Column: Where have all the caddies gone?

BOB DeSTEFANO

Although the game of golf is getting more popular every year, I have always wondered how popular it would be if it wasn’t so costly to play.

Other sports like baseball, basketball, football, soccer, etc. are very inexpensive as far as equipment and there’s no fee to play. Golf on the other hand costs a small fortune for equipment, and the remainder of that fortune just to play the game.

With the game so exclusive, how did all those young players who were born in the first half of the 20th century get to play? Without having any money, they learned the game well enough to become the greatest players in the world. Lucky for them, almost everyone who played golf needed someone to carry their bag of clubs.

From 1900 to 1960 caddying was considered a good job, and while working on the course and getting paid at the same time, these young people learned the rudiments of the game. Most were allowed to play at no cost during off hours and from an early age they learned the rules: how to swing a club, manage distances and read the greens. Almost all of them fell in love with the game and went on to become professionals and top amateur players.

As time went on, golf carts kept getting more popular. It just made sense for both the country clubs and golfers to encourage the use of carts. The rental of golf carts was a new and lucrative income for clubs that they didn’t have if people used caddies. To the golfer himself, the decision was simple: “Do I ride around the course with my clubs on a cart for $20 or do I walk and pay a caddy $80 to carry the clubs?”

Needless to say, this was the beginning of the end for caddies. Although many clubs have realized what has happened, it is too late.

The great classic stories of kids playing in the caddy yard are over.

My reason for covering caddies today comes from my conversation with 90-year-old Bill Dickerson the other day. Bill just wanted to talk about the fun he had in his caddy days. Today, if I meet any of the guys I used to caddy with, it’s like no time has passed. I trust them and love to spend time with them.

My childhood in caddying seemed almost the same as the stories I hear about Shelter Island caddies. The major difference was women caddies! On the Island, it was good money and the gals caddied just like the guys. Babe Dickerson Springsteen and Virginia O’Byrne Jernick were a couple of the caddies, along with most of the gals who lived along the course. The Dickerson families lived just off the second tee, grew up and caddied on the course. As a whole, they were the best players on the Island. When Gardiner’s Bay opened again in 1950, it was a local club, put together by local volunteers and for the first 15 years the Dickerson family controlled the golf trophies.

Before the war the two Island courses were both doing very well. The only consistent faces through it all were Charlotte Hannabury’s mom and dad, Olive and Bill Congdon. The two of them ran Shelter Island Golf Club for over 50 years pretty much by themselves.

The two guys who hired me were both caddies in the 30’s and 40’s and are both doing well today. Sid Beckwith caddied at the Dering Harbor Club (Gardiner’s Bay) and Bill Dickerson caddied at Shelter Island Golf Club (Goat Hill). The going rate in those days was 50 cents for 9 holes and a dollar for 18. Bill Dickerson tells me that his goal was to make $50 for the summer. But more to the point, Beckwith is still playing and Dickerson stopped a couple of years ago after a career as one of the best golfers on the Island.

I still don’t know the answer to how to make golf more available to everyone, but on this Island both clubs are doing their best to make it happen. Both clubs welcome youth by offering very low dues and a chance to play and practice. Without the old caddy program, I don’t know of a better way to keep golf popular. Now if we can get the rest of the country to follow our lead, golf will again be available to all.

Stay out in front, Shelter Island!

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