My Introduction to the PGA Tour: Caddying and Playing in the San Diego Open
I suspect most golf fans can remember when they were first introduced to the PGA tour, likely as a viewer on TV or spectator at a PGA-sponsored tournament. Though I became a devoted fan of watching and attending tournaments, my introduction was as a participant, first as a caddy, then later as an amateur playing in the San Diego Open. While these experiences did not go exactly as I had hoped, they provide unforgettable memories. I can laugh about them now, but back in my youth they didn’t seem so funny. Let me share my story.
My first exposure to the tour was as a caddy when I was 11-years old. The PGA used to have a regular stop in Tijuana, Mexico—the Caliente Open– which was played on the Caliente Golf Course. San Diego Junior Golf Association members were notified that caddies were needed for the event. I have no idea why they wanted American caddies, let alone young junior golfers, instead of Mexicans who undoubtedly were more skilled and available, but I didn’t question the motives. I jumped at the chance.
I had never been to a PGA event, let alone caddied, but undaunted I joined two junior golf neighbors, Mike Riley (Chris’ dad) and
Freddie Marsh, also caddy novices, and set out for the Caliente CC.
In those days it was rare for a PGA tour pro to travel with their own caddy. Normally, when arriving at the course they went to the local caddy master to procure a caddy. Better players, or the ones that gave the best tip to the caddy master, usually got the most experienced caddies. Those who weren’t well known or arrived late, would get, well, a novice like me.
I was fortunate, though, to be given a name player, George Bayer, reputed to be the longest hitter on the tour. A former college and professional football player, Bayer was 6’5” 230 pounds and had a reputation as a hot head. When he squinted, his faced took on a pucker, like people sometimes get when they smell something foul. Long hitter, hot head, pucker; I sensed I might be over my head.
Bayer told me on the first tee that all he expected me do was carry the bag and get my share of pins. He didn’t need to be clubbed (told what club to use), or have his putts read. Sounded easy enough to me.
The first hole went smoothly, as he made an easy par. The second, however, was my undoing. Bayer came up just short of the green on the par-4 second hole, but he was close enough to putt. In those days a two-stroke penalty was assessed if you hit the pin from less than 60 feet. So, Big George asked me to hold the pin. Caddies are supposed to remove the pin when the ball is on its way. I knew this and was fully prepared to do so, but when his ball approached the hole, looking like it was sure to go in, I jerked up the pin and the cup came up with it. The pin had been too tightly lodged in the bottom of the cup. Horrors! Sure enough, Bayer’s dead-on putt hit the raised cup, resulting not in a birdie, but with a two-stroke penalty for hitting what was determined to be part of the flag– a bogey! I saw that puckered face turn bright red and knew I was in for trouble.
Alas, it came on the next tee where Bayer asked the crowd surrounding the tee if anyone had caddy experience. Someone raised a hand, and my fledging caddy career was over. In humiliation, I shuffled away avoiding eye contact with the sneering crowd. What would my friends say?
I sauntered over to the clubhouse to wait for Riley and Marsh to finish their rounds. I didn’t have to wait too long, as I saw my friend Freddie walking toward the clubhouse with his head down. “Freddie, why are you here so early, your guy can’t be finished.”
Sadly, Freddie had also been fired, only his transgression was far worse than mine, and harder to believe. Freddie’s pro (I can’t remember who it was), asked him on the first tee to pick up all the divots. That’s what golfers are expected to do, unless they’re pros, when the caddy does it. Of course we learned to replace divots, not just pick them up. Anyway, Freddie, who was 13 at the time, did what he was told: he literally picked up the divots and put them in the big side pocket of the pro’s golf bag. On the 8th hole, his pro hit a ball out-of-bounds. He reached into the bag for another ball and pulled out handfuls of grass and dirt—the divots! Freddie’s protest about being told to pick up the divots didn’t fly, and he, too, was terminated as a caddy.
Riley made it through his full 18 holes and we all headed home with stories that at the time didn’t appear so funny, though I must admit, Freddie’s transgression made me feel better about mine. I recall pro Mike Souchak, another former football player, won the tournament. We’ll meet him later in this story.
I would recover from the trauma of being fired and go on to caddy in the San Diego Open, which in those days was held at the Mission Valley Country Club, my home course, five times from ages 12 through 16. I usually drew a journeyman pro who would struggle to make the cut, though one year I did caddy for Skee Riegel, who had won the U.S. Amateur and finished second to Hogan in the 1951 U.S. Open. I recall his wife, who was a constant presence throughout the tournament, paid me when it was over. I recall making about $80.
One year, I believe it was 1959, I was standing near the caddy shack waiting for a loop, when Jack Burke Jr. came up and asked for a caddy. I recognized his handsome face immediately. He was the PGA Tour player-of-the-year in 1956, after having won the Masters and PGA Championships. I hoped to be chosen, given that I had worked out my caddying bugs and knew the course well, but, alas, Burke chose someone else. Maybe he’d heard about the pin incident at Caliente.
Meanwhile I was getting pretty good at golf. As winner of the 1962 San Diego Evening Tribune golf tournament, the top junior golf tournament in the San Diego region, beating Riley, who had just returned from winning the National Junior Golf Championship, I received an exemption into the 1963 San Diego Open. My caddy days over, I would now play with the pros.
After having caddied in the event for five years, I suppose I should have known player rules and protocols, or at least made sure I knew what to expect as a player. Unfortunately, I didn’t do my homework.
I asked a fellow junior golfer to caddy for me, which would save a good deal of money. We arrived at the course with shag bag in hand more than two hours before my tee off time. In those days, most host courses did not provide driving range balls for the players to warm up. Pros were expected to bring a shag bag full of their own balls. Their caddies would be deployed in the driving range area as targets. Players would hit toward the caddies and the caddies would pick up the balls.
No problem, right? At least not as long as players accurately hit the balls close to their caddies. Otherwise chaos would reign with caddies running every which way. With dozens of people watching, and seasoned pros next to me hitting precise shots, I felt my nerves tighten. Well, my poor caddy was in for it. My arm signals as to the direction of the balls I hit didn’t help very much, and concerned for my caddy’s safety, I shortened my warm-up. He happily sprinted in from the range with a shag bag about half its original size.
It was off to the putting green for some practice. I putted for about a half hour, trying to stay out to the way of pros I recognized when a local golf writer approached. “Do you know you look like Mike Souchak,” he said to me. “How about a picture of the two of you together?”
I looked over and saw Souchak putting a few feet away. He gave me a strange, disapproving look and said: “Do you know players can’t wear shorts in PGA Tour events?” I was immediately gripped with panic. No shorts? I had worn shorts—with knee length socks, as was the custom in those days– virtually every day since I began playing golf at age nine. Here I was 20-minutes before my tee time wearing prohibited shorts.
I rushed into the locker room to ask the locker caretaker, a Porterhouse look-alike who was waxing a pair of a pro’s shoes, if there was a spare pair of pants around. He scrounged up a pair of Kelly green slacks that were 38 inches at the waist and 28 inches long. They must have belonged to Stubby Kay. Since I had a 32” waist and wore pants 30” long, this was a problem. With little time left, I had little choice. I cut off a piece of rope, slipped it through the belt loops of the Stubby Kay pants, tied it in a knot, and hot-footed it to the first tee, just in time to hear the announcer say, “Ronald Fox, last call.”
Here I was playing in my first, and as it turned out my last, PGA Tour event, with 38”-28” green golf pants, cinched with a rope, flapping in the wind. Not exactly a fashion statement.
The first tee was packed with people, who had gathered because the next to tee off included the young golfing phenom, Jack Nicklaus, who had turned pro the year before. With more than a hundred people watching, the clownish amateur stepped up to the tee. I wish I could have cut a Bill Murray moment from my predicament, but I was embarrassed and scared stiff. The pull hook I hit off the tee didn’t help matters.
A true rags-to-riches story would have had me winning, or, like Tin Cup, at least having a chance at the end. It wasn’t to be. I recall playing pretty well, but putting bloody awful, including missing a two-foot putt on the 18th hole in the second round—in front of a packed audience in the grandstand behind the green. The groans were deafening. I just knew people were thinking: isn’t that the guy with the rope belt?
I did play all four rounds in the tournament and finished next to last, beating another amateur, the SD Senior Open champion, who was near 60.
It’s safe to say my introduction to the PGA Tour didn’t go smoothly. I can laugh about it now, but back then it was embarrassing. After my San Diego Open experience, I continued playing competitive golf, in college and in amateur events, always wearing shorts. Eventually my interest and my game receded into middle-age mediocrity. I remained known as Mike Souchak, Jr. for some years, then that too faded. I just couldn’t sustain the game and the look to justify the nickname. I don’t think Mr. Souchak minded.