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An American Caddie in St. Andrews

After a year of study at the University of St. Andrews, the author, an 18-year-old from the U.S., decided to remain in town for the summer and work as a caddie at the Old Course, where he received an entirely different kind of education

[June 25, 2003] I'm onstage at Avery Fisher Hall in New York City, trumpet on my lap, facing 3,000 fellow Stuyvesant High students, plus hordes of parents and teachers, all having assembled for our graduation. My cellphone vibrates. I'm waiting to hear from the admissions office at Harvard. I've been on the wait list for three months, and the school is supposed to let me know today. As the orchestra strikes up a rousing march, I exit stage left and take the call. The news is good--I'm in--but there's a catch: All of the spots for the class of 2007 have been filled; I've been accepted for the following year. I need to take a gap year, which is a euphemism for killing the next 15 months. But how? I immediately think of the University of St. Andrews, in Scotland, to which I had applied as a lark. I love the town, having often visited to play golf with my family and to spend time with my great-uncle Ken, who lives 800 yards from the Old Course. (I partially credit good genes for my 1.8 handicap.) After doing some research, I discover that St. Andrews has a special freshman-year-abroad program. Harvard says I can do it if I don't matriculate for transfer credit. I also discover that St. Andrews has a 70-to-30 female-to-male ratio. The place sounds too good to be true.

[April 2004] My school year in St. Andrews has been unthinkably wonderful. For £107 I bought a student pass for unlimited play on St. Andrews's six courses, allowing me to tee it up on the Old Course almost every day. My classes are superb. I read English with a working poet, who has us imitating Wordsworth and Keats. I also study modern history and international relations, taught by brilliantly eccentric old Scottish guys with big ears and impenetrable burrs. I meet kids from all over the world, and together we explore St. Andrews's 31 pubs (the highest per-capita concentration of pubs in the United Kingdom).

Even though school is done, I don't want the gap year to end. A plan begins to form when I find out that many of my friends stay in St. Andrews over the summer to caddie at the Old Course. I'm told that caddies earn about £50 a round and on a good day can get two loops. The dollar is so weak that £50 translates to almost $100, a hell of a lot more than the $35 a round I had earned as a caddie at Bass Rocks Golf Club in Gloucester, Mass., where my family has a summer home. My friends also tell me hilarious stories of tourist-golfers and the famously gruff Old Course caddies. It all sounds like too much fun. I fill out the forms, buy the official caddie rain gear, take the official Old Course caddie training program and find cheap digs for the summer. I'm good to go.

[May 22] I'm about to do a "shadow round," the final stage of my training before I can begin earning money. I'll be following a seasoned caddie around the Old Course, observing how he operates. I have a romanticized view of this relationship; I see us as caddie and shadow, teacher and student, father and son even. In fact, I am shadowing a surly Scot with an accent so thick that, I later learn, even the other Scottish caddies have difficulty understanding him. He has three friendly American women in his group, and I happily chat with them while we await our tee time. My caddie mentor, observing this friendly banter, is all smiles, and I feel that my career is off to a great start. But as we walk to the 1st tee, he yanks me aside, motions to his mouth and whispers fiercely, "Yuh see what ahm pointin' to, Jimmah? Shut it!"

The low point of this shadow round comes on the 15th hole, where I'm told--not asked--to run and fetch a bottle of water. Upon my breathless return the professional caddie takes the bottle, turns to his player, who, by the way, has witnessed none of my exertions, and gives her a yellow-toothed smile. "Here, Judy," he says, his voice dripping with charm, "I got you some water." It is not the opening day of my dreams, but it is a quick introduction to the caddie social structure, which is as rigidly stratified as the Mafia hierarchy.

At the top of the pecking order you have your old-timers, the wrinkly, grumpy guys who've spent years, sometimes decades, earning their stripes. Below them are the full-time adult caddies. In their caddying prime, many have looped in British Opens or on the European tour. These guys pound out 36 holes a day on the Old Course, and they know their stuff. Another notch down are the university kids, who've been caddying for a couple of summers and have achieved a sufficient level of cockiness. At the very bottom, generally regarded as the scum of the caddie yard, are my kind: the trainees.

[May 24] I begin my first paid round on the Old Course replete with blue caddie bib and an embarrassingly huge badge reading trainee caddie, which feels like a student-driver sign. My golfer is an exceedingly large Swiss journalist who resembles Michael Moore on a very bad day. As the round progresses, his drives go from a gentle draw to a mild hook to a frightening duck-hook, diving 90 degrees left into rough, gorse or other golfers. Whatever advice I offer does little to remedy the situation. By the 16th hole he is on pace to shoot about 130, with mulligans. On 17, the world-famous Road Hole, he simply stops playing and walks in with me. Upon returning to the caddie shack, he scribbles all 3s on my Trainee Caddie Report Card--a perfect score--and hands me a crumpled £50 note, telling me to mention this round to no one. My career is off and running.

I begin hanging out in the so-called Caddie Pavilion, our humble shack, which is about 20 feet long and 20 feet wide. A stern sign on the front door reads registered caddies only, but clueless tourists are always stumbling in, looking for a toilet. The room is furnished with wooden benches, a table, a TV, old magazines, decks of cards, random golf clubs and a Klix machine that dispenses, among other things, vegetable soup that resembles minced carrots floating in paint thinner. Caddies assemble in the shack early in the morning--a tinny intercom intermittently blares out the name of the next caddie up--to play cards and read the tabloids. (The Sun, featuring a topless woman every day on page 3, is a highly popular read.) Although a NO SMOKING sign hangs on the inside doorway, the room is constantly shrouded in a fog of smoke. The place is glorious.

[June 4] Every Old Course caddie is obsessed with the daily ballot, which is simply a list of the day's tee times. The experienced caddie can instantly determine from this unadorned list of names what kind of day he is in for. The first 30 loops every day are reserved for the so-called Top 30 Group: caddies who had the highest number of rounds the previous year. The rest of the bags are awarded on a first-come, first-served basis, unless a player books a specific caddie in advance. The caddie manager arrives at 6 a.m. to start taking down names, but caddies begin to line up outside the shack well before that, sometimes as early as 4 a.m.

Once caddies sign in and get a number, they are free to do as they please, provided they are at the caddie shack when their name is called. (I quickly learned the art of calculating number and waiting time.) I generally arrive at 5:30 a.m. for the sign-up wearing pajamas under my waterproofs, collect my number and return to bed for one to three hours of blissful sleep.

There's a 60-year-old caddie in the group with me today who has been caddying on the Old Course for a dozen years. He's so old school that he lights a freshly hand-rolled cigarette on every tee. Standing on the tee of the par-3 11th hole, he announces to the group that we have 160 yards to the front edge. I look down at my caddie yardage book and notice that the old caddie's calculation is dead wrong. "Um, are you sure?" I ask. "I think it's actually only 154 to the pin." The old caddie shoots me an icy stare. "I've been caddying here for 12 years," he yells, in plain view of the players. "You think I'm going to let a bloody trainee tell me about yardage?"

Clearly, I've crossed a line here. I nod a quick apology, noting that my absolutely correct advice was, in my new caddie world, a mistake.

[June 7] I'm assigned to a group from the southern U.S. My player, after learning that I'm a John Kerry supporter, announces that by round's end he'll convert me to Republicanism. He doesn't. What the other players do accomplish is to deeply upset another caddie in the group, a friend of mine. They trade anti-French jokes and comments about Freedom Fries throughout the front nine, frequently sharing their remarks with him. On 10 my friend finally reveals that his mother is French. The rest of the way he gives his players bad reads on every green.

Following the round I have my weekly dinner with my great-uncle Ken Hayward, a dapper gent who always wears a tie, even when he's tending to his garden. (For strolling around town, he usually adds a tweed jacket and tartan cap.) Uncle Ken grew up in England and first came to St. Andrews during World War II. As a Royal Air Force pilot he was stationed at RAF Leuchars, across Eden Estuary from the Old Course. Uncle Ken fell in love with St. Andrews, and with a St. Andrean named Betty. They married and, after living for 20 years in England, retired to St. Andrews in 1964. He's been here ever since. Betty died in the 1970s, and Isabel, his second wife, passed away in 1988. Now 84, Uncle Ken lives alone in a huge, elegant Georgian row house on Hope Street, across the road from where Prince William lived during his second year at the university.

Uncle Ken is quite a character. We go to a different restaurant every Friday, which provides a welcome change from my usual diet of home-cooked pasta. At dinner Uncle Ken enthusiastically fills me in on the town gossip and updates me on the state of his garden, his caravan club trips and the primary topic of local conversation, the weather. There are often riveting digressions about his time in the RAF and subsequent travels. The stories are punctuated by his cheery, high-pitched giggle. I fire back with my best caddie stories from the week, plus detailed reports of my own golf exploits, shot by shot. I love my time with Uncle Ken. I never want the nights to end.

[June 8] The British Amateur, known locally as the Amateur Championship, is occupying the Old Course and the Jubilee Course for a week, so getting work will be all but impossible. My flatmate John and I come up with the idea to caddie at the St. Andrews Bay Golf Courses, a 10-minute drive east of St. Andrews. John, who caddies at Kingsbarns, hasn't had a paid round in two days. I call the St. Andrews Bay caddiemaster, offer our services and am told to hurry over. Within 25 minutes John and I are gainfully employed on the St. Andrews Bay's Devlin Course.

Having never seen the layout, I buy a course planner on my way to the 1st tee, where I discover that I have been assigned to a group of four Americans, none of whom have set foot on the course either. Using my planner, I stay a hole ahead of my group, checking the next hole's setup as they putt on the prior green. The system works flawlessly until my player, whose back is starting to bother him, asks me if the 9th hole finishes near the clubhouse. After a series of "ums" and "uhs," he says, "You have no f------ clue, do you?" A shrug is my confession. He accepts this, and we keep going. After six holes the guy's back becomes so painful that he has to stop. I tell him I have no way to get home without John, who is still out on the course. This makes my guy feel guilty, so he takes me to the hotel bar and buys me five pints of Guinness. After an hour and a half he says goodbye and heads to the spa for a massage, giving me £10 for the six holes. I am reasonably satisfied--and reasonably tipsy--and make my way to the pro shop, where I am told that I am to receive an additional £35 because the other players in my group have already put the caddie fees on their tab. I've made £45 and five pints for six holes' labor. Not a bad day's work.

[June 24] A women's international championship is being played tomorrow on the Old Course. Today is a practice day for the women, but as luck would have it, I am assigned to a group of three 40ish American guys who have taken the last time slot before the tee is closed for the practice round. On the 2nd tee one of my players tops his drive 20 yards into a gorse bush. It's going to be one of those rounds. My mind begins to wander while the other players hit, and scanning the 1st fairway, I notice that playing directly behind us is the Swedish national women's team. The players are all tall and blonde. I also notice that two of my friends have been assigned to caddie for the Swedes. They look extremely happy. I feel as if I have gotten on the wrong bus.

For some reason tourist-golfers want to believe that older Old Course caddies frequent the Jigger, the famous pub alongside the Old Course's 17th fairway. In truth, St. Andrews caddies avoid the Jigger for a number of reasons: 1) It's too far from town; 2) it's too expensive; 3) it's filled with tourist-golfers who think Old Course caddies hang out there. Older Old Course caddies opt for more centrally located, less costly pubs like the Dunvegan and TP's. There is, however, a locally known game called the Jigger Challenge. In this game, after hitting their second shots on 17, competitors run into the Jigger and help themselves to a certain number of pints. (The amount is of their choosing.) The contestants then return to the Old Course, where they finish up on 17 and then must complete the 18th hole in fewer strokes than the number of pints they downed. To my knowledge there have been very few winners of this game.

There are about 15 of us in a clique of younger caddies. I'm the lone American, and although we have come to St. Andrews from different parts of the world, we have a ton in common. Since the Old Course is closed on Sunday, we head out on Saturday nights to the livelier pubs in St. Andrews--Ma Bell's or the Raisin or the Westport, where, during the school year, Prince William hangs out. After the pubs close at 1 a.m., my friends and I head to various flat parties that run into the wee hours. After working so hard during the week, one comes to feel as if Saturday-night-Sunday-morning out has been, in a word, earned.

Another release is golf. Most of my fellow caddies are, like me, obsessive golfers. During the summer in St. Andrews it stays light until nearly 11 p.m. As most loops end no later than 8 p.m., there is ample time for the especially devoted--or the mildly insane--to rush home, collect golf clubs and sneak in a quick round. My friends and I do this almost every day. It's nuts, but worth the extra effort. There is nothing like playing golf in St. Andrews in the evening. As the sun dips lower in the Scottish sky, greens and fairways are brilliantly lit at a striking angle. Nature reclaims its land, as hares dart out of the gorse, chirping birds hunker down for the night and seagulls screech. Against this idyllic backdrop my friends and I stage brutally competitive matches, ending only when the very last rays of sunlight sink below the edge of Eden Estuary.

[July 2] My parents are visiting for a week. My father and I have been invited by Dr. Jake Davidson, Uncle Ken's neighbor, to be two-day guest members of the R&A. My father, Israel, spends the day working on his laptop computer in the R&A's library. He confesses to me that, during the morning, he had sneaked upstairs and peeked into the R&A's most private rooms. "What was it like?" I ask. He smiles and answers in a whisper, "I feel as if I've been to church."

[July 3] I have been invited to a 3 p.m. lunch with Dad and Dr. Davidson at the R&A building, but first I have an 11 o'clock round with a snaillike American who hits everything short and right. If I don't get him through his round by 2:30 p.m., I won't get to the R&A (in a jacket and tie) by 3 and will miss lunch. I give this guy reads the likes of which he has never dreamed. He holes his (fourth) putt on 18 at 2:45 p.m. I Lance Armstrong it to my flat and get back to the R&A at 3:03. On my way in the door I am spotted by three caddies who give me the blankest of stares.

The table captain knows I'm coming. He also knows I've worked seven rounds in four days. He personally serves my meal, loading my plate with enough food for a foursome. (We who live to serve grow to understand each other's needs.) After lunch my dad and I play three rounds of snooker, a game with seemingly as many rules as golf. My dad calls his brown-ball shot but accidentally pots the pink and the yellow. He steps next door to the library and asks a gathering of Yahs (21st-century British yuppies) for a ruling. I hear a voice tell my father to give me points for the pink and the yellow. I hear my father's voice say, "Thank you." I hear another voice tell my father, "You should be disqualified and lose the game." I hear my father say, "I didn't ask you; I asked him!" Then I hear dead silence. My father reappears in the snooker room with a worried look. He says quietly, "I made a joke, but nobody laughed."

[July 5] I have been promoted to official Old Course caddie, a photo I.D. replacing my humiliating trainee warning. In my foursome are three other licensed caddies. Among them is the grouchy old-timer whom I shadowed at the start of my career. On the 5th green--the largest on the course, measuring 98 yards from front to back--the caddie I shadowed has me give his player the line on a tricky 60-foot, downhill double breaker. I nail it. The player goes with the read, knocking it a foot short of the hole, dead on line. The old caddie nods and gives me a thumbs-up. I nod back as casually as possible. No sweat.

[July 8] For the past 16 years Uncle Ken's constant companion has been his dog, an adorable, energetic Jack Russell terrier named Bonnie. Uncle Ken and Bonnie are inseparable. They share long walks every day by the Old Course. They travel together on weekend caravan trips. Whenever he eats in a restaurant, Uncle Ken brings a small brown bag with him and discreetly slips a portion of his dish into the bag for Bonnie. During the course of my school year in St. Andrews, Bonnie began to show her age. Suddenly she was blind. Then she became too frightened to travel in the caravan. Finally she was unable to take walks. Uncle Ken's devotion never wavered. He canceled caravan trips, walked alone, spoon-fed Bonnie. It was heart-wrenching to watch.

Today, after finishing my second 18 at the Old Course, I turn on my cellphone and get upsetting news from my Aunt Jacquie in Manchester. Uncle Ken had Bonnie put down this afternoon. I call Uncle Ken immediately and ask if I can come by. Instead of expressing his true feelings, Uncle Ken, forever the stiff-upper-lipped Englishman, invents a less emotional reason for having me come over. "Oh, super! I have a newspaper clipping you'll want to take a look at!"

As soon as I see Uncle Ken's face, it's obvious that he needs someone to talk to. I sit with him for a few hours as he recounts story after story of his bonny Bonnie. I think that surviving those we love must be among life's worst experiences. Uncle Ken led squadrons of men through countless air battles, and now, having just buried a dog, he is distraught beyond description.

[July 9] I'm sitting on the bench at the 11th tee beside a veteran caddie. As we wait for the green to clear, two trainee caddies stand up on the tee with our four players. We hear one golfer say to the other, "You know, this is the highest point on the course!" My fellow caddie turns to me in disgust, leans in and says, "That's rubbish, he's totally wrong! Must've been some stupid trainee told him that!" I am secretly thrilled to be included in this insider complaint. Although I've been a licensed caddie for only a few days, the badge I wear has moved me into an elite inner circle. "Yeah," I reply with equal contempt, "probably some stupid trainee."

[July 12] I've just finished my first loop of the day and, having expected constant rain throughout the morning, had decided to wear both rain suits, one on top of the other. As if the golfing gods were playing a cruel joke on me for my lack of confidence in the official Old Course caddie waterproofs, the weather is sunny and baking hot, and I am forced to wear all three layers around the course. (And no, my player didn't allow me to put any of my clothing in his bag. And yes, I had to carry a large cart bag.)

Having spent four hours in the sauna of my waterproofs, I'm exhausted and starving. I grab some lunch and plop myself down on the caddie bench outside the shack to devour my chicken sandwich, liter of orange juice and cookie. I have 10 minutes before my next round and know from experience that if I scarf down my lunch in three or four minutes, I'll be fine. I've unpacked everything, and have started moving sandwich to mouth when an uncomfortably loud, high-pitched, piercing voice jolts me out of my small reverie. "Oh, my Gawd, are you a caddie!?" I turn and behold a woman in her 50s who is a caricature of the American tourist: fanny pack, too-short cargo shorts, an I ‚ô• CHICAGO T-shirt with a collection of disposable cameras tied around her neck.

"Yeah, I'm a caddie," I say, talking through my sandwich.

Her voice rises to an even higher pitch. "Oh, my Gawd! You're American!" To which she adds, "Me, too!"

I'm not enjoying this. I CHICAGO ♥ Lady continues her assault. "Can I take your picture?"

I mumble an answer in my most irritated tone, "Yeah, sure, go for it."

She snaps a photo of me glaring at her. She obviously is delighted with her souvenir. As she leaves, I realize that for the first time, I actually feel like an Old Course caddie. I watch a Japanese golfer duck-hook his opening drive across the 18th fairway. It careers off a car and bounces up the road toward Uncle Ken's house. I smile, and then all thoughts return to the chicken sandwich.

My caddie mentor motions to his mouth and whispers fiercely, "Yuh see what ahm pointin' to, Jimmah? Shut it!"

After working so hard during the week, one comes to feel as if Saturday-night-Sunday-morning out has been earned.

The caddie I shadowed has me give his player the line on a tricky 60-foot, downhill double breaker. I nail it.

"Oh, my Gawd, are you a caddie!?" I turn and behold a woman in her 50s who is a caricature of the American tourist.


Photographs by FRED VUICH


In the friendly confines of St. Andrews, the author (left and below) could get around on foot or by bike.


Photographs by FRED VUICH

[See Caption Above]


Photographs by FRED VUICH


Trainees are at the bottom of the caddie hierarchy.


Photographs by FRED VUICH


Young caddies hang out at places like Drouthy Neebors.


Photographs by FRED VUICH


By July the author was made an official caddie.


Photographs by FRED VUICH


Uncle Ken (left) had been a town councillor.