During my 11 years as a caddie I carried the bags of CEOs, movie
stars and Tour players and made more than 1,500 loops, but I
remember only one in living color: the July day in 1979 when I
worked for Willie (the Wedge) Turnesa at Knollwood Country Club
in Elmsford, N.Y. Most country club golfers greet their caddies
with feigned interest; not Willie. A short, dapper man of 70, he
walked across the 1st tee and looked straight into my bashful
12-year-old eyes. "Young man, it's a pleasure to meet you," he
said, making me feel like a kid on Santa's lap.
Scarsdale Golf Club was my home track. The only reason I was at
Knollwood--a three-mile bike ride away--was that the club had
unexpectedly found itself short of caddies. (Knollwood's
caddiemaster called other clubs for help, and I volunteered.)
Turnesa, though, treated me as if I were his steady, spending
more time with me than the golfers in our foursome. At one point
Turnesa and I were so engrossed in conversation that he wouldn't
even allow me to tend to my duties. When one of the men
snap-hooked his drive into the woods, Turnesa said to him,
"You'll have to find your ball yourself. Rick and I have things
Turnesa wanted to know everything--my favorite classes in school,
what books I had read, which sports I played--and he bought me a
hamburger and chips at the halfway house. (That was big, because
a golfer seldom picked up his caddie's lunch tab.) In turn, he
wanted me to know everything about the Westchester Golf
Association Caddie Scholarship Fund, which he had cofounded in
the mid-'50s. Late in the round, Turnesa pulled from his pocket
an application for the scholarship, wrote his phone number on it
and handed it to me. "You keep looping hard and doing well in
school," he said for what seemed like the thousandth time. "Bring
this back to us when you're ready for college, and we'll have a
scholarship for you."
I was on cloud nine as I rode home that evening, determined to
caddie my way to a scholarship (which I did six years later) and
grateful for having made the acquaintance of such a kind man. At
the time I didn't know that Turnesa was much more than that.
After Bobby Jones, he was the most accomplished American amateur
in history, winner of the British and two U.S. Amateurs, and a
three-time Walker Cup player. The son of a greenkeeper and the
youngest of the seven Turnesa brothers--the greatest golfing
family ever in the U.S.--Willie was also the only player besides
Jones to have a ticker-tape parade in his honor. Willie was feted
in New York City on June 9, 1947, hours after he had disembarked
from the Queen Elizabeth on the way home from Scotland, where he
had won the British Amateur at Carnoustie and led the U.S. to
victory in the Walker Cup at St. Andrews.
Only later did I learn that it was no coincidence that I was
given Knollwood's best bag on my first day at the club. Age
hadn't spoiled the long arc or graceful rhythm of Turnesa's
swing, but he rarely played a full 18 holes in those days. He
preferred, instead, simply to chum around with his pals and scout
talent for his scholarship program. That's why the caddiemaster
was always under strict orders to assign a kid, preferably one
Turnesa had never met, to his bag.
The last surviving Turnesa brother, Willie died on June 16 in
Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. His passing was noted but did not make
headlines. The father of three, he counted the thousands of
caddies he helped as part of his family.
Thanks, Mr. Turnesa, for including me.
B/W PHOTO: INTERNATIONAL NEWS SERVICE Willie (right, with his father at Knollwood in 1938) andhis six brothers were the greatest golfing family ever in the U.S.