Tour and News

'An American Caddie in St. Andrews' author shares secrets of the Old Course

Photo: Gotham Books

Oliver Horovitz, author of the new coming-of-age memoir 'An American Caddie in St. Andrews,' has been caddying for the past seven summers on the Old Course.

Beginning on the morning of his high school graduation, Oliver Horovitz began a series of enviable decisions that led him, at the age of 17, from his home in Lower Manhattan to St. Andrews, Scotland. What happened next is the subject of his new memoir, "An America Caddie in St. Andrews." Horovitz, now 27 and months removed from his seventh season as a caddie, tracks his development from Old Course outsider to accepted member of the gruff group who proudly wear the bib. "An American Caddie" is, at its core, a coming-of-age story. His light prose skips from story to story and hits the emotional marks you’d expect in reading a story about a young man–who just so happens to be the younger brother of a Beastie Boy–set freely adrift in an exceptional place.
 
But what drives the book along are his anecdotes and the people who populated them–the insular, inexplicably nicknamed caddies who speak in incomprehensible brogues; the sort of tweedy, eccentric old men all Americans imagine strolling the streets of St. Andrews; and the occasional celebrity cameo, ranging from Larry David to Huey Lewis to Paula Creamer on the night of her 21st birthday.
 
Horovitz talked caddying with Golf.com, and offered some advice on how to earn an honest nickname, where to hit it on his favorite course and what you can do to make your caddie like you.
 
So the book starts out with you at your high school graduation in New York. How did you get from there to St. Andrews?
I was on the wait list to get into Harvard. It was June by then, and I was waiting to hear back. I was right in the middle of the graduation ceremony, playing trumpet, and I got a call from Sally Champagne, Harvard’s admissions officer for New York City. I threw my trumpet down and ran off the stage. I was shaking. I took the call, and she said, “Hey, Oliver, I’ve got great news – you’re in!” And then she paused. “You’re in…for next year.” So I was like, “Huh?” It turned out that they got my final grades two weeks late. By the time they got the grades, they had already filled up their spots for 2007. So I was essentially the first kid accepted for ’08. And I had to kill 365 days.
 
But what made you think St. Andrews?
I had applied to the University of St. Andrews, so I knew a couple of things about the place. I knew that the university was 600 years old, and one of the best in the UK. But I also knew that Prince William was a junior there, and because of that the girl applications had gone out of control -- the girl/guy ratio was something like 65/35. And I knew that if you were a student, you got unlimited play on the golf courses -- including the Old Course -- for £103 a year. That’s like $200. Playing it once made it worthwhile. I also knew that the drinking age was 18, and I was 17, but they were pretty loose about it. St. Andrews is a really tiny town -- they have three main streets --but on them they have 31 pubs. More pubs per capita than anywhere in the UK. It was a very good year.
 
What was that first year like?
I’d be doing classes in the morning, and then in the afternoon I’d go out with my friends and play golf. I missed five days of golf the whole year. I got on the team and expected to cruise with my 1.8 handicap. And when I got there, there were 25 kids on the team who played off less than a 2. So a lot of people had the same idea that I did. One thing about St. Andrews that’s a little different than the U.S.: The golf team is like the coolest team in the school. It’s like a parallel universe, in which the golf team is straight out of Animal House.
 
How did you end up caddying at the Old Course?
I was 17, I’d never lived away from home, I’d gone to Stuyvesant High, which is pretty much the most dorky school in the world, and all the sudden I’m in this funny little town with this amazingly famous golf course, where everyone loves golf. I got to the summer, and I didn’t want to leave yet. My friends on the golf team told me that a lot of them stayed around over the summer and caddied. If you caddie on the Old Course, you can make £50 a round, which at that time was like $100, and if you worked hard you get two rounds a day. And I was like, “You know what? I’m doing this.” I didn’t have to start Harvard until September, so I switched back my flights, found a flat, and that was the start of it.
 
How many years have you gone back?
I just finished my seventh season in October. As I was writing the book, I was back in St. Andrews. I don’t think I could have conjured all the images of the place staring at a building back in New York. I would wake up at 5:30, go to the university library and kill myself writing until about 9:30, and then I would grab my bib and go back to the caddie shack and loop a round. For me it felt like I was on the front lines reporting back, sending back my dispatches from St. Andrews.
 
Did these guys know that you were working on a book while you were there?
When I was in my first year, I wrote an article for Sports Illustrated about my first summer as a caddie. And when it came out, I was terrified. I thought I was gonna get run out of town. I thought I’d be fired that second. But they were into it -- they thought it was great. That was a huge shock. It was sort of like I caddied for all these years, and looking back I thought, “This could be fun to expand on.”
 
So how much like Caddyshack is the St. Andrews caddie shack?
I think of it as the Scottish equivalent. First of all, the level of pure golf knowledge is just unrivaled. These are 140 guys who are so gruff and so loud and so Scottish, but they love golf. Let’s be honest: They all dreamed of becoming professional golfers -- I mean, I did too -- but that’s not how it works out. In a way, this is the next best thing. In a way, they’re living the lives they dreamed of because they are surrounding themselves with golf. They’ve made it their lives, they made it their work. They get to hang out and talk about golf with their best friends. That’s a pretty good office. These guys -- when they’re not playing or caddying -- they’re watching golf, talking about golf. When we’re in the shack, we’re talking about holes on different courses, or what the new Titleist irons are like.
 
And these guys are total characters. They come from all over the place. One guy worked as a male nurse in a psychiatric hospital. Another one is a member of the leading AC/DC tribute band in Scotland. There’s one who was a professional kickboxer.
 
And no one gets called by his given name.
Everyone’s got nicknames. You won’t hear people referred too by their real name. They’ll be "Eck" or "V," which is short for Vesuvius, because his temper might erupt at any moment. There’s another caddie named “The Babysitter,” because you wouldn’t leave your children with him. Ever.
 
Then there’s Oliver Horovitz—not just a rookie, but an 18-year-old American student and rookie. What did they call you, if we can even print it?
I think to this day I’m the only Jewish caddie in the history of the shack. So at first, people just called me Horovitz, since they thought that was such a funny, foreign last name. But when I was in my third year caddying, I was a film major at Harvard, and I did a documentary about caddies. I was worried about how everyone was going to take this. I didn’t want to piss anyone off. So I was very aware of how I was acting during the shooting. And, of course, I immediately pissed everyone off. But I kept up with my rounds and kept on shooting, and eventually they got used to it. Then was one day, I passed a few caddies after doing a shoot, and they looked up from the 18th green and yelled out “Spielberg!” And I realized that they just anointed me with my new nickname. I was Spielberg. It just stuck. It was totally cool. Suddenly, I realized I had a place in the shack. It wasn’t like I was making this Hollywood feature, but I realized that it was a big deal for them. And when it was done, I showed them, and they loved it.
 
Let’s talk about some specific caddie moments. What stands out as the best group you ever caddied for?
Once, I was on the course, and I got a text message from my friend Matt. He said, “Larry David just teed off.” And my heart basically stopped. I texted him back: “How many caddies in the group?” They just had one caddie. At the time, I had a golfer from Thailand -- this guy who only called me “Caddie,” and who had me take his ball out of every cup. So I raced through as fast as I could, and I saw Larry David coming up the second hole when we were on the 17th. He was with Peter Farrelly, the filmmaker, and I went right up to them and said, “Hey, guys, I see you only have one caddie in your group. I’d be happy to catch up after I’m done.” And Larry David asked, “You a good caddie?” So I said sure, of course. Then he asked, “You fun?” “I’m OK.” And they said sure. My group has never played the final two holes so quickly. I caught up with them on the fifth hole, and spent the whole day hanging out with Larry David. I think I made it to about the 10th before I let it slip that I’d memorized every line from Curb Your Enthusiasm. It was great --because he’s a really nice guy, but he’s exactly the same as he is on the show. All the quirks, the paranoia -- it’s all there.
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You also logged some rounds during the Dunhill Links Championship, right?
In the Dunhill, I’ve caddied for Huey Lewis the past three years. Two years ago, we had an amazing run. We had a pro named Simon Dyson, who was on fire. He shot 63 on Saturday. That night, I checked the standings and we were in the final group, paired with Rory McIlroy. It was Rory and his dad, paired with Huey and Simon, and I was right there on the first tee shaking hands with them. What job gets you inside the ropes to where you’re just talking with Rory McIlroy the whole day as he’s trying to win a golf tournament?
 
Every golfer wants his caddie to like him. What are the dos and don’ts for taking a caddie?
The cardinal rule: Do not bring a cart bag over to Scotland. Don’t pack unnecessary items with you. And don’t -- please don’t -- bring a ball scoop to the Old Course. So many people do. But there’s a total of one water hazard on the golf course, and there are maybe five ball scoops right next to it. The next thing: At the end of the day, we’re giving you advice. But the ultimate responsibility lies with the golfer. So don’t blame the caddie. You’re the one making the shot. Another way to make your caddie happy: Buy lunch at the turn. Always a good thing.
Don’t set a number. It’s a bad sign when a seven-handicap tells me on the first tee he absolutely has to break 80. That almost never ends well. In the same vein: throwing clubs -- don’t do it. We hate that. And finally, I have to mention tipping. If you have a wonderful golfer who gives you a £5 tip, it’s gonna leave a sour taste in your mouth. But the main thing is, I love to have golfers who are happy to be in St. Andrews, who realize they are in a special place, and are just happy to be there. That’s the coolest thing.
 
But what if I do absolutely have to break 80. Got any tips for playing the course?
Of course. First thing: Leave your lob wedge home. Flop shots do not work in Scotland. When I have a golfer who insists on hitting a lob wedge, I know we’re in for a chunk or a skull. Nothing else is going to happen. Second tip: If you’re at all close to the green, putt the ball. Putt whenever you can. The fairways are cut so tight that they’re basically green. I’ve seen old guys who play the course every day putting from 70 yards out. It’s insane, but the game is played along the ground.
The next thing: Don’t worry about swing mechanics. When we caddie, we’re not giving any swing-related stuff. For us, we don’t care how the shot looks. We just care where it’s ending up. And the most often repeated phrase you’ll hear on the Old Course? “You’ll get it.” Because on the Old Course, it’s just wide open. As long as you stay left, you’ll be fine. All the pot bunkers and a whole lot of gorse are on the right. You always have another fairway on the left. If you have a hook, you’re in perfect shape. You can miss 200 yards left and still be O.K.
 
I’ll try to remember that. Anything else?
Well, this should go without saying, but listen to your caddie.
 
What’s the lowest score you’ve caddied for?
Two years ago, I had a 2 handicap make seven birdies. He shot 67. And after we finished 18, he wanted to go again. But I thought, “Hmm…maybe we should just stand on the 67.” A few weeks later, he sent me an email to thank me for stopping him.
 
How about the highest?
I had a guy with the huge cart bag he’d stuffed with 35 balls. And he lost them all. By the last ball he wasn’t too happy. I was thrilled to get out of there.
 
After the Old, what’s the best course at St. Andrews?
I love the New Course. The New Course is only “new” in relation to the Old Course. It was build in 1895 -- that’s new for St. Andrews. It was laid out by Old Tom Morris, and it’s the only course of any of his designs that still has the greens in their original spots. It’s really fun, and in my opinion tougher than the Old Course. Of the four main courses at St. Andrews -- the Old, the New, the Jubilee and the Castle, which is the newest -- the Old Course is actually the easiest from the normal tees. The New is much tighter, and the greens are much smaller; the Jubilee has so much gorse on it that it’s really tough; and the Castle is just a monster of a golf course.
 
Looking back, can you pinpoint the best moment since you started coming to St. Andrews?
I would say the best moment was when I returned after that first year. Nearly every hole on the Old shares a fairway, and most have double greens. The moment I’ll never forget is that second summer, the first time I was returning as a caddie, and during my first round back, on each double fairway every caddie I passed stopped, stared and looked at me, and then lit up with a bright smile and a wave. And on every double green they abandoned their golfers to welcome me back. It’s happened every year since. During each final round, there’s a long procession of saying goodbye to my friends; and on each first round back, there’s a long procession of saying hello. I’m never going to forget that.
 
That’s even better than buying Paula Creamer a tequila shot on her 21st birthday?
Believe it or not, it’s in the same stratosphere.
 
So how long do you plan to keep going back?
You know, every summer, I say it’s my last. And every summer the caddies say, “Yeah, sure, see you next year.” The shack has really become a second home to me. I’ve known these guys since I was 18. They’ve seen me grow up. At this point, I’ll always be going back to St. Andrews. 

Buy "An American Caddie in St. Andrews: Growing Up, Girls, and Looping on the Old Course (Gotham Books) at Amazon.com.


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