WGA keeps in touch with these changing times for caddies

Youth caddies are facing an uphill climb during the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Just ask members of the Western Golf Association. They campaigned relentlessly to make sure caddies were not forgotten as golf courses were in various phases of re-opening.

Happily, progress is being made. Golf is back to being played in all 50 states and, as of June 1, caddies were a factor in Illinois again. Illinois government restrictions on golf course operations were loosened, allowing for the use of forecaddies. At least that was a start.

“There’s no touch points yet,’’ said Tim Orbon, director of the WGA’s Carry The Game and Caddie Development programs. “We anticipated forecaddies would be first, and that still provides a reasonable amount of opportunity. The only major adjustment is that they are staying away from clubs for now.’’

Once Phase 3 went into effect 75 Chicago area golf facilities were able to put several thousand caddies back on their courses, albeit just one forecaddie per group of players.

“Virtually all the clubs with caddie programs in the Chicagoland area got up and running, and that was great,’’ said Orbon. “Kids were just finishing school so the timing was great. We were excited.’’

Orbon isn’t sure when experienced caddies will be back carrying bags or when new caddies will be integrated into the programs at the various clubs, but one thing is certain. A caddie’s job will be much different than it was before the pandemic.

The WGA has been awarding college scholarships to deserving bag-toters since 1930, when life-long amateur legend Chick Evans declared caddies to be “the life-blood of the game.’’ The Evans Scholars program continues to flourish, as applications for the next batch of scholarship winners opens on Aug. 1.

The overwhelming number of caddies this year, though, were deemed non-essential workers once the pandemic restrictions were announced. It became Orbon’s job to help the nearly 800 caddie programs throughout the U.S. and Canada adjust to that thinking, and he had to be patient about it.

“Until Memorial Day kids were supposed to be in school, so it became somewhat of a waiting game,’’ he said. “We had to wait for experts to tell us when the time was appropriate, when caddying was safe and permissible. We took that time to do our homework.’’

The WGA works with clubs in 27 states and Canada. “All the clubs are a little different,’’ said Orbon, “but a lot wanted to keep caddies employed.’’

To do it while adhering to social distancing guidelines required adjustments, and Orbon had a game plan that was presented to course owners and managers. It proposed that caddies be scheduled in four-hour shifts. They wouldn’t be allowed to congregate around the clubs before or after their loops.

They may receive payment for their work in sealed envelopes or electronically through a system like PayPal rather than a cash transaction. They would wear appropriate protective gear, including a mask and any other safeguards as required by the club, and carry hand sanitizers.

A caddie’s duties on the course would change, too. Each would carry rakes and divot repair mix. They’d locate golf balls, give yardages and help read greens but they wouldn’t touch clubs. The players would pull them from the bag. There would be no hand shaking or any other non-verbal contact with golfers.

The WGA also proposed a hole-specific caddie plan, which some clubs may find more desirable than the standard procedures of the past. One to four caddies would be assigned per hole. They’ll be stationed on greens and tee boxes and be available at positions beside the fairways to help in locating balls.

Under this hole-specific plan caddies will repair divots but never touch the flagstick. They can wash golf balls, but then must throw them back to the player 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.

Those are the changes proposed by the WGA, but each club will offer its own input.

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

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

Both 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 period he has led WGA efforts to beef up on-line 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,’’ said Orbon, “but new caddie programs are starting in Kentucky, the Kansas City area, Iowa and even down in Florida. We want to grow the game.’’