News & Opinion

Chicago teen finds hope in Caddie Academy

Anahi Gutierrez, 16, of Chicago’s West Side, knew nothing about golf until she found out about the Western Golf Association’s Caddie Academy program during her freshman year of high school.

Just wrapping up its sixth year, the WGA Caddie Academy gives underprivileged girls from around the country the opportunity to caddie and possibly earn a four-year, all-expenses-paid ride to college on an Evans Scholarship.

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GARY HOLAWAY/COURTESY OF THE WESTERN GOLF ASSOCIATION
Anahi “Ani” Gutierrez, 16, takes part in the Western Golf Association’s Caddie Academy.

GARY HOLAWAY/COURTESY OF THE WESTERN GOLF ASSOCIATION
Anahi “Ani” Gutierrez, 16, takes part in the Western Golf Association’s Caddie Academy.

“I didn’t know anything about golf,” said Gutierrez, who now works at Skokie Country Club in Glencoe, Ill., site of this week’s Western Amateur. “It was a foreign concept.”

But Anahi – her friends call her Ani – understood opportunity, and she grabbed it.

Gutierrez is the youngest daughter of Mexican immigrants. Her father works in a junkyard. She was identified in grade school as someone special, because of her academic performance and personal qualities. 

The Daniel Murphy Scholarship Fund, which underwrites her tuition to Chicago’s St. Ignatius College Prep, introduced her to the Caddie Academy. Gutierrez has an older sister who has three children, plus two older brothers in their 20s. All live in the family home.

When school was out, Gutierrez packed her bags and moved to a dormitory at Woodlands Academy of the Sacred Heart, a boarding school in bucolic Lake Forest, 30 miles north of Chicago. 

There, she and 80 other Caddie Academy girls lived for seven weeks and looped at 12 participating North Shore clubs, driven back and forth by “house moms” and other live-in counselors at Woodlands.

The caddies undergo onsite training at nearby Indian Hill Club after watching a WGA-produced video on the art of caddieing. At Skokie, the girls wear special gold hats so that everyone knows who they are.

Her first impression of golf?

“I thought it was really long,” Gutierrez said. “Everybody plays for four hours. That’s insane. But I also thought it was really nice. You’re outdoors. It’s a cool sport because you’re always with someone. You spend a lot of time with them, and that’s good.”

Gutierrez recalls her first loop at Skokie, which she did with two of her “sisters” from the Caddie Academy.

“We didn’t have another experienced caddie with us; all we had was what we learned when we shadowed [other caddies],” she said. “Our golfers were really nice and patient with us. It was very empowering. We still talk to them about it to this day.”

This summer, Skokie has seven girls from the Caddie Academy among its 80 caddies. Caddie master Ron Romack says they liven things up.

“What they bring is great personality,” Romack said. “The membership gets a kick out of them. A lot of the members love to take one of the ‘gold hat’ girls.”

Romack and the members notice how shy the girls are when they first arrive, and how they evolve.

“Their people skills improve,” he said. “I can see it. We teach them to look their player in the eye, shake their hand and give ’em a smile.”

In her first year, Gutierrez didn’t dare read greens. Now, in her second season at Skokie, and with help from Romack, she has improved in that area, too.

“It’s the best feeling in the world when you give them the right read and they make it,” she said.

Gutierrez, who plays on the soccer team at St. Ignatius, aspires to a medical career as a doctor or orthodontist, she said. Clear-eyed, bright, personable and smart, she’s hardly someone you’d bet against.

“My older sister was in school to be a medical assistant,” she said. “She inspires me to stay focused, stay in school and not get sidetracked.”

This week, Gutierrez isn’t lugging a bag for any of the world’s top amateurs. Instead, she and her caddie compatriots are spotting balls, especially helpful with the high, sticky rough swallowing wayward shots.

Gutierrez has come a long way from not having known anything about golf. 

“I’ve caddied, and it’s hard work,” she said. “It just makes me feel proud of myself.”

Barry Cronin, a former golf writer with the Chicago Sun-Times, is media director for the John Deere Classic and head of Cronin Communications. He lives in Park Ridge, Ill. Email: bcronin@cronincommunications.com