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The Legend of Willie Lee, Pinehurst's most famous looper

Willie Lee McRae
Ben Van Hook
FULL HOUSE: When Willie holds court, he draws a crowd.

What is it that makes us who we are?"

It's late Sunday morning, another week of work behind him, and Willie perches on a pew in Galilee Mission Baptist Church, the small brick sanctuary in Taylortown where he first attended services as a child.

"What is it that makes us who we are?" the pastor repeats. "Pain and suffering. Trials and tribulations. They give us character, shape us into who we are."

"Yes, suh!" Willie says, nodding.

Just a month before, he was laid up in the hospital for more than a week, crippled by an agonizing case of gout. His hands and feet still ache. But his body's betrayals aren't all that's on his mind.

Willie has been through things. Married twice, having outlived his first wife, he is father to 11 children but has mourned the loss of three.

He is too big a man for bitterness, but some memories can't be sweetened. He grew up at a time when "anyone could whoop you. It didn't have to be your mama." Discrimination was the law and part of social practice. Klan rallies unfolded around him. Once, a hooded man approached him and threatened to burn a cross into his lawn.

"I'll burn one in your ass," Willie remembers replying, backing the man down until he slinked away.

At the golf course, the injustices were more genteel, and, Willie says, they never bothered him. "When you know how something is," he says, "what's the point of fighting it?"

Says Willie's son, Paul, who in 1996 became a teaching pro at Pinehurst: "My father is not a man who sees differences in people. When someone comes to Pinehurst, his goal is to make them feel special, plain and simple."

As a young man, to support his growing brood, he held a second job, an overnight shift at an ironworks shop. He'd loop Pinehurst by day, sneak in a nap, and then grapple with factory machinery till dawn. On a shift in 1970, Willie slipped. A piston-like machine crashed down on his hand, removing his left thumb.

"What did I get for that?" Willie says when asked. "What I got for that was fired."

Two weeks after his accident, his left arm in a sling, Willie was back caddying at Pinehurst. The injury hardly slowed him, and, Willie says, it didn't change his golf game, only his grip. Today he barely notices his missing digit. But there's no ignoring the wear and tear of time.

Willie estimates that in all his years spent roaming the fairways and greens of Pinehurst, he could have walked to California and back about eight times. At least that's what they said about him in 2003 in Florida, during his induction into the Caddie Hall of Fame.

"Hit the pitching wedge," Willie says. He's parked in the first fairway of No. 2, sussing out the distance to a back pin.

From tee to green, Willie rarely leaves his cart. But his methods and his manner make him an unbreakable link to an era before E-Z-GO, an age when everyone walked Pinehurst and caddies clubbed their players without the need for number crunching. Because Caddiemaster, the management company that runs Pinehurst's caddie program, now requires its charges to carry range finders, Willie keeps a fancy laser with him. Of course, he needs it like NASA needs a plastic compass. "Hit me a big 5-iron here," is Willie's version of a careful calculation, and you can count on him being right. "If I don't know this place by now," he says, "I never will."

In 68 years, he has seen every kind of golf shot, and every kind of golfer, though what sticks with him is the person, not the player.

Of Ben Hogan, whom he watched firsthand while working for the Northern Irishman Fred Daly in the 1951 Ryder Cup, Willie recollects: "Good ballstriker. But hard to tell too much about a man who says so little."

Of Chi Chi Rodriguez: "Just about the nicest person you'd ever want to meet."

He adores Tom Lehman; had a soft spot for the firebrand Tommy Bolt and the fun-loving Arnold Palmer; harbors less-than-fuzzy feelings for Lee Trevino.

"Sour man," Willie says. "His own caddie never even liked him much."

Sometimes Willie thinks about retiring. But then he thinks about his family: his 21 grandkids; his 25 great-grandkids; his web of cousins, nephews, nieces, in-laws, many of whom still turn to him for help.

Then there is his other network of dependents, like Southern Methodist University football coach June Jones, who always requests Willie when he plays at Pinehurst; and Quail Hollow Country Club president John Harris, who is fond of telling Willie, "You can't caddie a lick, but I like your company."

Says Willie, "People always say to me, 'You can never leave. It would just be too sad.'"

Not only for his long list of clients — the sports stars and the corporate big shots, the touring pros and the weekend slicers. But also for the man who has caddied for them all.

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