Undercover Tour Pro: Economics 101 for hiring club caddies

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Every week on the PGA Tour there’s a discrepancy over money. Somebody hasn’t been paid what they think they’re owed. Multiple times I’ve had caddies who worked for me previously call to say their new boss hasn’t paid them in a while, and might I nudge that player? Caddies are a desperate lot. Too often they’re so happy to get a bag that they start without a clear agreement. Given the stakes, it’s the obligation of the player to spell it out. It’s an eight-second conversation to say, “$1,500 for the week, 5 percent of a made cut, 7 percent of a top 10, 10 percent for a win, you’ll get a check at the end of the week”—which, by the way, is the most common deal out here. And I’ve never heard of a caddie walking away because an offer was too low. The pro holds all the power to do the right thing. Or not.

I was floored when I heard about Matt Kuchar paying the local caddie five grand after he won $1.29 million in Mexico. I’ve been out to dinner with Matt and know him as a witty, stand-up guy. I’m not going to skewer him further, because the media already has (rightly, prompting Kuchar to up the pay to $50,000), but I will add how little sense it made from a tax perspective. Kooch could’ve given the caddie $129,000 and written it off as a business expense. Instead of changing the lives of that man’s family, a much bigger chunk will go to the government.

There’s wiggle room in the weekly rate if it’s a Web.com event or I have a local caddie who hasn’t incurred travel expenses—but I believe those percentages are sacrosanct. A human being has thrown his hat in the ring alongside mine. He’s passed up other opportunities. Although caddieing isn’t rocket science, I’m trusting this person to potentially influence a situation that could alter my career. The least I can do is let him be part of the action. Buddies included. If I’m going to a “vacation” destination like Phoenix or Puerto Rico, often I’ll invite a friend to loop. I’m not paying a weekly rate, but I’ll cover the airfare, hotel, food and bar tabs. If I make a paycheck, he’s getting the same percentage I’d give a full-time caddie. My bud took a week off work to hang with me.

In my career I’ve used a lot of local caddies. Most pros do it only if they’re in a pinch, but if it’s an unfamiliar course, I’d rather have a guy who’s seen every putt a thousand times. Last year when the Byron Nelson moved to Trinity Forest, I called ahead to reserve a local, and it worked out great. I think the guy saved me two shots, which was worth a lot of money for me (and him) that week. Obviously, the risk is getting saddled with a goofy personality for five days. But if you enjoy meeting new people, it’s fun and economical. I know one pro who committed to that for a season and employed 22 caddies in 22 tournaments. I think he paid a base of $600 per week, and so he saved almost 20 grand. Pre-tax, that is.

A club caddie needs to be reminded of only two things: On tour, bunkers need to be raked flawlessly, and the caddie of the last player putting out replaces the flagstick. If a guy can get those two things right, I can do the rest.

Another element not to be discounted is the power of contagious energy. There are caddie/player duos on the PGA Tour who hate one another, but they stick together because it seems to work professionally. But when a club caddie is issued the bib with your name on it, you’ll always see a smile from ear to ear. They’re pumped, which gets me pumped to play well.

You can bet Kuchar’s Mexican caddie was a bundle of spirit. Not only because he was excited to be in the arena of the PGA Tour, but because he thought he was part of the team.

— With Max Adler

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