John Dunn became estranged from his father as he lived the life that eventually became his first book, “Loopers: A Caddie’s Twenty-Year Golf Odyssey” (Crown, $25), so when his dad was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, Dunn had a choice: Go home and make up, or stay out on the road and show his father the beauty and nobility of the calling. Dunn, 42, chose the latter, and raised nearly $30,000 for pancreatic cancer research in a quixotic quest that bridged the gap between father and son just in the nick of time. In honor of Father’s Day, Golf.com caught up with Dunn to talk about the caddie trade, Joe Pesci, a van named Pearl, and why he never traded the gypsy spirit for a suit.
The book talks about your life as an itinerant worker, seeing the world and rubbing elbows with the rich and famous as you lugged golf bags pretty much everyplace from the Old Course to Bandon Dunes. Have you settled down?
I’m still kind of all over the place. I just moved from Venice Beach, where I’ve been for three and a half years down, to San Diego, north of Torrey Pines. The golf is good there. And I spent the winter down in Ecuador, surfing. It was amazing. It cost me absolutely nothing, too. It’s so cheap. I sub-letted my place in L.A. and stayed in a cabana on the beach; I met this family down there and they had a couple of cabanas they rented out. They didn’t speak a lick of English. They were cool. They came from a big, big farm down there. I’m not really a seasonal mover, as I am an every-two-or-three-years mover.
You mention in the book that by joining the caddie ranks at Bighorn, in Palm Desert, Calif., you played all the time and hit Pro V1s on the range and, on the days you did have to work, you got your own cart to carry people’s clubs. Was that the best place to be a caddie?
No, Bandon blows Bighorn out of the water. True, you have to carry the bags at Bandon, but it’s a short season at Bighorn, only in the winter. I would spend six or seven months in Bandon, and then I would spend a brief, four-month season down at Bighorn, which felt like a working vacation, although you did make $100 a day. It wasn’t a money-maker the way Bandon was. You could work 36 a day at Bandon for 20 days in a row and then go up to the San Juan Islands and go camping for 10 days. Being able to explore that part of the country and work as much as you wanted and play as much as you wanted was great. Plus you could stay at Bandon all year, and I wrote about that in the book—it gave caddies a final resting place. Caddies are so used to moving so much.
Did you buy a place in San Diego, or do you rent?
Oh, just renting—I haven’t gotten to that level of success yet. I mean, it’s San Diego. It would be hard to get a place for less than five hundred grand.
The amount of driving you do in the course of the book is staggering. How many miles are on your car?
I should really have been in a Toyota commercial. I had a Toyota Previa minivan, a ’91, stick shift. I literally put like 550,000 miles on it. That thing was still going strong. My girlfriend, who was in the book, made me custom curtains. It was pimped out. I lived in that thing for like two or three years. The van had a name: Pearl. Someone else named it—you’re not allowed to name your own car. But I left it with a girl when I took my cross-country trip and she didn’t take care of it and it got towed. [Laughs.] But I think that thing would have run forever.
There’s a funny scene in the book where you show up to caddie at Sherwood for the first time, north of L.A., and you tell Joe Pesci his guest is there, at which point he starts acting up, Casino-style, and jabbing his cigar at you and saying it’s his wife, not his guest. Was he really mad or just having a little fun with you?
Oh, I was so embarrassed in that moment. It was such a shock, that first day: Joe Pesci, Will Smith, Jack Nicholson, Wayne Gretzky. Although it did sort of endear me with everybody, the other caddies—they got a laugh out of it. I never did find out what the story was. I tried to look up whether he was married and who was his wife and was it the same girl, but to this day I really have no idea.
What was the biggest tip you ever got?
It was really big, I’m sure. I’m trying to remember. God, I don’t know—I’ve made over $1,000 for a single round, I can tell you that. I mean Steve Williams has made over $100,000 on a weekend, so this is nothing compared to that. It does feel good when a guy loves you and throws money at you. I do that, too. I tip pretty well if I get a good caddie just because I remember how good it felt.
When was the last time you caddied?
The last time I caddied was 2010, back at Bandon. I got a pretty good deal with Random House, and it allowed me to write the book as a fulltime job. At the end of the first book, I describe hitchhiking my way across the country, Golf My Way Home—that’s the second book. I wanted it to be the first book, but it made more sense to have it be the second book.
That’s where your dad, who didn’t approve of your life as a caddie, has cancer and you come up with a way to raise money to fight the disease. You pretty much played your way across the country and blogged about it.
The battle within my whole life was that I should try to be something that my dad would be proud of, although I don’t know what that is—an attorney? My dad was probably more open-minded than I thought, and I was probably more hard-working and disciplined than he thought, but after so many years of being apart, I felt like this was the only chance I had. I had to show him somehow who I was and get him to get it, so I did that hitchhiking trip, I blogged it, people donated money for it, they followed it. I raised $26,000 but the real cause was my relationship with him. He saw it all. He was amazed by how loving and supportive people were. It kind of blew his mind. Disease is that way; it’s sad it has to be that way, but it just opens everything up and re-prioritizes everything and does away with the b.s.
How far into the second book are you?
I’ve written a lot of it, but I’ve been writing a lot of it for years. I already had a full proposal for it. Hopefully if people like my writing style, they’ll get into it. Hopefully they’ll read that last chapter and say, “What? You did six thousand miles and 125 rides over three months, and played 37 golf courses, and you didn’t even write about it?! You can’t just gloss over that!”
Any plans to go back to being a caddie?
You know, I’m an old man now. I’ve seen the end of that road, and it’s not pretty. I much prefer to be a writer. I don’t over-romanticize it. At the end of the day you’re carrying 50 pounds-plus in wind and rain. It’s not that romantic. Do you really want to be doing that when you’re 65 years old?
Loopers: A Caddie's Twenty-Year Golf Odyssey (Crown) is available at Amazon.com (List price: $25).