Who’s Your Caddy?

In the 1920s and ’30s – when golf was becoming popular as a gentleman’s game and golf carts were not yet in vogue – New Hampshire grand hotels, located in remote parts of the state where the supply of available labor was somewhat limited, imported youths from Boston and elsewhere in Massachusetts to lug the bags, retrieve stray shots and perform other valuable services for the hotels’ well-heeled golfer-guests. The Mount Washington Hotel and the Mount Pleasant House in Bretton Woods and The Balsams in Dixville Notch were among the resorts that provided room and board for youngsters, generally between the ages of 10 and 16, while also providing them the opportunity to earn some money on the fairways. There they learned and practiced the many skills of a caddy and, in many cases, developed a lifelong love of the game of golf. Steve Barba, longtime managing partner of The Balsams and one of the major players in New Hampshire’s tourism industry, first came to the resort he would later manage as a caddie-camper in 1959.

“I didn’t know anything about golf,” says Barba, who was then a 13-year-old resident of Needham, Mass. “The allure for me was just to get away for the summer.” But once there, he took to his work and to his game like a sliced shot to a sand trap.

“I had sharp eyes,” he recalls, “I could mark a ball that went in the rough, mark a line of sight that put me on that ball as long as I looked straight. I would find those golf balls in what was pretty rugged country.” Golfers appreciated the caddy’s work in saving them not only $2 for a new ball, but more importantly, the penalty stroke for a lost ball.

“It really does make a difference when a caddy is doing everything right, helping a golfer negotiate a course he may never have played before. There was a lot to learn about the way the ball would go around corners and the funny bounces it would take. And because it was a mountaintop golf course, there was sometimes an optical illusion, where it would look like it’s going uphill, but actually the slope is going downward. So you would try to guide the golfer through all of that.

“I would typically caddy for 18 holes in the morning and another 18 holes in the afternoon. Then I’d go play golf myself in the evening.” That baptism by immersion resulted in a lifelong fascination with the game. Barba, now executive director of university relations at Plymouth State University, still plays, though less frequently than he used to and with less formidable skill.

“I maintained a two-handicap for about 20 years. I would struggle now to be a 15 handicapper.” But it was while making the rounds as a caddy and learning to play the game as a boy that he came to love every aspect of it.

“I loved so much the protocols, the rules, the discipline of golf,” he says noting that while the rules of the game apply to all, they have the effect of making one “hold to your own personal standards. There are all of those rules, but the only one who enforces them is yourself.” The habits he acquired spotting balls and carrying bags for golfers at the resort continued to pay dividends when he went to work on grounds maintenance, as a waiter, a bartender and eventually managing partner of The Balsams.

“I would tell employees, ‘You have to have eyes to see what’s going on.’ If you’re in a restaurant and the waiter never looks you in the eyes, you never get his attention. A waiter has to be able to look you in the face to know if you need something – when you need more water, when you would like the bill, when you’re wondering where the food is. They don’t want to click their fingers or do any other thing. You have to look them in the face all the time.”

And just as he learned to anticipate the needs of a player on the fairway, Barba later prided himself on his ability to meet and even exceed the expectations of guests at the hotel. “I would anticipate what they needed before they knew they needed it and have it there waiting,” he says.

Not all the caddies at the camp were imports from Massachusetts. John Harrigan, publisher emeritus of the Colebrook News and Sentinel, caddied for a time at The Balsams after getting his start at age 11 at the Colebrook Country Club.

“I lived right across the street from the fifth fairway – 612 yards and a par 6 hole, one of only three par sixes in the country, ” he says. At The Balsams “both Steve and I learned some things about how to take good care of clients and little tricks about how to find lost balls.” It helps, Harrigan says, to be gifted with exceptional eyesight.

P.T. Sullivan, a professional photographer, served as caddy master at the Buick Classic in Westchester, N.Y., several years ago. He remains impressed with the wide range of skills a caddy must have to be successful on the pro tour.

“He’s got to not only know the course, he’s got to know how to read the player; how to calm him down and keep him focused when he’s having a bad day, how to get him to laugh and loosen up.” The caddy needs to know the layout of the course, the speed and direction of the wind and be ready to advise his golfer on what club to use for a particular shot. And he needs to know another equally important thing, says Sullivan.

“When to shut up and when to listen.” That varies, depending the golfer and the situation, says Sullivan, and the successful caddy needs to be able to read both. “If you’re not getting along with the guy you’re helping out, if you’re not keeping him happy, you’re not making money,” Sullivan says.

“If you’re a professional caddy, you do it enough that it just becomes instinct,” says Richard Ingraham, the resident golf pro at the Sky Meadow Country Club in Nashua. “You know where the ball goes and you pick up the bag and go chase it.” But caddies are rarely seen anymore at the local golf clubs, where most players rent golf carts to ride in. Some even use a remote control cart to carry their clubs while they walk the course.

“Golf today has become more of a business,” says Ingraham, “a way for a club to generate revenues through cart fees. A lot of the really old established clubs still offer caddy programs, but more and more, they’re going by the wayside.” And, he says, attitudes and expectations on the part of young people have changed.

“With kids today, I don’t know if waking up early and lugging a 15 to 20 pound bag around is all that appealing,” says Ingraham. “Kids today feel like they’re entitled to things instead of earning them.”

David Coates began caddying as an 11-year-old walking four miles from his home to the golf course in Eastchester, New York each day. He quickly fell in love with the course, the scenery and the challenges of the game and has been a golf enthusiast ever sense.

“I’d come home with five dollars in my pocket, feeling like the richest kid on the street,” he says. Now a New Hampshire resident, Coates, 49, uses all his vacation time from his full-time job with Fairpoint Communications to travel to golf tournaments, where he works as a part time caddy. He also works as a spotter for CBS in its coverage of the Master’s Tournament in Augusta, Ga. He looks forward to early retirement in a few years, so he can devote himself full time to the game he learned to love as a caddy nearly 40 years ago.

“Golf is a game where a player will call a penalty on himself,” Coates says. “It has so much integrity and that’s the way you have to conduct yourself, as a caddy or as a pro.”

Showing up for work on time, working hard and living by the rules of the game helped him to learn a lot of life’s lessons on the greens at an early age, he says.

“I think my passion for golf has touched every aspect of my life,” Coates says. “I’m very, very lucky.” NH

Caddyshack Meets Porky’s?The screenplay is just waiting to be written.

Those were more civil times, back in the early 20th century when the White Mountain caddy camps were in full swing. But just imagine the effects of luring hundreds of high-spirited young men, many from big city neighborhoods, to the wilderness of New Hampshire’s North Country, then pairing them up with the Brahmins and gentry who played the manicured fairways of the Grand Hotels. There’s got to be a movie script in there somewhere.

And the plot points for that script have probably been discussed hundreds of times at the regular reunions of the caddy camps hosted at places like The Maplewood Hotel and Country Club and The Balsams, where a 40th anniversary reunion was hosted in 2000.

The Maplewood and the Mt. Washington courses benefited early on from a famous Boston institution, The North Bennet St. Industrial School. Now a school for fine craftsmen, it was early on a place for the children of immigrants, mostly Italians, to assimilate. Many of these were the hard-knocks kids of Boston’s inner city neighborhoods, so it’s safe to assume there were some high jinx and mischief going on in the tent cities and cabins after the sun set on the links.

It’s a great New Hampshire story, waiting to be told by some aspiring scriptwriter.

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