U.S. Open week a special time for long-time Cypress Point caddie Joe Solis

U.S. Open week a special time for long-time Cypress Point caddie Joe Solis

Cypress Point's dramatic cliffs have long been a destination for golf's biggest names.
Mike Ehrmann/MetLife Blimp

MONTEREY, Calif. — Joe Solis was born here in 1922, started caddying 11 years later, and has never really cared that much for Pebble Beach. “Too long,” he says. “Couldn’t wait to get to 18.” His place was Cypress Point, just up the street, where he logged thousands of rounds as a caddie, hundreds as a player and served as caddie master for decades.

In 1981 the Walker Cup was played at Cypress. On a wall of Joe Solis’s house here is a team photo, all the guys sitting in rows, smiling. It’s not the players in the shot. It’s the caddies.

Solis caddied in the first Crosby Clambake at Pebble, in ’47, and he was friends with Bing Crosby for years and years. Crosby was a good golfer and a member of Cypress and he loved the game. Solis has another snap that shows Crosby, in his customary hat, and Solis and two other caddies after a game. Solis had set it up. After the game, Bing invited the caddies into the locker room for beers. The caddies protested. They said they weren’t allowed in there, but Bing insisted. They were his guests. “Bing said, ‘I’ve played with kings and queens and presidents, but that’s the most fun I’ve ever had on the course.'” For years, Solis, who turns 90 next year, would pick up various Crosby children at their various colleges and take them wherever they needed to go.

He lives on a hill in a winding suburban street, opposite the Elks Lodge, with his wife of 63 years, Sannie. Dinner the other night at the Solis house, he joked, was “Hamburger Helper.” This weekend, the U.S. Open will be on in his living room. “I like it,” he says. “I like it when the big events come here. I like the hustle and bustle.” He’s fascinated to hear how much give-and-take there is now between player and caddie. It wasn’t always like that. “It must be helpful or the players wouldn’t do it,” Solis says.

Still, he says, the Tour caddie has it easy, compared to the club caddie. “The pro hits it down the middle. You can’t lose his ball. The club caddie, he’s got two bags, one player in the left rough, the other in the right, you’re reading greens for both. The club caddie could caddie on Tour. But not the other way around.”

As for the winner this week, Solis, who for years was a good amateur golfer, has a prediction: Tiger Woods can be in the mix, and maybe win, if he can find his rhythm again. He says: “I’ve seen many swings. Many, many swings. You see a lot of crazy swings. Palmer, Trevino, the guy who goes like this.” And now Solis, wearing a tan windbreaker in his house — meds on a nearby table, walker on the other side — began swinging his arms around like a slithering snake. “You know, Furyk. They talk about all these swing positions. What matters is rhythm.”

In the ’50s, when Clint Eastwood was a young actor who liked golf, Solis helped him get on the Cypress links on Monday mornings, when the caddies could play. “Strong, handsome young man, loved golf, very sensitive, very quiet,” Solis says. When he gives you a scouting report on a person, you can take it to the bank. “But the poor guy was a terrible golfer.” Lousy rhythm. Still, he became a member of Cypress, and an owner of Pebble Beach.

Everybody came through Cypress. Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson; Eisenhower and Kennedy and Reagan; Howard Hughes and Bill Gates; Charlie Chaplin, in a big black car, carrying his clubs and a girlfriend.

“Chaplin wanted a putting lesson, so the pro, Henry Puget, comes out to give him one,” Solis says. This was in the ’30s. “Pro gets some balls from his bag and Chaplin says, ‘No, I want six new balls from the shop.’ OK, six new balls from the shop. They start putting. Chaplin doesn’t want him or Henry bending over to pick up the balls, so they call me in to shag balls on the putting green! The girl’s watching the whole thing. The putting lesson’s over and Chaplin goes into his pocket and takes out a bunch of bills. The wind gets ’em and they start flying all over the place. I collect them and give them back to him. He gives $10 to Henry and $5 to me! I was so scared the other caddies would see it I ran all the way home, seven miles.” Back then, if the club was busy — and it never was — a caddie might make $5 in a week. Solis, who never finished high school, gave the money to his father, a Spaniard who worked in the Del Monte Forest and on Cannery Row.

Solis was a source for the book “The Match,” about the legendary 1950 game at Cypress, set up by Eddie Lowery and George Coleman, in which Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson, at the height of their powers, took on two hot-shot amateurs, Ken Venturi and Harvey Ward. “Coleman built this room,” Solis says. He waved his arm about. There was a Compton Encyclopedia on a shelf. Mrs. Solis was sitting by a window, thumbing through a newspaper circular. Old golf photos were on the walls. “It was a garage.”

Coleman didn’t help with the construction, but he financed the conversion, in a manner of speaking. “He was the only member to ever give us a stock tip,” Solis says. “He told us to buy stock in a company called Zapata Petroleum. It was $5 a share. He said, ‘Don’t sell it until I tell you to.’ Eventually it became Pennzoil. The price went up to $212. My stockbroker calls and says, ‘I’ve never seen a stock so high. You gotta sell it.’ I try to reach George. I can’t. He’s off skiing in Europe with his wife. I tell the stockbroker, ‘I can’t sell it until George says to.’ It was worth $250,000, in the ’60s. A lot of money. George comes back. He tells me not to sell. When I finally did, it was selling at $75. I wasn’t upset.” No, why would he be? A $5 stock turned into a $75 stock, and built him the room in which he’ll watch the U.S. Open this week.

He’s eager to see what Tom Watson does this week. Solis likes Watson, and Watson likes Cypress. He’s played it often over the years. “One time he’s playing in the rain,” says Solis, who would handle the pro shop when the pro was out. In all his years at Cypress, he worked for only two, Puget and Jim Langley, who became like a brother to him. “Watson says he needs a hat. We got this thing we call the floppy hat. Good in the rain. He says, ‘How much?’ I say, ‘$14.’ Watson says, ‘I’m not paying no $14 for a hat.’ So I give him the pro price, $9. He bought it.”

With Nicklaus, Solis had the opposite experience. “I had the candy concession. Nicklaus wanted a Snickers bar. They were 50 cents. Nicklaus says, ‘Fifty cents? You’re not charging enough. At other places they’re getting $1.50.'”

But if you know Cypress at all, that’s part of the charm of the place, that the $1.50 candy bar is 50 cents. That men like Joe Solis, with more insight into people than Dr. Phil on his best day, can have a long, rewarding career there. Joe’s brother, Sam, worked at the club for years, too, in the clubhouse. A club drink, the Sam Special, is named for him. Joe’s nephew, Vince Lucido, is a Cypress caddie today. He was in the group when Woods played at Cypress. All the pros want to make a stop there.

“Cypress wasn’t always so famous,” Solis says. “It happened over the years, because of Bing’s tournament, and the magazines, with their rankings. People would come to the club and say, ‘Can I go down to 16 and take a picture?'” The 16th at Cypress is an artwork, a cliff-to-cliff par-3, one of the most beautiful holes in the world. “I’d let them go down and get their picture.”

Solis has two pictures of the Cypress’s 16th on a wall in the converted garage that George Coleman built for him. There’s also a picture of Coleman and Solis and Hogan. Hogan, you may know, was famously serious, “sober,” to use Solis’s word. The wee ice mon has a nice smile in this shot. Solis knows why. Hogan liked Cypress and the people there. “Once he was in the shop, picking up wedges and putters,” Solis said. “Pros will always pick up wedges and putters, feel what they’re like. He had just come in from a round. I ask him how it went and he says, ‘Joey, I had a great time.'”