Looking for the man who logs the most miles each year on the PGA Tour? Turns out it’s not one of the golf pros -- it’s the equipment guy. Meet Steve Hulka, who packs his 28-foot trailer with golf bags and luggage from more than 50 PGA Tour pros each week and drives it from Tour stop to Tour stop around the country. His business is booming: The 60-year-old former full-time caddie (he still freelances as a looper) is on the road 36 to 40 weeks a year. This week he’s in West Palm Beach, Fla., for the Honda Classic, where he checked in with Golf.com from -- where else? -- his hotel room.
Tell us about your job:
We are Hulka’s Overland Players Express, or H.O.P.E. The Tour has structured the schedule where, most weeks, guys want to fly from place to place, so they want to use us for business.
We tell players, give us the heavy stuff, and you can walk to the airport with an overnight bag, throw it in an overhead bin, and we’ll have everything at your locker on Monday morning. That’s what we do, and that’s how we sell the business. It’s an easy sell.
How did you get started?
Right after 9/11, I had this idea that it was going to be hard for Tour pros to travel. I was going to rent a Ryder truck every week. Then I thought, “Why pay all that money to Ryder?” I can just buy a trailer instead of renting. But I didn’t want to do this without the Tour’s support. My friend Paul Stankowski was worried the Tour might take this away from me. When I called Henry Hughes, who at that time was sort of the director of tournaments, he asked if I had a business plan. I said, “Yes sir!” That night I stayed up all night typing eight pages, and then I sent it to him the next morning. Two days later he called me and said, “You’re good to go.” I went out and got a truck, and off I went for the 2003 season.
Ben Crane was in on it. So were Paul Stankowski, Jonathan Byrd and Pat Bates. They were like my founding fathers for this. They paid me $1,500 for the year. It was basically $40 a week to haul their suitcases and clubs.
I’m assuming you charge a little more today?
Let’s just say it’s enough to cover $16,000 in diesel fuel, and a new trailer every few years (laughs). We’re well into the four-figure range. Our players tell us we don’t charge enough. It’s become quite a big business. We’re now on our third trailer. Every time we outgrow one, we have to get a little bigger. We’ve grown from the original six clients to 50 full-timers. We also get walk-up business -- guys who don’t need us every week, like the Web.com guys or rookies.
What is it about life on the road that you most enjoy?
Being with my wife, Mary. At the end of 2007, she turned in her resignation at her job, and this is her sixth year on the road with me. Our 30th anniversary is this April. She drives the truck, too. We usually hit the first Cracker Barrel on our way out of town. She’ll sleep a little after that, then she’ll take the wheel until dawn. She’s Miss Graveyard.
Any advice for folks who travel frequently for their jobs?
Fall in love with Priceline. You’ve got to be comfortable when you spend 40 weeks a year on the road. Paying a little extra to stay in a nice hotel is worth its weight in gold. All these booking websites that allow you to shop and bid for rooms at half the rack rate are golden. When you travel quite a bit, comfort is number one.
How do you stay healthy while spending so much time on the road?
You have to make some healthy choices. We see a lot of familiar faces when we shop at Whole Foods when we travel. Guys are making an effort -- road food being what it is, you have to be careful how you eat. Fortunately for us, we’ve got a great crew in the caddie trailer. The weeks they’re out, they make some awesome meals. They have a nice but simple menu. You just have to make the effort, because there are a lot of ways you can go wrong.
Favorite pro who’s also a client?
Rickie Fowler. They’re all great to us, but the reason Rickie’s so great is that he gets it. He’s a breath of fresh air. He’s good with the fans, he’s a gentleman to his fellow players, and to us. It reminds me of my early days caddying, when I was a 20-year-old, rubbing elbows with Jack, Arnie and Lee Trevino. They took the time to connect with fans. They respected the game. I’m not saying the young guys don’t respect the game, but it’s different today. Rickie will be at the trailer on Sunday afternoon, signing flags, signing hats. He just realizes he owes the game, the game doesn’t owe him. That’s really special.
Would you ever get back into the caddie game full-time?
I’m a free agent now -- waiting for the next guy to come along who wants a caddie and doesn’t need to see the course on Monday. I’m kind of a Tuesday through Sunday guy.
Miles traveled in an average year: 45,000
Miles traveled since company started: By year’s end, 500,000.
Longest Commute: Tucson to West Palm Beach (Match Play to Honda Classic), 2,246 miles door to door.
Won’t leave home without: “My golf clubs! I still carry a 5 handicap.”
Favorite Drive: Augusta to Hilton Head. “Harbour Town is my favorite stop.”
Worst Drive: “That six-hour drive from Pebble Beach to L.A., then dealing with that traffic for a week. I hate it.”