From Harlem To Plush Courses, To Lug On The Links

By Corey Kilgannon
Updated: June 8, 2007

Clinton Clifton, 73 yet still known as Sonny, caddied for Miller Barber on the Senior P.G.A. Tour in the 1980s.

Photo Credit Suzanne De Chillo

Clinton Clifton, 73 yet still known as Sonny, caddied for Miller Barber on the Senior P.G.A. Tour in the 1980s. Photo Credit Suzanne De Chillo

NEW YORK — Erving McLean reclined on his stoop on West 130th Street near Lenox Avenue, a can of Ballantine Ale in his hand and $160 in his pocket from a day’s work carrying golf clubs at the Blind Brook Club in Rye Brook, N.Y

Mr. McLean started caddying at age 12, in North Carolina, and spent many years on the road working for some of golf’s biggest names, like Sam Snead and Julius Boros. Now 68, he and two of his former colleagues from the pro tour live in Harlem because of its easy access to a wide array of suburban country clubs.

The three caddies, whose decades on golf courses show in their weathered faces, strong hands and good eyes, spend days walking verdant fairways, watching the well-heeled at leisure. Evenings are passed on stoops and streets near the Apollo Theatre and Sylvia’s soul food restaurant.

“We call this the Harlem Caddyshack,” Mr. McLean said, noting that dozens of other caddies also live in the neighborhood because of its affordability and convenience.

For some, the idea of a caddie may conjure the young gang from the 1980 movie “Caddyshack” starring Bill Murray, or clean-cut kids collecting pocket change for college. But the mainstay of most caddyshacks is a first-string lineup of veterans like these three, who have worked at little else since childhood. Beyond a strong back, these men offer intimate knowledge of the game and the courses.

The work is seasonal and offers no benefits, job security or pension. An 18-hole round typically lasts three to five hours and pays $100 to $200 for carrying a pair of 40-pound golf bags, depending on the club — and the tipper. Payday comes every afternoon on the final green, in cash, and is often spent promptly.

“My best year was 1984 when I won $84,000 in prize money,” Mr. McLean said. “But the money always went quick because I never knew how to handle it. I supported five kids and I bought garter belts for plenty of women.”

Mr. McLean said that he has diabetes, high blood pressure and has experienced fainting spells. “Soon as I can start getting a disability check,” he said, “I’m retiring.”

Some caddies migrate south with the birds to work through the winter. Mr. McLean and his buddies — Sam McCray, who still has his white jumpsuit and green cap from his days caddying at Augusta National Golf Club, home of the Masters, and Clinton Clifton, 73 yet still known as Sonny — survive locally off savings, odd jobs and public assistance.

They carpool or take the Metro-North train and public buses to Blind Brook and half a dozen other lush courses in Westchester County, Long Island or New Jersey, joining thousands of caddies who work at the more than 200 private clubs within a 75-mile radius of Manhattan.

You can find them among the older set lounging at picnic tables as they await a foursome, playing cards or trading stories of their glory days caddying for famous professionals.

Mr. McCray, 65, said that he was a regular caddie for Tom Weiskopf, a 15-time winner on the PGA Tour and the 1973 British Open champion, and was there the day Mr. Weiskopf scored a 13 on the 12th hole during the 1980 Masters. That matched the highest score ever on a single hole in the vaunted competition.

In addition to Mr. Boros, a longtime successful pro who died at age 74 in 1984 after having a heart attack on a Florida golf course, Mr. McLean caddied for Charles Coody and George Archer, helping his players to numerous tournament victories.

Mr. Clifton worked for Miller Barber during the years that Barber dominated the Senior PGA Tour in the 1980s, and before that for Don January, who hit his long irons with such precision that he could tell if Mr. Clifton miscalculated the yardage on a shot by even a yard or two.

“We were around such great golf on the pro tour,” Mr. Clifton recalled. “There was a lot of fighting and drinking and making money and just trying to win tournaments.”

In a phone interview, Mr. January, who also hired Mr. McLean as a caddie — recalled when Mr. Clifton was knifed by another caddie — in a fight at a craps table — during a tournament in 1980 at the Desert Inn Hotel in Las Vegas.

“I was leading the tournament, but after Sonny went into the hospital, I had to get a replacement,” he recalled. “I wound up losing without Sonny. Whether that was the reason, I don’t know.”

Mr. January, 77, said that he paid his caddies a salary and expenses, as well as 10 percent of his winnings. He said he fired both Mr. McLean and Mr. Clifton, not because they failed him, but simply because “nothing lasts forever.”

“In golf,” Mr. January said, “you sometimes just need a fresh deck.”

After many rigorous years on the road, the three caddies settled in Harlem in the late 80’s. Mr. McCray lives in a cluttered $500-a-month apartment on 129th Street.

Mr. McLean and Mr. Clifton are neighbors on the third floor of a run-down building on 130th Street and Lenox Avenue, where many of the apartments are vacant and padlocked.

Mr. McLean said he has a three-bedroom apartment, rent-controlled at $357 a month, but that he stopped paying last year because the landlord was trying to evict him.

The three men say they have earned plenty of money over the years, by caddie standards, but have little to show for it. So they continue to wake up early and spend days carrying clubs in the sun, as long as their back and legs will hold out.

Mr. McCray, whose hips and knees have undergone replacement operations, hobbles his way around the course. He is savvy, getting word from courses’ caddie supervisors when they need extras to work at large tournaments, then shuttling caddies to the clubs in his red minivan for a few bucks. (He also buys cigarettes by the carton and resells them, by the pack, around the neighborhood.)

“These guys are no fools,” said Charlie Byrne, who runs the caddyshack at the Blind Brook club, a favorite workplace for the three Harlem caddies. “They find out where the work is each day and they show up.”

Blind Brook asks members to pay $60 per bag if a caddie is carrying two bags. If four players take a riding cart, the bags go on the cart and the caddie only carries the putters, $40 for each of the four putters. Then there are the all-important tips, which tend to be higher for the walkers.

Mr. McCray recalled the old days, on the pro tour, when “all you had was black caddies.” Now, he said, “with the big prize money, the caddies on tour are almost all white.”

Mr. McCray added: “But us guys still got to make money. That’s why you see so many older black caddies still carrying golf bags at the clubs. Most of us never saved a nickel and we have no pensions, so we just keep working.”

All three profess a love for the game though they rarely take advantage of evening or off-day access to the courses to play themselves anymore because of aging bodies and lack of energy after carrying clubs all day.

They take pride in being requested by serious golfers who value their expertise and, like longtime dance partners, their knowledge of the subtle nuances of their styles.

Caddie supervisors often rely on older caddies to impart to the younger ones the fine points of the trade: reading the speed and break of the greens, assessing yardage, protocol with players, tracking balls and dispensing advice — or, sometimes, just keeping quiet.

The three men said a good caddie never loses the drive to help a golfer find the fairway, hit the green and sink the putt. There is an addiction of sorts to waking each day and getting out in the open air — not to mention the cold beer and camaraderie in the caddie yard and coming home, drained, with a wad of $20 bills.

Mr. McCray speaks with reverence about the game of golf and about the great players he once worked alongside, offering detailed recollections of crucial holes, shots and putts and an unflinching critique of his players’ skills, strategy and competitiveness.

“You got to love golf to be a good caddie,” he said after a recent round with a foursome of 30-something bankers at North Hempstead Country Club on Long Island. ‘That’s at the heart of it.”

Joe Davis, 72, a member of Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., since 1975, said he has known Mr. Clifton for more than 20 years and that caddies and golfers, while on different rungs of the country club status ladder, often form strong friendships as they age together.

“Some of these guys are the same age as me, but they can’t retire,” said Mr. Davis, who retired from a job on Wall Street in 2001.

“It’s a matter of opportunity,” he said, watching Mr. McCray, in his white Masters jumpsuit, caddying for another foursome. “I was born 6-foot-4 and white, and he was born 6-foot-4 and black. That’s the only difference.”