Tommy Bennett said his hotel room resembles a locker room more than a comfortable resting place. He and a few guys rub ice and alcohol on their bruised shins and aching backs. There’s the recounting of the events of the day and the smell of Bengay permeates the walls.
The medicinal cream soothes the pain from carrying 50-pound bags for seven miles, sometimes over rolling hills, for weeks at a time.
These men are 50-plus-year-old PGA Tour caddies.
“Sometime, my back go out, legs go out, headaches,” Bennett said by phone. He caddied for Webb Simpson in the AT&T National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in California this past week. “You take some Advil and keep pushing it. You don’t feel pain.”
Caddies are more than golf bag carriers. Those who are skilled become the eyes, ears and, in some cases, even counselors for their players. For 59-year-old Bennett, his job represents something even more special. He is keeping a part of golf and African-American history alive.
“It’s a new ballgame,” said Bennett, who has caddied for 44 years. “I can see (more African-American) players coming, not the caddies.”
Black caddies once roamed the courses. Most country clubs, private and public, in the Jim Crow era between 1876-1965 did not allow African-Americans to have membership and the only way to be involved with the game was to work service-oriented jobs like cooks or caddies.
Walter Worthen Sr. remembers walking through the back door of the Bowden Golf Course in Macon, Ga., as an 11-year-old caddie in 1945.
About 20 years later, he walked through the front door as one of the first group of African-Americans to integrate the 6,570-yard public course in 1961. “I felt proud about it,” said Worthen, 75. “Somebody had to do it.”
He enjoyed playing, but said it was being a caddie that really taught him the particulars of the game.
That is what he passed on to his son, Walter Worthen Jr., who went on to earn a golf scholarship to the University of Arkansas Pine-Bluff and eventually toured on the PGA as a caddie.
Being a caddie was a common job for African-American men from the late 1800s to 1950s. The work was less physically demanding than jobs like working in a coal mine or picking cotton. And the pay was good.
Bennett grew up just a few miles from Augusta National Golf Club. Kids from his Sand Hills neighborhood dreamed of being a caddie there, but you had to be at least 15 years old.
The money was better than being a caddie at Augusta Country Club, where the caddies made $6 a round instead of $3.
Not to mention it was the site where legendary players like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer competed.
“The experience was great. It was overwhelming to look around and see these guys,” Bennett said of his first Masters experience in 1965.
He was 15, and African-Americans’ longtime relationship to the job of caddie would soon change as black players gained prominence on the PGA Tour.
In 1967, Charlie Sifford broke barriers as the first black man on the PGA Tour. Just eight years later, Lee Elder was the first African-American to play in the Masters. “We didn’t show them the ropes,” said veteran PGA Tour caddie Richard Hansbury.
Hansbury is one of the few African-American tour caddies left. When he started on the tour 38 years ago, there were few, if any, white caddies. Now, there are an estimated 15-20 left on the Nationwide and PGA Tours combined.
“It’s not that the white players won’t take black caddies, we don’t have enough to choose from,” said Hansbury, who has caddied for Tim Petrovic and Loren Roberts. “If you’re a good caddie, they’ll take you.”
Few caddies have the durability and success of Steve Williams, Tiger Woods’ caddie since 1999.
Players negotiate their own deals with caddies, but generally pay 10 percent of their purse earnings. Since purses ballooned into millions, players have less patience for mistakes.
Some players would rather employ family members or close friends to caddie.
“This is their livelihood, don’t be wrong about it,” Bennett said.
Since the invention of the electric golf cart in the ’60s, most country clubs don’t have a need to employ caddies.
W ith less money to go around, Hansbury has been working closely with the Professional Tour Caddies Association to start a retirement plan.
“There’s a whole lot of black and white caddies getting shut out of jobs,” he said.
“It’s like here in Pebble Beach. We have about 15 guys that normally caddie all the time that can’t get jobs from week to week. Players are taking their friends and family members and that’s the way it is.”
Despite African-Americans’ longtime tie to the caddie profession, younger generations would rather be Tiger Woods than Herman Mitchell.
Mia Campbell, a top high school golfer, said it was an easy decision between picking an average career in the LPGA or being a caddie to a top-10 PGA Tour player. “The LPGA because I’d rather play,” said Campbell, 16.
That’s not exactly a bad situation. It’s just a reminder of an end to an era for longtime caddies like Bennett. He’ll likely retire in a few years, but is still looking to be apart of one magical moment.
In Bennett’s mind, it goes something like this: his player has a one shot lead on the line headed into the 18th hole.
He loves pressure, but always takes a moment to admire nature’s beautiful creations from the view of a golf course. “The game has changed,” Bennett said. “We didn’t.”
Source: McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.