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Analysis: Decline of the black caddie

By
STEVE SAILER, UPI National Correspondent

LOS ANGELES, April 12 (UPI) -- Few images make modern Americans, black or white, more uncomfortable than that of a white golfer strolling down a manicured fairway with his black caddie trudging behind him.

For three generations, the black bag-toter was a fixture at country clubs and on the PGA Tour, most notably at Augusta National, site of this week's Masters Tournament. By now, though, they are almost all gone, replaced at most courses by whizzing golf carts, and at the big-money tournaments by well-educated and remarkably well-paid white caddies.

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One of the last black caddies on the Tour is Freddie Burns, who has carried Hal Sutton's bag for over 20 years.

He pointed out: "In 1981, there were twice as many black caddies as whites. Now I'm the only one carrying a top-50 bag."

Blacks are not just missing out on the new affluence of Tour caddies. The decline of the black caddy has crippled black advancement in tournament golf.

As the first article in this two-part series, "The decline of the black golf pro," recounted, in this age of Tiger Woods, the floodgates were supposed to open to non-white talent, but instead the number of black pros has shrunk.

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By one count, 26 blacks have been Tour regulars at some point since the PGA officially desegregated in 1961. Lee Elder, who in 1975 became the first black to play in the Masters championship, was one of five black stars who won a total of 23 tournaments between 1964 and 1987.

Elder recently lamented to the Rocky Mountain News in Denver that "Afro-Americans in the professional game of golf are becoming a dying breed. We only have one Afro-American on the PGA Tour -- Tiger -- and we're down to five on the Senior PGA Tour. That's scary."

Elder noted: "With caddies going away, there was no consistent way for kids to get on the golf course, to be exposed to the game."

Woods, who has been a celebrated prodigy since he was extremely young, no more needed to get started by toting bags than Mozart needed to get started by moving pianos.

Almost all of the minority Tour pros of the previous generations, however, first learned about golf working at a course, either by carrying clubs or cutting grass. Lots of working-class white stars, such as Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, got their start in the caddie yard, too. When the caddie master or greenskeeper wasn't watching, they'd sneak off and play a few holes.

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Over time, however, the golf business has switched from a labor-intensive to capital-intensive cost structure. Golf carts and power mowers have radically reduced the need for employees. But the price of land keeps rising, and construction costs can now run into the tens of millions, driving up greens fees sharply.

Generation X pros come from more uniformly privileged backgrounds than earlier pros. Today, even though only 3 percent of all Americans are country club members, a large fraction of Tour pros grew up belonging to private clubs where they could play non-stop when they were adolescents.

A caddie's duties can range from simply carrying the bag and replacing divots all the way up to managing every aspect of the player's game. Elite caddies need to be practical psychologists who have a calming effect on their players.

Most modern Tour players delegate calculating distances to their caddies but reserve the final tactical decisions for themselves. On the other hand, caddies' opinions of who is responsible have been known to vary from hole to hole.

In the old joke, the caddie says: "On the first hole, we crush a big drive down the middle, then we rip a great 2-iron to 10 feet, and we hole a tricky sidehill putt, giving us an eagle. On the second hole, he hooks it in the lake ..."

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Top caddies, black and white, were traditionally a raffish lot, with nicknames like Hobo and Six Pack Jack. Willie "Cemetery" Poteat was one of the black caddies who wore Augusta National's white jumpsuits. He caddied in the Masters and always carried Dwight Eisenhower's bag during presidential visits. A ladies' man, Cemetery got his nickname after somehow surviving having his throat slashed by a jealous rival.

Few have given more thought to the connection between golf and race than Bob Peck, whose novel "Golf Pro" traces the relationship between a white golfer and his older black caddie. Peck did some caddying on the Tour in the 1970s, and hung out with renowned black caddies like Lee Trevino's man, the famously rotund Herman Mitchell.

Peck told United Press International: "Arnold Palmer in the early 1970s was one of first to hire college boys as caddies. Within 15 years, it seemed like black caddies were down to one out of 10."

There are still interesting characters around, but these days, Tour caddies often come from the same strata of society as the players. "Pros hire white caddies that they can relate to, ones who are younger and better-educated," said Peck.

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For example, at the Bob Hope tournament in Palm Springs this year, veteran Jay Haas' bag was carried by a member of the royal family of teaching pros, Billy Harmon. He is the head pro at the ultra posh Bighorn Golf Club and the brother of Woods' superstar instructor, Butch Harmon.

All that expensive expertise didn't, however, keep Haas from hitting it in the water on the last hole and losing to lefthander Mike Weir, who won $810,000. Presumably, Weir paid his caddie Brennan Little the standard 10 percent fee, or $81,000 for a week's work. (If he doesn't win, a pro pays his caddie between 5 percent and 7 percent.) Three weeks later, Little earned another $81,000 as Weir captured the Nissan Open in Los Angeles.

The relationship between Weir and Little exemplifies the trend toward pros hiring caddies with whom they feel socially comfortable. The two men grew up playing junior golf together, and they both played the minor league Canadian Tour. They ski together in the offseason.

Weir said: "First and foremost, we are the best of friends."

One of the very few younger blacks to come out on tour in recent years is golfer Brenden Pappas' part-time caddie Michael Collins, 32, who is also a professional stand-up comic. Collins recently parlayed his Tour contacts into a regular gig on the cable Golf Channel.

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Quite a few golfers now employ relatives as caddies. This keeps the caddie's payment in the family. For example, Jack Nicklaus won his first five Masters titles using one of Augusta National's black caddies, Willie Peterson. But in 1986, Nicklaus won his famous sixth Masters at age 46 with his son Jackie on his bag. A few players, such as Steve Stricker, have their wives carry for them, although brothers are probably the most common kind of relative.

Questions of trust and reliability incline pros to hire friends and family. If, say, you pay your caddie $105,000 on Sunday at La Costa in San Diego and tell him to show up Tuesday at the Doral in Miami, you don't want to have to bail him out of jail Monday in Las Vegas. But if he's your brother, you can always threaten that if he doesn't show up, you'll tell Mom.

Most importantly, the decline of the black Tour caddie is symptomatic of a much larger shift in American race relations and employment patterns. While caddying has become more prestigious among whites, younger blacks have sharply turned against it and most other servile jobs, seeing them as holdovers from slavery and Jim Crow. Novelist Peck observed: "The idea of filling a subservient role that their parents were happy to take just isn't acceptable anymore."

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The veteran black caddie Alfred Dyer (a/k/a Big Rabbit) carried for South African legend Gary Player all over the world for 18 years. And he told CaddyBytes.com: "Because of Gary Player and caddying I was able to put my son through college at Princeton University. I tell all the young kids today to caddie. But a young black kid today don't want to caddie, he can make more money doing the wrong things, and that's a shame! Caddying was a great way to grow up, learn the game, stay out of trouble."

Whites' attitudes have changed, too. As Peck noted: "The old-fashioned white man was completely comfortable using a black man in a subservient role, but at some point this became the wrong thing to do."

These new attitudes among blacks and whites engender racial tension, and golf pros don't like extra tension. Their jobs are pressure-packed already. So, they avoid discomfort by hiring other whites.

Examining the ramifications of these trends across the economy, these psychological changes might have had a negative impact on black employment levels. Even beyond the golf course, many whites are sidestepping this racial minefield by simply not trying to hire blacks for service jobs.

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Consider the assumptions displayed in one of this year's biggest hit movies, the comedy "Bringing Down the House." At a screening, an audience of upper-middle-class Los Angeles whites found it shockingly (and thus hilariously) inappropriate for Steve Martin to occasionally pretend to his stuffy associates that he employs an indignant Queen Latifah as his nanny or cook. That her character is an unemployed ex-con who has bullied her way into living for free in the divorced man's huge West Los Angeles house didn't make the idea of a black woman as a servant less worrisome to racially sensitive whites.

In fact, many critics denounced the film as racist because of one scene in which a desperate Martin persuades Latifah to dress in a maid's uniform and serve dinner to his top client.

Of course, rich people still want servants. The weekend before "Bringing Down the House" came out, the number one hit was "Cradle 2 the Grave." In it, rapper DMX played another wealthy Los Angeles single father who employs a live-in nanny-cook. But nobody laughed or fulminated or even noticed. That's because DMX's servant was not black, but Latino. In affluent Los Angeles, Hispanic "help" is so common as to be almost invisible.

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Today, the well-to-do increasingly prefer to solve the "servant problem" created by blacks turning against personal service work by hiring Latinos. That might be one reason that elite Americans are so much more favorably inclined toward mass immigration than the average American.

(A December poll by the Center for Immigration Studies found 60 percent of average Americans consider the current level of U.S. immigration to be a "critical threat to the vital interests of the United States," compared with only 14 percent of prominent Americans.)

While the current hassle-free subservience of Hispanics might seem like a law of nature to the wealthy, there's almost certainly no "servant gene." There's nothing to guarantee that someday Latinos will not follow blacks in deciding that service work is racially demeaning.

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