Youth caddies face an uphill climb amid coronavirus

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

Unfortunately there’s one segment of the golf industry that hasn’t benefitted yet. Caddies – particularly the youth variety – have been included in the restrictions that various governing bodies have insisted upon before allowing courses nation-wide to re-open.

That is a concern to the Western Golf Association, which has been giving 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.’’ Now the overwhelming number of caddies are deemed non-essential workers. The fewer the number of people on a course the better, or so the thinking goes.

Golfers can walk and carry their own bags. 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 young caddies who dominate the nearly 800 caddies 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 largely the adult variety. Those who have carried bags during their breaks from high school and college studies in past years are left in the lurch as far as part-time employment goes. While Orbon expects caddie programs to return, he admits 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 puts on 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. 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.

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

To do it while adhering to social distancing guidelines requires adjustments, and Orbon has a game plan that is being presented to course owners and managers. Here’s some of the things that are, or will, be changing when caddie programs return.

Caddies will be scheduled in four-hour shifts. They 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 like PayPal. It won’t be through a cash transaction. They’ll wear appropriate protective gear, including a mask and any other safeguards as required by the club, and carry hand sanitizers.

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

The WGA is also proposing a hole-specific caddie plan, which some clubs may 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 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.

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.’’