Column: Let’s not forget the Willie McRaes of golf
PINEHURST, North Carolina (AP) — His name is pinned to his cap. There are more embroidered on the back of his caddie coveralls.
Sarazen, Hagen, Palmer and Crenshaw.
Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon and Ford.
That’s just a small sampling of those who’ve been fortunate enough to have Willie McRae on their bag.
None of them got special treatment from this American treasure.
Because everybody does.
“Who’s the best guy I ever caddied for?” McRae asks. “Everybody. Everybody is somebody, regardless of what they’ve done or what they’re going to do.
“I have a saying,” he goes on. “I don’t like nobody, but I love everybody.”
Time to return some of that love at the U.S. Open.
For those who don’t know McRae and other African-American caddies, they were, quite simply, the backbone of a game that long treated them as second-class citizens but never stole their love for the sport.
McRae started caddying at Pinehurst when he was 10 years old. He’s still at it today, 71 years later, the only concession to his advancing years being that he’s allowed to take a cart onto the course to haul the bags.
He sees no reason to quit looping.
“I love the game and I love people,” he says.
McRae caddied at the last U.S. Open held at Pinehurst No. 2 in 2005, but not being able to walk 18 holes with a 40-pound bag on his back kept him from taking part this time around.
But he knows this place better than anyone. Just ask Justin Rose. The defending Open champion was able to go out with McRae for a practice round before the crowds converged on the sandhills of North Carolina.
“He was part of the Pinehurst experience for me,” Rose says. “His knowledge on the golf course is unbelievable. Any time you are within 6 or 8 feet of the cup, most guys can read putts, most caddies can read putts. But where Willie was amazing was if I was short of the green and I was playing to a pin that was 30 feet on, he would say, ‘OK, land this 2 yards right of the hole. It’s going to go left, right, then left again.’”
McRae was a pretty good player in his own right — good enough, he is convinced, to have played on the PGA Tour if given a fair shot. He remembers playing at desegregated courses while serving in the Army, “shooting 62 or 63, taking money off all those colonels.”
He never got a chance to show what he could really do.
It wasn’t until 1961 — 14 years after Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers — that Charlie Sifford became the first African-American to receive his PGA Tour card. By then, McRae was approaching his 30th birthday. Frankly, the thought of playing professionally never really crossed his mind. Growing up in the segregated South, he knew his lot in life: carry the bags of white golfers without complaint.
“If someone said something nasty to me, I let it go in one ear and out the other and keep right on going,” he says, chuckling a bit. “Yeah, I was curious, not knowing what I could’ve done in life. Other than that, I hold no grudges against nobody.”
Even in the face of discrimination, McRae managed to carve out quite a life for himself, filled with the love of a big family and enough memories to fill a book, which he titled “On The Bag.” He was signing copies of it in the merchandise tent Friday — his face weathered, his hands gnarled, his laugh warm and infectious.
Seriously, how many of us can say we’ve spent a day on the golf course with not just one American president, but four?
McRae rates Richard Nixon as the best player in his executive foursome, apparently more adept at handling a 4-iron than he was at keeping secrets. They were all enjoyable to be around, whether it was Nixon or Harry Truman or Dwight Eisenhower or Gerald Ford.
“I mean, you’re caddying for somebody who is the head of the United States,” McRae remembers. “There ain’t but one man ahead of him, and that’s God.”
He speaks fondly of pro golfers such as Gary Player and Arnold Palmer, saying they always treated him with kindness and respect. In fact, McRae has nice words for pretty much everyone — with one notable exception.
“The only person I really didn’t like was Sam Snead,” McRae says. “He was one of the nastiest guys that ever played golf.”
McRae still has vivid memories of a tournament at Pinehurst in the late 1940s, when he was on the bag for Tommy Bolt and they were playing in a group with Snead. Leading by three shots, Bolt got into it with Snead as they were coming up to the 11th hole. When they reached the green, Bolt made a stunning call.
“I don’t know what Sam Snead said to him,” McRae says. “But Bolt told him, ‘You ain’t nothing but a rotten S.O.B. I’m not playing with you anymore.’ He looked at me and told me to pick the ball up.”
These days, there’s more than one McRae at Pinehurst. Willie’s son, Paul, is the lead instructor. Grandson Darick is a caddie, too.
“It’s pretty special for me, walking down the hallway at Pinehurst and seeing my dad’s picture on the wall,” Paul McRae says. “They’ve got all the greats up there: Hogan, Nicklaus, Palmer. And there’s my dad.”
On Sunday evening, when the latest U.S. Open champion is crowned, McRae should be there to help present the trophy.
And in the not-too-distant future, that champion should make time to play another round at Pinehurst, this time with McRae on the bag.
That would be the real prize.
Paul Newberry is a national writer for The Associated Press. Write to him at email@example.com or at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963