couldn't have learned it in any other.

Golf has boomed of late, with the number of courses in the United States almost doubling to about 18,000 over the past 30 years, but, alas, the caddy population has dwindled. Moppet bag-toters have been replaced by motorized carts that show up for work every day, don't snicker when a player hits a bad shot and produce both rental income and an amortization write-off. Many courses now require players to use a cart. If Mark Twain were alive, he'd remark that golf was a good ride spoiled.

The upshot is that, for all save the country-club set, getting on a golf course frequently can take some clout. Tiger Woods, the game's current Great Commoner, grew up playing on the military layouts to which his retired-Army-officer father had access. A number of top players, including David Duval, Davis Love III, Jim Furyk and the Spanish whiz Sergio Garcia (and the earlier-day idol Arnold Palmer), had dads who were pros. Others are products of towns where the courses are easier to get to than in or around big cities, and the green fees are smaller.

To open up golf in earnest, the USGA should reinvigorate a campaign it began a half-dozen years ago to encourage players to boycott the carts and walk. That would create more caddy jobs and improve the national fitness level. We all could get behind those results, I think.

Frederick C. Klein (fklein@mindspring.com) is a columnist for SportsBusiness Journal.

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