IN CHICAGO DISTRICT GOLFER
Every year when April rolls around the world’s best golfers turn their attention to the Masters. That’s true for their caddies, too.
Scott Gneiser, a Chicago area resident for 22 years, should know. He’s in his 33rd year as a tour caddie and estimates that he’s worked 15 Masters.
“Everybody circles that on their calendar,’’ said Gneiser, who carried for 2001 PGA champion David Toms in most of his visits to Augusta. He’s also been a Masters bag-toter for Andy North and Bill Haas and had stints on the bag for such prominent players as Jeff Sluman, Brent Geiberger and Anthony Kim.
Oh yes, he’s also caddied for his son Billy in the Illinois State Amateur and Illinois Open. The Masters, though, still triggers a ton of memories.
“I started as a caddie in 1989 for a friend of mine from Michigan,’’ said Gneiser. “He didn’t make the tour the next year so I was going to go back to a resort (Sugar Loaf) where I had been working.’’
Then Andy North, a two-time U.S. Open champion, asked him to be his caddie for the 1990 season. Gneiser wasn’t so sure he wanted to do that until he saw North’s tournament schedule. It included the Masters.
“So, l said `I’m in,’’’ said Gneiser. “It was so exciting. Andy was winding down his career at that time, but he was such a great story-teller. Andy was pretty special.’’
First of the Masters memories was the Par-3 Contest, which was a bit different than it is now. Family members of the players are used instead of tour caddies now.
“Andy asked that I not walk over before we were to tee off,’’ said Gneiser. “He walked me behind Butler Cabin to those nine holes. It was a slice of heaven back there. When it was time to tee off it was so loud. Back then the tickets for practice rounds were unlimited, and they jammed people in there. They also had beer stands, which they’ve since taken away. It was a huge party with wall-to-wall people. You could hardly move back there during the Par-3 Contest.’’
The Par-3 was even more special when he carried for Toms, who wound up winning it, albeit reluctantly.
“He gets to the last hole 4- or 5-under par and his name is at the top of the leaderboard,’’ said Gneiser. “He asked me what he should do – hit it in the water? — because nobody has ever won the Par-3 Contest and gone on to win the tournament. David was playing pretty well at the time.’’
Gneiser convinced Toms to go for the win because he’d get his name on a board of champions and also pick up some crystal.
“David gets up there, quick-hits it and his ball rolls to four inches from the hole,’’ Gneiser recalled. The victory was assured, but those good shots didn’t carry over to that Masters tournament. Toms, though, had some good moments at Augusta, tying for sixth in 1998 and tying for eighth in 2003.
“My biggest bummer was that I was never in contention down to the end,’’ said Gneiser. “I had a bunch of top 10s but nothing like on Sundays with the big nerves going.’’
Haas did provide him a glimpse of what front-running was like at Augusta. Haas grabbed the first-round lead In Gneiser’s second tournament carrying his bag but didn’t stay in contention.
Gneiser’s arrival at the Masters came a few years after Augusta National’s membership allowed tour caddies to work the tournament. Only Augusta caddies were allowed before that.
“The old caddies weren’t happy that we were there, and you could feel for them,’’ said Gneiser. “We were frowned upon for being there, but one guy stood up for us – Herman Mitchell, Lee Trevino’s caddie.’’
The caddie atmosphere eventually improved, and there was a big upgrade when the old caddie hut was replaced by a modern one that offered food all day. Even some players and club members visited after that.
“I loved going to the Masters, but it was one of the toughest tournaments to work as far as clubbing your player goes,’’ said Gneiser. “If you missed by even two inches on those greens it could mean a bogey. It seemed like Augusta was a place you’d go to get fired. That’s how intense it was out there.’’
There was also the need for extra planning at Augusta. Usually the caddies rented houses and stayed together, but Gneiser shared a place with Toms on one occasion.
In the midst of those Masters experiences Gneiser met Jane Mikita, daughter of hockey great Stan Mikita. They were married in 2001 and have three sons, all of them into golf. Charlie plays at Carthage College in Wisconsin and Billy at DePaul. Tommy is finishing up high school. The family plays most of its golf at Cog Hill or Carriage Greens, which is near their Darien home.
Gneiser and Toms took a couple breaks — “He fired me once, and I fired him once’’ – but continued as a team for the last five years on PGA Tour Champions, the 50-and-over circuit. That’s meant a reduced workload, a good thing with Gneiser turning 57 this year.
“It’s a little easier there. You get carts for pro-ams and the tournaments are usually only three rounds,’’ he said. “The Champions season is also only 22-23 weeks, and on the regular tour it was 30 weeks plus.’’
Still, Gneiser wouldn’t rule out a return to Augusta.
“I’d have to get in pretty good shape to walk around that place,’’ he said. “But when you say Augusta and the Masters you get a different feel. The energy level is up. It’s a very hilly golf course, and it’s always a long week so you have to pace yourself. Still, I’d love to go back and do it again. You never know.’’