Loopers in the Loop
Chunk Foster graduated more than a decade ago from the University of Wyoming with a degree in communications, and when a friend jokingly recommended that they head to Florida to caddy for a season, he signed on without a second thought. It was just the sort of half-work, half-goof gig that new grads are supposed to find before agreeing to be an adult. "I thought it'd be great -- drink a bunch of beer, hang out, carry some bags," he remembers.
Thing is, he couldn't stop. For Chunk, caddying wasn't just a lark. He was never good enough at golf to be a serious player himself -- he didn't even make the UW team -- but looping kept him around the game he loved, and the money was swell. He discovered that, with enough hustle and a thick application of charm, a polite and reasonably knowledgeable caddy could earn enough money during one half of the year to keep him in beer the other six months. After one loop at Castle Pines a few years back, a guy flipped him $350. No matter how much others joked about it, Chunk simply couldn't join them: He loved caddying.
And so the years passed. Moving between Colorado in the summer and Florida in the winter, Chunk never stopped caddying, stalking the fairways of courses in most states across the country. He became that rarest of golfing accessories: the full-time club caddyshack dweller.
There are days, though, when he wishes he'd stopped -- like one recent gray and unseasonably cold May evening at Littleton's Columbine Country Club. Chunk stood surrounded by a gaggle of teenagers near an early green. Matt, another caddy instructor, who shares a striking resemblance to Tiger Woods, prepared to putt; Chunk was at the flag. The day's lesson was the proper placement of caddies around the green.
"Where is the one place you don't want to stand in relation to the putter?" Chunk asked the kids, who slouched in giant, untied sneakers. A large boy with unruly hair and a "Big Daddy" sweatshirt answered. "In front of him?"
Chunk sighed. "Yes," he said. "Right. Don't stand in front of him. Don't get in the way of his putt. But also, don't stand behind him."
Caddying is to golfing what dress whites are to tennis -- a relic from the way the game used to be played, something that is now found only in the most fossilized sporting preserves. Of the 243 public and private golf courses in Colorado, just over a dozen give duffers the opportunity to have someone lug around their bags. All of them are exclusive country clubs whose names bespeak wainscoted clubhouses and parking lots crammed with Jaguars: Cherry Hills, Denver Country Club, Castle Pines.
Given such a swanky pedigree, it's not surprising that what most golfers know about caddies comes from watching weekend TV. The Professional Caddies Association estimates that 95 percent of golfers in this country have never used a caddy. The reason is no surprise: Americans are a lazy lot, and nine out of ten golf courses in this country offer customers the use of a cart. Both socially and mechanically, hiring a little man to do one's lifting has become obsolete.
This is not discouraging news to Dennis Cone, however, a former jock who founded the PCA fourteen years ago to bestow some respectability on an occupation that, thanks to the use of golf carts and the release of the Bill Murray comedy classic Caddyshack, had become wedged between hard times and a running joke. Rather, he says, it's an opportunity.
In an effort to revive his stumbling profession, Cone and others have been pushing loopers not as a plummy add-on, but as an experience enhancer, along the same lines as a personal shopper. "You gotta make sure your customer has a great experience out there," Cone says.
The industry appears to be coming around, too. Like a modern equivalent of the British finishing school, North Carolina's CaddyMaster Inc. supplies and trains caddies for 35 U.S. and international resorts desirous of adding a little more crme to their de la crme.
In less rarefied air, other proponents insist that caddying is good for today's youth. "I learned more from my years caddying at Denver Country Club than I did in all my years since as a golfer," says Bob Mate, executive director of the Colorado Golf Association. "When you're a caddy, you're in a much better position to observe and learn. When you're caddying for some guy and he asks you to kick his ball out from under the tree in order to win his bet, you learn something. Or if you're at the tee box and some rich guys are telling off-color jokes, you learn something."
And more than just what boors and cads some golfers can be, apparently. Not only does caddying burnish a teenager's adult-interaction skills, but it could also give him a leg up, career-wise. "Where else does a teenager get the chance to meet and interact with substantial businesspeople in the community?" asks Tom Alley, who three years ago revived the caddy program at Columbine County Club.
After fifty years of operation, he says, the club needed a boost of old-fashioned, well, golfiness: "I think golfing was created with the purpose of using caddies." So in 2002, he restarted the club's caddy academy, which had lain dormant for several decades. About 25 kids showed up. By the end of the year, there were six.
Still, Alley was convinced that Columbine's new, younger members would warm to stick sherpas, so he's stuck with it, and this year, four dozen teenage boys -- and a handful of girls -- stood ready to tackle the club's three-week training program. By now, Alley says, he'd hoped to add the final ingredient to the club's successful reintroduction of jocks: a requirement that golfers must hire caddies, at least on the weekends. Membership has been lukewarm to the idea, though, and Alley has dropped it for the moment.
Nevertheless, he's enthusiastic and upbeat as he greets the season's new crop of caddy candidates. "I'm glad you're here," he tells them. "I'm glad you want to be a caddy."
He immediately segues into the first -- and perhaps most important -- lesson of looping. "Josh," he says, hauling a kid out of the crowd. "Let's say I'm Mr. Smith and you're my caddy. What's the first thing you're going to do?"
Josh, who has caddied before, knows the routine. He looks Alley square in the eye, offers him his hand and introduces himself. Alley nods approvingly.
"This is important. It's real important," he says. "Next, you go pick up his bag. Then you gotta leave him to get his towel wet."
The gang divides into groups, each assigned to an instructor. As the pods advance down the course into the threatening weather, some of the advice dropped from the experienced jocks -- including Chunk Foster -- is simple mechanics. "Clean, count and arrange," Chunk tells his half-dozen students. "I put the drivers and putter on top, the three-, four-, five- and six-irons on one side, the seven, eight and nine on the other, and the wedges on the bottom.
"Also," he adds, "always count the clubs. You want to count the clubs so after your round your client doesn't say, 'You lost one of my wedges,' and then make you run around the course looking for it. I know, because it's happened to me."
But there are deeper lessons to be delivered, as well. One boy finds a ball that isn't Chunk's and offers it to him to slide into his pocket.
"Nice call," Chunk says approvingly. "That's gonna earn you some money."
In fact, it soon becomes clear that knowing how to help a golfer through his round in comfort is only a tiny part of being a successful looper. "I'm not gonna say kiss ass," Chunk counsels. "But hustle. You hustle, and you'll get good tips."
Indeed, while caddying may be seeing a modest rebirth across the country, Colorado's loopers apparently are having a difficult time understanding what the profession is all about. Each year, the Colorado Golf Association gives up to a dozen full-ride University of Colorado scholarships to qualifying jocks. This past year, however, the CGA found only eight worthy candidates. This comes as no surprise to Chunk, who admits he's discouraged. It's the youth. To a guy who's made a life of looping, today's kids seem to appreciate neither the glories nor the demands of the profession.
"It's weird," he says. "They're all so...timid. They stay behind; they don't really do anything."
Chunk sighs. "I dunno. I think they thought their job was just to carry a bag."
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