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Youth caddies face uphill climb amid coronavirus

Evans scholars Donavan Bird of Elgin Illinois and Jaclyn Prucha of Chicago
Evans Scholars Donavan Bird (left) of Elgin, Ill., and Jaclyn Prucha of Chicago head out on a loop.

The Western Golf Association, which oversees the revered Evans Scholars program, prepares safety measures for caddies and golfers. The old caddie creed might need an update, too. Loopers will have to ‘show up, keep up, shut up … and stay socially distant’

Golf is back to being played in all 50 states again. That’s a good thing. Progress in the battle against the coronavirus pandemic, it would seem, is being made.

However, there’s one segment of the golf industry that hasn’t benefitted yet. Caddies – particularly the youth corps – have been included in the restrictions that various governing bodies have insisted upon before allowing courses nationwide to reopen.

That is a concern to the Western Golf Association, which has been granting college scholarships to deserving bag-toters since 1930, when lifelong amateur legend Chick Evans declared caddies to be “the lifeblood of the game.” Now the overwhelming number of caddies are deemed to be non-essential workers. The fewer people on a course, the better, or so the thinking goes in limited the potential to spread COVID-19.

Golfers can walk and carry their own bags, as we saw at the recent match with PGA Tour stars Rory McIlroy and Dustin Johnson against Rickie Fowler and Matthew Wolff. They don’t need a caddie, who might be a hindrance to social-distancing guidelines. It’s Tim Orbon’s job to make sure that the WGA's young caddies, foremost among the nearly 800 caddie programs throughout the U.S. and Canada, aren’t forgotten – and he doesn’t think they will be.

“Things are changing rapidly, and in a good way,’’ said Orbon, who is director of caddie development for the Chicago-based WGA. “People want to play golf again, and caddying isn’t far off. We couldn’t be more excited.’’

The caddies who are working now are mostly adults. Students who have carried bags during their breaks from high school and college in past years have been idled as the pandemic shut down those part-time golf jobs. Orbon expects caddie programs to return, but he concedes that they will be different.

“Not seeing kids caddying is OK for now,’’ he said. “Until Memorial Day, kids are supposed to be in school. For now, it’s somewhat of a waiting game. Experts will tell us when the time is appropriate, when caddying is safe and permissible. Right now, we’re in a little pause, a hiccup. That’s OK, but it’s not ideal. We’ve taken this time to do our homework.’’

It’s been extensive. The WGA conducts six tournaments a year, highlighted by the BMW Championship, part of the PGA Tour’s FedEx Cup playoffs, to raise awareness and money for its Evans Scholars Foundation. (The WGA recently canceled its Western Junior and Women’s Western Junior, citing complications from the coronavirus pandemic. The BMW, Korn Ferry Tour’s Evans Scholars Invitational, Western Amateur and Women’s Western Amateur were set to be played.) Not every caddie is a candidate for a coveted Evans Scholarship, but caddying has introduced thousands of youngsters to golf in addition to providing a healthy, educational learning opportunity.

In 2020, a record 1,010 students were enrolled at 18 universities on Evans Scholarships. The grants provide full housing and tuition for four years. Since the program started 90 years ago, 11,050 Evans Scholars have graduated from college. For funding, $25 million comes from contributions by Par Club members, who typically are members at participating clubs and donate as part of their memberships. Evans Scholars alumni donate $14 million annually, and the BMW Championship adds another $4.4 million.

“We work with clubs in 27 states and Canada,’’ Orbon said. “All the clubs are a little different, but a lot want to keep caddies employed.’’

The Evans Scholars Foundation is not the only organization that supports caddies. The Francis Ouimet Scholarship Fund in Boston and the J. Wood Platt Caddie Scholarship Trust in Philadelphia also help meet loopers’ education goals, but their funding levels are more modest than those of the WGA.

John Kaczkowski, the WGA’s president and chief executive officer, recognizes that raising money in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic and double-digit unemployment nationwide will present a challenge to the organization.

“No matter how this crisis unfolds, we recognize that the need for financial assistance is greater than ever, and we remain committed to funding the scholarships,” Kaczkowski said. “While we do not yet know what the end of the year will bring from a fundraising perspective, our donors have always been extremely generous, even more so in times of great need. We hope and expect this will be the case during this crisis, as well.”

The WGA’s Orbon has developed a game plan for course owners and managers to help adjust to social-distancing guidelines. Here are some of the things that are, or will be, changing when caddie programs return:

Caddies will be scheduled in four-hour shifts. Caddies won’t be allowed to congregate around the clubs before and after their loops. They may receive payment for their work in sealed envelopes or electronically through a system such as PayPal. It won’t be through a cash transaction. They’ll be required to wear appropriate protective gear, including a mask and any other safeguards as required by the club, and carry hand sanitizers.

Caddie duties on the course will change. Each will carry rakes and divot-repair mix. Caddies will locate golf balls, give yardages and can help read greens, but they won’t touch clubs. The players will pull the club from the bag. There’ll be no handshaking or any other non-verbal contact with golfers.

The WGA also is proposing a hole-specific caddie plan, which some clubs might find more desirable than the standard procedures of the past. One to four caddies will be assigned per hole. They’ll be stationed on greens and tee boxes and be available at positions next to the fairways to help locate balls.

Under this hole-specific plan, caddies will repair divots but never touch the flagstick. They can wash golf balls, but then must toss them back to the players rather than have a hand-to-hand exchange. The caddies will greet each golfer as he plays through but won’t be with any one player throughout his round.

In anticipation of parental concerns about caddie procedures, Dr. Kevin Most, a family-medicine physician in Chicago who is a former caddie and long-time WGA supporter, has advised clubs on health precautions. Orbon anticipates “some attrition’’ in the caddie ranks due to the changes mandated by pandemic concerns.

“We think kids will want to come out,” Orbon said, “but parents will ask questions.”

Orbon and his wife, Gaelen, were Evans Scholars – Tim at Northern Illinois and Gaelen at Marquette. Orbon, in his eighth year with the WGA, also worked as a club professional for 11 years. During the current lull, he has led WGA efforts to beef up online caddie training and created a caddie manual, a practice exam and a caddie playbook that includes short videos. All will help clubs and caddies adjust to the changing times.

“This is a challenging time in golf work,’’ Orbon said, “but new caddie programs are starting in Kentucky, the Kansas City area, Iowa and even down in Florida. We want to grow the game.’’

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