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Recalling the glory days on the green

Guest Column Prentiss Davis

My friend and former colleague Steve phoned me from China recently. Steve bought a factory in South China last year and now he’s living in China most of the time.

Yes, Steve is one of those people exporting American jobs overseas; we did it together for a couple of years, and made a few bucks in the process.

Separated from his wife and family in Southern California, Steve has taken to playing golf regularly with his Chinese associates. He told me that the Chinese businessmen he plays golf with always want to play for big money, so Steve has had considerable winnings of late.

Steve wants to know if I’m playing any golf up here in Truckee.

I thought of this when I saw a couple of our local environmental activists on television last week, talking about how bad another golf course near Truckee would be. I live in Prosser, just up Highway 89 from Gray’s Crossing, which will presumably be the location of a new golf course in the near future. Simple people that we are, my wife and I have been looking forward to the addition of Gray’s Crossing to our community. It must be the result of a ’50s mindset, hardly understood by those folks I saw on television.

Imagine the glee of a teen-age boy in the 1950s, on learning of a new golf course opening nearby? Visions of dollar-an-hour jobs in a country club setting would be dancing in our heads. Something tells me that our Truckee youth won’t be lining up for odd jobs at Gray’s Crossing or Old Greenwood any time soon.

I worked from the ages of 14 to 18 as a caddy at the Wallingford Country Club in Wallingford, Conn. The year I started was 1955, and one of my baseball or fishing chums told me there was easy money to be made at the golf course. I remember my first caddying clients, a nice old couple, who upon learning it was my first round of caddying, were very helpful and forgiving. I also remember that they paid me the minimum, and no tip.

After a couple of seasons I was considered one of the top caddies, and I got to work with the best golfers and any visiting celebrities who presumably paid the most money (and usually had the heaviest golf bag).

I once carried (we called it carried, not caddied) for Jimmy Pearsall. Remember him, Red Sox fans? For the benefit of younger readers, Pearsall was a major league baseball player who was driven insane by a domineering father. Hollywood made a major movie about him in 1957. Even we caddies could see right away he was a bit loony.

Caddies made their own hours. We would show up whenever we wanted to, or not at all. We knew we were most likely to get work at certain times, and if I wanted to play baseball or go fishing, it was nobody else’s business. I remember many days, climbing up the hill to the caddy shack, and seeing the caddy master standing out there, yelling for me to hurry up to work because a caddy was needed right now. If you were a top caddy, you would go to work as soon as one of the better golfers, or more likely a twosome, was ready to tee off. The lesser caddies would sit around until some hacker needed someone to carry his bag.

My regular clients included a couple of prosperous car dealers, a doctor and a lawyer or two. Blue collar types were not very well represented, but I do remember a plumbing contractor who drove a Cadillac and dressed very well. On a typical weekend, I’d carry two bags for 36 holes on both Saturday and Sunday and earn a total of $24. This was in addition to working a couple of weekdays, which usually paid $3 to $6 for a day, if you were lucky. Sometimes you’d carry some guy’s bag for 18 holes, working as long as four hours, and he’d give you the $2 minimum caddy fee and no tip. We would often pick up some extra money on weekdays shagging balls. A couple of golfers would find an empty fairway and hit balls at the caddy, me. Yes, I was hit occasionally – and in the head – more than once. This risk of life and limb paid a dollar or two, nice pay for an hour’s work. Wallingford CC had some wicked hills, especially the 18th fairway, which was straight up. So steep in fact, on many weekends from December to March, half the town’s kids would show up on the 18th green with their Flexible Fliers and toboggans for a day of sliding on the snow. I even remember a skier or two.

On tournament weekends, we could expect lavish tips, and I would sometimes make $40 to $50. One year, my client, the local Pontiac dealer, won the club’s championship tournament and I was well rewarded for my work. The weekend ended in a huge celebration of victory (free Cokes for the caddies) but the most memorable moment was on Saturday morning when my client shot an eagle on a par-4 hole. I had selected his club for the shot. We stood close together and watched his long approach shot roll directly into the hole, and he immediately took a $5 bill out of his pocket and handed it to me.

Instant riches!

This was at a time when a skilled factory worker would make $80 to $100 for a 40-hour week running a machine. Most of the golfers solicited a lot of advice from their caddy, usually club selection and how to play a particular shot. I became a pretty good judge of distance, and could usually tell my regular clients which club to use. Yes, my clients usually had some money riding on their golf contest, sometimes a lot by the standards of the day. They often played for as much as $20 per hole. A mistake by a caddy could be costly, and the client wouldn’t soon forget.

Halfway through the summer after my high school graduation (1960), I got a full time job at a Chevrolet dealer and never set foot on a golf course again. I played a lot of baseball that summer, and I was told the swing is similar, but I never had any desire to play golf. Mantle, Maris, Snider and a lot of other great ball players played excellent golf, so I guess there’s something to it.

My younger brother caddied at Shaker Heights CC in Cleveland for a couple of summers before going off to West Point and Notre Dame, so perhaps caddying runs in the family. About the time I went away to the Army, Wallingford CC started replacing the caddies with electric golf carts. Not long afterward, one of my regular clients was run over and killed by a runaway cart. Imagine that.

We have quite a few golf courses in the Truckee area – half dozen I believe at the last count – with the very upscale Old Greenwood designed by Jack Nicklaus coming on line soon and Gray’s Crossing not too far in the future. Curious about the caddy situation, I asked my dinner companions at the recent Cadillac Ball, all golfers, if any of the local courses were using caddies. I was told that Lahontan uses caddies and when Old Greenwood opens it may.

Wanting to learn more, I called Lahontan, but was unable to navigate through the voice mail system, never a problem in the ’50s. Come spring, I may call again to see if their doing any hiring.

Prentiss Davis is a Truckee resident.


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