The last of a dying breed, migrant caddies feed at the fringe of the PGA Tour

November 5, 2011

When he isn't carrying another man's golf bag, Josh Svendsen hauls himself around in a white Ford van outfitted with a mattress, a microwave and a hot plate — a rolling Motel 6 that doubles as his home away from home. A heated water tank links to a snaking showerhead, letting Svendsen rinse off by the rear bumper. Svendsen bought the van in 2005, after bailing on a desk job and an apartment in the suburbs in favor of a caddie's vagabond existence. Forty-seven and never married, he sees a kind of romance in a rootless lifestyle. There's no point in paying rent.

"I tried the 9-to-5 thing," Svendsen says one spring afternoon, after parking his rig outside the TPC Stonebrae, a Nationwide tour venue east of San Francisco. "I got the gist. Not for me."

He looked tired but content, fresh off a five-week whirlwind that had taken him from Pebble Beach's fabled pro-am to Puerto Rico for a minor-key event. Along the way he had lead-footed it to Los Angeles and hooked up with journeyman Tour pro Mark Hensby for the Monday qualifier of the Northern Trust Open. Hensby didn't make it through, but the two men hit it off, inspiring a partnership that sent Svendsen to the airport, where he hopped a plane to Mexico, then Colombia, trailing his employer while bedding down in youth hostels and tumble-down hotels. At the next stop, Puerto Rico, he and Hensby parted ways, player-caddie pairings being fickle, just like golf. But flights to California were out of Svendsen's reach, so he puddle-jumped to Tampa, where he failed to land a loop at the Transitions Championship; hop-scotched to Louisiana (a quick one-off in the Monday qualifier); flagged a ride to Houston (another modest payday); then found a cheap flight west, touching down in San Francisco, where his van was waiting, in time to work the Stonebrae event. In his breathless month of travel, he had cleared just over two grand.

"You don't do this for the money," says Svendsen, whose surfer-dude laid-backness lends him the air of a short-haired Spicoli. "You do it because it's in your DNA."

Caddying is a job that seems fit mostly for misfits. The hours are long, the pay uncertain and the travel relentless. For caddies on the bags of the world's top players, work may come with private jets and princely treatment. But for those not nicknamed Stevie, Bones or Fluff, the job is as often a mad scramble, filled with Priceline searches and gigs that offer freedom but no guarantees.

Svendsen is part of a dwindling contingent of migrant caddies who bounce from stop to stop on the PGA Tour. They pay their own expenses and hustle for jobs that often last no longer than their last player's hot streak — if they find jobs at all.

It wasn't always so.

A few generations back a PGA Tour bag — while prized, to be sure — could be had for a good looper. As purses swelled in the 1980s and the early '90s, competition for top bags stiffened. Then came the Tiger Boom and a prize-money explosion. To stride at the side of an A-list player was a path to a gold-plated career. A steady caddying job is even more coveted in today's sour economic climate. It's blue-collar work with white-collar potential.

Positions with alpha golfers rarely open, and when they do, connections play a role to the point of nepotism. Many young stars, from Luke Donald to Rickie Fowler, step to the tee with buddies or brothers on their bags. Caddies have a name for the PGA circuit. The MCI: the Friends and Family Tour.

When I started out, you could show up at just about any event and get hired in the parking lot," says 21-year veteran Mike Sturgill. "No way that ever happens today."

A former trucker and ex-felon, Sturgill, 50, came to caddying as a second chance. In his late teens he got hooked on cocaine and started stealing money to support his habit, then was convicted in Alaska on eight counts of embezzlement and fraud. A sympathetic judge trimmed what could have been a 56-year sentence to 12 months. Sturgill emerged from prison humbled and reborn, having found Christ following the death of a close friend.

His first Tour job was a trunk-slammer: He flagged down Curt Byrum at the 1991 Texas Open as Byrum pulled into the parking lot. "He asked me if I knew the course, and I told him I did," says Sturgill, who had caddied at a country club as a kid. "But then we get in the tournament, and he asks me a yardage. Not only hadn't I seen the course, I also didn't know how to read a yardage book."

"You lied to me, didn't you?" Byrum said. Sturgill nodded. Byrum frowned, but out of begrudging respect for the initiative, didn't fire him.

Some 20 years later Sturgill is a seasoned hand who has served as the Tour sidekick to Erik Compton, Dennis Paulson and David Peoples, among others. Recently divorced, he tools around in a white Mazda wagon, crashing on friends' couches from coast to coast. "When you've slept in a prison bunk," Sturgill says, "any other bed is more than comfortable enough."

In February, Sturgill drove from Florida to California, arriving so late on Sunday before the Northern Trust that he bunked down in his Mazda in a Walmart parking lot. The next afternoon, when his man, Tour winner Eric Axley, failed to Monday-qualify, Sturgill jumped back behind the wheel and beelined east. He worked in Puerto Rico and at the Honda Classic, then turned up in Tampa, along with Svendsen and several of their cohorts: a gaggle of caddies trailing the Tour, like gulls following a fishing boat.

On golf's big stage, the lead-up to a tournament is a kind of outdoor job fair, with hurried introductions, business cards in hand. "Got anyone this week?" "You've got my number." "Shoot me a text if you ever need a guy." Sturgill had his man for the Transitions' Monday qualifier: Tour rookie Scott Gordon. Josh Svendsen didn't. But he figured an appearance was worth a shot, particularly at a mid-tier event like the Transitions, with lesser lights who might not have a caddie. "If you don't show up," Svendsen says, "you'll never know."

As dawn broke over the qualifying venue, the Island course at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, 150 golfers were vying for four spots, and a dozen or so caddies were looking for a loop. They gathered along a cart path outside the pro shop, waiting for players to walk by.

Standing behind Svendsen was Tim Duffy, a veteran caddie itching for a job and struggling not to show the strain of recent weeks. Like Svendsen and Sturgill, Duffy had swung south of the border. Unlike them, he had spent more than he made. That's not uncommon. During tournament weeks on the PGA Tour most caddies earn a flat rate of around $1,200 (on the Nationwide tour, the average sum is closer to $700), plus 5% to 10% of a player's winnings. Travel, lodging and food all come on their own dime. A fine line separates profit from loss, and it lies somewhere around the top 150 on the money list. "Anything less than that and you're breaking even at best," Duffy says.

An accomplished junior player, Duffy got his chance to caddie in 1993, while banging balls on the driving range at Bay Hill. "How can you play with a swing like that?" a voice wisecracked behind him. Duffy wheeled. It was Arnold Palmer.

"Your swing doesn't look so good either," Duffy shot back. Palmer liked the moxie and hired Duffy on the spot.

That year Duffy tasted the caviar lifestyle: private jets, upscale hotels. He worked the Masters, where Palmer opened with three birdies on Thursday. "You never heard roars like it," Duffy says. "It sent shivers down my spine. The whole time I felt as if I was walking on air."

That was then. Palmer's playing days were dwindling. The gravy train ended. Now 43, Duffy was hanging out in Tampa, waiting to hear whether Brad Adamonis would have him for the day.

"I love golf. It's what I know," Duffy says. "Golf gets in your blood, and you feel as if you can't live without it. But sometimes you think, this game has made some people fortunes, but it has also ruined a lot of lives."

Without access to an A-list player, a caddie's best chance at riches is to catch an unknown and ride him to the top. But even Cinderella stories can have sour endings. Caddies sign no contracts and have no guarantees. A deal sealed with a handshake can be undone with a text. It's not uncommon for an up-and-comer to gain his Tour card, then fire his caddie in favor of a childhood buddy. The carriage often becomes a pumpkin just as it arrives at the ball.

Yet for caddies, the calculated risks of their profession still beat the numbing comforts of mainstream careers. Their distaste for convention is apparent even in the most strait-laced and clean-cut of their breed. Take Reynolds Robinson, a married father of two with a home in the Orlando suburbs who decided in his mid-30s that a dull desk job was too much to take. In 2004, after 13 draining years as a corporate accountant, he punched his final time clock at PricewaterhouseCoopers and printed out a revised CV, a new career objective etched on top: ASSISTING MY PLAYER TO A POSITION IN THE TOP 30 OF THE WORLD RANKING.

Robinson says, "Guys would come up to me and say things like, 'I wish I'd had the guts to do what you did. I worked my whole life in a job I didn't like. But I had a family. I couldn't give it up.' And I'd say, 'I have a family too. That's why I left my job.' "

From Robinson's point of view, he's still in business. In his first three years on Tour he grossed $45,000, $48,000 and $53,000, about half of what he took home at PricewaterhouseCoopers. But the steady increase was grounds for optimism. In the first three years, he says, most businesses operate at a loss. "This is an investment in the future for me and my family, and it's what I love to do," Robinson says. "In this life you only get to go around once."

Alas, Robinson only went around once in Tampa. His man, Len Mattiace, didn't make it through the Monday qualifier. Neither did Gordon, Sturgill's player. And Adamonis fell a few shots short with Duffy on his bag. Disappointing. But there's always next week.

By mid-April, Robinson and Sturgill were in San Antonio for the Valero Texas Open while Svendsen and Duffy moved on to California, working the Nationwide tour's Fresh Express Classic. For Svendsen, it was simply another shift in the capricious currents of a caddie's life. Svendsen had been through them before. In 2007, on Troy Matteson's bag, he had made it to the big show and accompanied his man for two full seasons, including an '08 campaign during which Matteson pulled in $1.2 million and Svendsen netted around $85,000. The following year the ride ended. Matteson hit a cold snap, and Svendsen was looking for another gig.

"There was no bitterness," Svendsen says. "When you're a caddie, you work at the discretion of the player. When the time comes, you say thank you for the opportunity. I'm always grateful to have had the job."

It was Sunday, the fourth round of the Fresh Express Classic, but Svendsen's player had bowed out, so there was no bag to carry. He was back behind the wheel of his modified van, its bed-sheet rumpled, its tank filled for the first leg of a 3,000-mile trek to Georgia.

Svendsen's not one to dwell, but long stretches of freeway make him philosophical. "Maybe it'll be better at the next stop," he says. "All you can do is keep at it. One event ends, and you say, 'What's done is done. What's next?'"