The news of Steve Duplantis's death hit me particularly hard because I never expected him to grow up, let alone pass away.
A longtime caddie and one of the most colorful characters on the PGA Tour, he was killed early Wednesday in Del Mar, Calif. According to a sheriff's report, Duplantis stepped off a median and into the path of a taxi. He was pronounced dead at the scene. Duplantis, 35, was in town working the Buick Invitational for Eric Axley.
He was a throwback to an earlier, livelier era when professional caddies were a fun-loving, hard-living bunch. As big money changed the nature of the profession in the last decade, Steve had struggled to find his place, unable to hold down a steady bag. No doubt his reputation for partying didn't help. But as often as Steve was fired through the years, he had no shortage of friends on Tour. He had a good heart and it was impossible not to like him, no matter how often he screwed up.
Steve was never able to recapture the success he achieved in the mid-to-late 90's, his early years as a caddie, but he still took pride in his career on Tour. In a life cut way too short, he reached the upper echelons of the game with Jim Furyk, launched the career of Rich Beem, and was on the bag when Tommy Armour III set the all-time scoring record at the 2003 Texas Open. Steve spent much of 2007 caddying for Daniel Chopra before getting fired in late summer. Now that Chopra is one of the hottest players in the game, it's nice to think that Steve had something to do with his development.
Steve's unlikely journey to the Tour began at the 1985 Canadian Open, when he was 12. He lived in Brampton, Ontario, and had sweet-talked his mom into dropping him off at Glenn Abbey Golf Club for a practice round. For reasons that no one ever quite understood, Steve latched onto the group of Clarence Rose, an amiable old pro with a Carolina drawl as thick as U.S. Open rough. Steve was Rose's only gallery member that day, and they struck up an enduring friendship. Whenever Rose would come back to town for the Open, he would let Steve walk inside the ropes during practice rounds and sneak into the player dining areas.
Steve had always dreamed of playing pro golf, but his own career stalled at the junior college level. In the summer of 1993, Rose needed a caddie and Steve jumped at the offer. It would become his life's work, even as Rose reduced his playing schedule.
In late '94 Steve was hanging around the parking lot at the Anheuser-Busch Classic, trying to find a bag. A rookie named Jim Furyk, who had been stood up by his caddie, asked Steve to step in. Furyk came into that event in a grinding slump, having missed seven of his previous eight cuts, but he clicked immediately with Steve. They finished tied for 10th, with Furyk earning enough money to secure his playing privileges for the following season. That was the beginning of a fruitful partnership, and over the next four and a half years they enjoyed three victories, the 1997 Ryder Cup and a series of near-misses in the majors.
Furyk's success allowed Steve to dive headfirst into the hard-partying caddie culture. At the '95 Colonial, he met a stripper named Vicki with the gravity-defying proportions of Jessica Rabbit. After the first round, they spent the night together, and Steve crawled out of bed just in time to make it to Furyk's 8:17 a.m. tee time. He cut an unmistakable figure: bed-head, an inside-out polo shirt, leather dress shoes and no yardage guide to be found. It was a sign of things to come. Steve and Vicki were married after a whirlwind 19-day courtship, and the stormy relationship became only more complicated when a daughter, Sierra, was born in early 1996, two days after Furyk's victory at the Hawaiian Open.
Steve's life grew ever more turbulent when he became Sierra's primary caretaker, and somehow the fastidious Furyk put up with his caddie's chronic tardiness until March 1999, when he fired Steve after a traffic snarl delayed his arrival for the first round of the Bay Hill Invitational. When Steve reached the course, Furyk was on the 8th hole.
I first met Steve two months later, at the '99 Kemper Open. It was his first tournament back at work, and he was looping for an unknown rookie named Rich Beem. At the Kemper, Steve put on one of the all-time great caddying performances, leading the former cellphone salesman around like a wet nurse. The victory was one of the more improbable in the recent annals of the Tour. Up in the CBS tower, the grizzled Ken Venturi told the world, "I think the last time I was this excited was when I saw John Daly win the PGA."
The Beemer and his world-weary caddie were such colorful characters that I immediately began working on a book about them that would be published in 2001 under the title "Bud, Sweat & Tees." (By then Rich and Steve had long since parted ways; they were so similar in so many ways their partnership was always doomed to be short-lived.) Steve was uncensored to a fault, and in the book he was candid about his taste for alcohol and strippers. But it is also the portrait of a dedicated father trying his best to create a life for his daughter while balancing the high-pressure demands of the Tour. In the course of reporting the book, Steve and I shared many meals, a couple rounds of golf and one memorable night exploring the strip clubs in his adopted hometown of Tampa. He was on a first-name basis with much of the talent.
Steve had a love-hate relationship with the book, which became a best-seller after Beem's stunning victory at the 2002 PGA Championship. He felt it had immortalized his bad-boy rep, but he also enjoyed the attention, and over the years often asked me to send him more copies, which he handed out to intimates.
Because of the book he was always linked in some way to Beem, and they remained close. I reached Steve on his cellphone in the minutes after Beem had outlasted Tiger Woods in a tense back-nine shootout at the '02 PGA. Steve was in an airport in Spain I can't remember which city having decided to spend the summer looping on the European tour, which has always smiled upon free spirits. He had been getting regular updates about the PGA via some stateside friends, and he was hoarse with emotion talking about Beem. There was no bitterness, or even a case of the what-ifs. He was simply ecstatic for an old friend.
Steve and I have always kept in sporadic touch, and the last time I saw him was in October, at the Fry's Electronics Open. He was working for the journeyman David Branshaw, and as usual Steve was getting the best out of his player. In his first 24 events, Branshaw had missed 17 cuts and finished better than 48th only once. In his first tournament with Steve, the Viking Classic, Branshaw finished tied for 5th. What made Steve such an effective caddie was not just his knowledge of the game but also his passion. On the course he spoke with absolute conviction, and his players knew he was invested in their success. Prior to the Viking, Steve had spent a week working with Branshaw, whispering encouragement and helping him smooth out the rough edges of his game.
During our conversation at the Fry's, Steve complained that one of the golf magazines had printed details about his recent arrest but did not mention that it was for an unpaid parking ticket. "That could've happened to anyone," he lamented, but that sort of thing seemed to always happen just to him. I asked after Sierra, and he said she was doing well. One of Steve's many ex-girlfriends lived in Hickory, N.C., and years ago this woman and her large extended family had fallen in love with Sierra. While Steve was on the road, they gave her a home and stability she had not previously known.
Steve and I made plans to have dinner that night. (He had always enjoyed putting a good steak on my corporate American Express.) Later that evening he called to say he had just been invited to a Phoenix Coyotes game. No good Canadian boy can turn down a hockey night, so dinner would have to wait for another time. At the end of our conversation I said what I always said: "Stay out of trouble."
"No promises," Steve parried. With a boyish laugh, he ended the call, disappearing into the night.