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

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

LIVING HISTORY: Pinehurst looper Willie Lee McRae wears the honors and scars of life quietly. In May he marked 68 years at the resort.
Ben Van Hook

On a balmy May afternoon at the course that Willie Lee McRae knows better than anyone, a silver-haired foursome corrals him by the first tee and asks him for his autograph, his photograph, his stories. Though another loop awaits him on Pinehurst No. 2, where Willie carried his first bag 68 years ago, he never lets down his adoring public. Grinning a gummy grin, he clambers from the cart he now relies on, signs, poses, and begins the sort of back-porch yarn he knows his audience has come to hear.

It’s a narrative embroidered with Willie’s recollections of his earliest employers at this historic resort in the Sandhills of North Carolina — “That Donald Ross could play, and Gene Sarazen moved so fast I had to run to keep up with him” — but it stretches through a tangle of contemporary names. Bo Jackson is “a teddy bear” who hits the ball a ton, while Michael Jordan, though “not as good a golfer as he thought he was,” still administered a whooping on Charles Barkley, whom Willie might have tried to help with a well-timed swing tip had he not concluded, a few holes in, that “there just ain’t no help for that man.”

A crowd swells around him — the cart girl, other foursomes, Willie’s fellow caddies — as Willie doubles back to the ’51 Ryder Cup (“Watched Hogan shoot 34-32 in 32-degree weather”) before jumping to the rounds he humped for U.S. presidents.

“Ford wasn’t a bad player,” he says. “Same with Nixon and Eisenhower. And there was one more in there that I forget.”

“Lincoln?” someone cracks.

Willie brandishes his dukes and scowls at his offender, but the creases on his wizened face aren’t those of a curmudgeon. Anger isn’t his most convincing look. “These youngsters today,” says Willie, 78, pointing playfully at his fellow caddies, “they think they’re something. But I forgot more about golf than they’ll ever know.”

Willie laughs and everyone laughs with him. Then the group disperses, Willie shuffling toward the tee, his smiling fans shuttling toward the clubhouse with Willie’s John Hancock scrawled across their scorecards and his headshot captured on their phones. “More happy golfers,” Willie says. “And I didn’t even read them a single green.”

It’s flattering to him, all the attention, but also bemusing that his anonymous profession has brought him such acclaim. On another man, it might sit differently. But fame of any measure is not a commodity he puts much stock in. A child of segregation, he was raised believing in all men being equal. The sports stars who seek him out, the power brokers who request him as their caddie — they loom no larger in his eyes than the high-handicapper no one’s ever heard of who shoots 100 and furnishes Willie with the minimum tip.

“As far as I can see,” Willie says, “all of us came from Adam and Eve. That’s what we have in common.”

That and golf at Pinehurst, where Willie is a legend with a legacy. His son, Paul, is a lead instructor at Pinehurst’s golf academy; his grandson, Darick, caddies. Both found their way to golf through Willie, whose photo hangs in the Pinehurst clubhouse alongside images of Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Bobby Jones.

As Pinehurst’s elder statesman, Willie enjoys privileges afforded no one else. He is the only Pinehurst caddie not required to walk, owing to the ailments that have come with age; and the only person, period, regardless of stature, allowed to take his cart onto the fairways of No. 2. “There’s been some chirping down in the bag room about him getting to ride,” says Pinehurst president Don Padgett II. “But Willie’s an institution. We’ll give him anything he needs.”

Long before Willie was an icon, he was just a kid, the third of 12 children, raised in a two-bedroom house in nearby Taylortown, a community born in the 1930s to accommodate Pinehurst employees. His mother was a sharecropper. His father did whatever needed doing, including hauling golf bags at the famous course just up the road.

On Willie’s 10th birthday — May 19, 1943 — his dad told him it was time to get to work. He brought Willie down to the caddie shack and left him with counsel that was also a command: Keep up and shut up. Twenty-five cents a round was his starting pay, but with tips, he could often make twice that. “And with 25 cents,” Willie says, “you could buy yourself candy for the whole week.”

With the exception of the caddie tournament, an annual event, Willie and his cohort weren’t allowed to play at Pinehurst, which didn’t welcome its first black members until the 1970s. But there were other ways to learn. In the woods behind his home, Willie shaped an oak branch into a driver. On weekends, he hitched rides to Fort Bragg, the military base with a modest track and no color barrier.

By his early teens, Willie had swapped out school for full-time employment. The course was his classroom, his mentors seasoned loopers such as Robert “Hardrock” Robinson and Jimmy Steed. He adopted their cordial but seen-it-all demeanor. He also inherited their knack for eyeballing distance with range-finder precision and for taking a player’s measure after two swings on the range.

Donald Ross, Pinehurst’s architect, called on Willie as his caddie, as did just about every noted player who dropped by the resort. The names of those who hired him over the years reads like an epic leader-board: Bobby Jones, Julius Boros, Billy Joe Patton, Harvie Ward. McRae says that he was on Johnny Miller’s bag at the 1974 World Open when Miller shot a 63 (although Miller thinks Andy Martinez was his looper).

Willie had some game of his own. He won the Pinehurst caddie tournament three times, and, at age 15, lost it in a playoff to the Hall of Fame looper Fletcher Gaines, who could shoot in the 60s well into his 70s, and, by many accounts, could have played on Tour. “A lot of us could have,” Willie says, “if we’d been allowed.”

In the early 1950s, the Army summoned Willie. Instead of shipping overseas, he was stationed at Fort Dix, in New Jersey, where the brass installed him as the captain of the golf team. Among the officers Willie routinely trounced in match play was a future Green Beret named Earl Woods.

“He could get it around,” Willie says of Tiger’s father. “But nowhere near as good as me.”

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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