The caddies of Maroon Creek
September 18, 2006
ESPN’s “SportsCenter” blares from a TV mounted in one corner of the stuffy basement room. A bag of chips lies open on a stack of newspapers on the center table. Along one wall 18 diagrams show amoebalike putting greens covered in directional arrows. A bulletin board touting work-safety statistics is peppered with divot tools and golf ball markers that read “Banff Springs,” “Ocean Reef,” “Kiawah Island” and “Augusta National.” The place smells of stale coffee and ennui.
Welcome to the caddy shack.
Maroon Creek Club is one of Aspen’s premiere golf venues and the course is home to an eclectic group: professional traveling caddies.
Alternative lifestyles aren’t new to Aspen. Itinerant Aspenites come in every stripe, from reverse snowbirds who hop from one seasonal job to the next in a quest for year-round powder skiing, to globetrotting climbers and kayakers, adventure junkies and seasonal instructors of all kinds. Many Aspenites support themselves in pursuit of their passions with a sideline as a waiter, waitress, bartender, fishermen or fry cook.
In just the same way, Aspen’s caddies follow their own path. The guys (and one girl) at Maroon Creek are some of the best in the business. They work for Caddy Master Enterprises (CME), a company that manages caddy services at more than 40 courses, including some of the nation’s best. Augusta National in Georgia, home of the Masters, hires CME caddies.
Seasoned caddies with CME can travel the country, working from course to course, and many say that Aspen and the Maroon Creek Club is one of their favorite migratory stops. Caddies at the busy club number more than 40 during the summer high season.
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Most of Maroon Creek’s traveling caddies live in Aspen Skiing Co. employee housing in Snowmass Village for their short summer tenure. And most say the group has strong camaraderie, like a family.
Dave Bryan, a Florida caddy on his second season in Aspen, said, “We all live together. There’s lots of poker. Lots of bullshit. You know, we do the ‘guy thing.'”
Kyle Sheppard, a caddy from Florida who now lives full time in Aspen, said, “It’s like a little fraternity up here.”
Caddies at Maroon Creek work seven days a week for about four hours a day. They congregate in the basement break room and wait for clients each morning. There’s a lot of sports talk, friendly rivalries and the odd wager among the guys in the clubhouse.
One caddy said that “some of ’em would bet on the color of the next gum ball coming out of the machine.”
Byan said they watch “SportsCenter” almost constantly. “If you don’t like to watch ESPN,” he said, “you shouldn’t become a caddy.”
The caddies of Maroon Creek come from different parts of the country. Some are year-round professionals and guys hoping for a shot as pros; others are short-timers who just love the game and caddy for the short hours and good pay.
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Dave Byan has been a caddy since 2002.
“It’s a service industry,” he said. “There’s not much difference between ‘give me a cheeseburger’ and ‘give me a 9-iron.'”
He said he’s “single and free” and loves being a caddy. After three big hurricanes in Florida he heard that life in Aspen was special, and summers in the 70-degree range sounded better than Florida heat.
As a caddy, Byan said, he never works at night. He gets to meet interesting people and play some of the best golf courses in the country.
When the summer winds down in Aspen (and it’s nearing that time) he says he’ll go to Kiawah, S.C., for another assignment with CME.
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Brian Tam of Augusta, Ga., said it’s his first time west of the Mississippi.
“I love it,” Tam said. “Golf’s basically my life.”
Tam has worked in every aspect of the golf industry: from caddying to coaching and groundswork. And working at Maroon Creek is, to Tam, a “world of opportunity,” a place to meet people and learn his trade.
Tam hopes to “cross the pond” someday and caddy at the famed St. Andrews Course in Scotland. He’s working on his game and would like to play the Nationwide Tour, a step on the way to the pros.
All of the caddies at Maroon Creek have different hopes and dreams.
“I gotta buckle down and get a real job,” one caddy told me. One had studied forestry, another education. One was making plans to settle down, make a shift to another service industry.
“You can’t caddy forever,” said four-year veteran Kyle Sheppard, “even though I want to.”
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Life in the caddy clubhouse is pretty laid-back, but it’s all business out on the course.
Just outside the day room is a cart storage garage, where attendants get carts in tiptop shape to roll up the ramp to the course. Caddies walk up the dark ramp and into the sunlight to meet their clients. And when they cross that line, they put on a game face.
Get gear together. Greet clients. Go.
I followed a foursome for a short while and watched two of Maroon Creek’s best working as “fore caddies,” which means they stand in the fairway, spot the client’s tee shot. Caddies calculate distances to the green using a unique laser system that calculates yardage from the ball to the pin. Caddies point the pistol-like device at a sensor on the flag and can tell their clients the yardage. Based on the measurement, they make recommendations.
The guys more or less ran the length of the course, making suggestions when needed and otherwise staying clear of play and assisting wherever possible.
It is serious hustle.
Jason Sills is a Georgia native, and he’s been caddy master at Maroon Creek for a little more than a year.
“These are the kind of guys,” Sills said, “who can step on any golf course and make the client feel like they’ve been there for five or six years.”
Bruce Huynh, a veteran caddy of nine years, said, “You have to know what the client wants.”
Huynh moves between his home in Houston and other CME courses, including Maroon Creek. He’s caddied for former President Bush and Prince Andrew at River Oaks in Houston.
“You’ve got to have confidence,” he said. “We arrange and clean clubs ” see if something is missing. And ‘don’t lose the ball,'” he said emphatically.
Kyle Sheppard agrees. “We keep an eye on tee shots,” he said, “and make sure they don’t get lost in the high grass.”
Derrick Redd is a six-year veteran and trains CME caddies. He said it’s all about “creating excellence.” Being able to read your player’s needs is key, he said. And caddies are trained to answer client questions even before they’re asked.
To Redd, it’s the job of the caddy to stay out of the golfer’s way and position themselves well. Never in front or behind a golfer.
Because the Maroon Creek Club is private, caddies can form strong relationships with club members. At resorts, where most of the clients are vacationers paying big bucks to play for one day, Redd said it is important to create a memorable experience for players.
“I take pride in it,” he said. “I come to work every day with a smile on my face.”
Redd said he likes to caddy for scratch golfers and watch how experts play the game, but it’s even more gratifying to help a beginner or a guy with a high handicap get a good score.
“It’s nice to make someone smile,” said Kyle Sheppard said of working for high handicappers. “You give them a good read on a putt, and they get that birdie,” he said ” and that client will remember the experience forever.
It’s a challenge to win the player over, most caddies said. The first few holes are where the caddy gains the client’s confidence. A bad recommendation at the start can mean losing the client’s trust (and potential tips).
Sheppard said he likes that once out on the course he can be his own boss.
“You take charge of the group,” he said. “You’re out in the sunshine. Getting exercise. And getting paid pretty well to do it.” Caddies can expect about $100 per day ” more with big tips.
Ramsay Gillman is a part-time Aspen resident from Houston and a partner in the Maroon Creek Club. He said that it’s a shame that most courses in the U.S. don’t have caddies anymore.
“It’s a great program here,” Gillman said of CME and Maroon Creek’s professional caddies. “Having caddies makes the game more enjoyable.”
Aspen resident Charles Israel played along with Gillman and said of the caddies, “I love ’em. They speed up the game. They tell you where the ball is and how far to the green. They rake traps. They read greens. They’ve had a lot of experience, and they’re very courteous.”
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Caddies also love to tell stories of ridiculous clients. One said it always makes him wonder why a golfer will go to the trouble of taking off a shoe and sock to make a difficult shot from the water on the last tee, after playing a terrible round all day.
Another told of a tourist who filled his pockets with sand from an Augusta sand trap.
But all of Maroon Creek’s caddies say they enjoy working with their clients.
And while golfers at courses like Maroon Creek have deep pockets, Dave Byan said “They’re just like me and you. They’re normal people.”
The guys tell stories of big spenders and whopping tips, but most of Maroon Creek’s caddies say they’re really in it for the love of the sport.
“If you don’t have a passion for the game,” Derrick said, “it’s not for you.” Caddies don’t “make a million bucks,” he said, but if they work hard they can travel and live and work in great places.
Ford Davis said that it’s the freedom of it that has kept him on the course for more than eight years. He said, “You gotta love what you do.”
Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.