Summer of ’51
Learning Rules of the Game
Both in Life and on the Links
By Edward Shanahan
It’s late afternoon on a summer day in 1951, as I head back to camp from a day of caddying on Cape Cod when I spy the familiar robin’s egg blue Cadillac parked on a dusty road leading to the campground.
It will be Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy, matriarch of the Hyannisport Kennedys, and she will want to retain a lad like me to carry her golf bag for four of five holes that envelope the caddy camp compound for her end of the day solo outing.
Fine with me, it will mean another dollar in addition to what I already earned earlier that day from an 18 hole tour with a foursome of high rollers.
Why do I now recall that day ? It’s prompted by a New York Times article titled “Carry that Weight, One of the Last Camps for Caddies Continues to Mold Young Men, “ that described perhaps the last caddie camp, this one at Sankaty Head Golf Club in Nantucket.
In 1951 I was not exactly a young man, more like a teenager. I was 15.
Water color by David Hughes: www.hugheswatercolors.com
And while the unusual nature of the camp and the varied experiences I shared with other caddies and the club’s golfers remain vivid for me, I needed some help to summon up details of events of that summer.
Lo and behold, by navigating the Internet, I found an archived article from a 1959 Sports Illustrated issue that provided me with more information about the caddie camp phenomenon than I might have expected.
I turns out, as I believe I knew at the time, that the same man, Donald Morison Smith from Worcester, who I knew only as Smitty, founded the Hyannisport camp in 1921 and also the one at Sankaty Head in 1930. While the Nantucket camp survives, even thrives to this day, Smitty’s involvement in the Hyannisport operation ended in 1953.
Although the Times article views the caddy camp as a molder of young men, the SI article from 1959 took a more pragmatic view of the camp. It “not only relieved the local caddie shortage,” the author wrote, but “ served as a superb example to the rest of the golfing nation, harried as it is by a severe and growing shortage of experienced caddies.”
Today, except at the elevated level of professional golf, there are no longer caddies . That shortage has been fixed by golf carts, which, of course, spelled doom for future prospects of sustaining caddie world.
When my parents sent me to Hyannisport in 1951 they were not thinking about character building or the caddie shortage, so much as a pleasant camp experience for me which paid for itself and gave them a summer of freedom.
The concept was pretty simple. Each day’s pay for totting heavy golf bags for club members went into each camper’s account which offset the per diem costs of staying at the camp, in those early days perhaps $1.50 a day. At the end of the summer, a reliable caddie might end up with a surplus in his account of a couple of hundred dollars, although especially aggressive caddies, called shekel-grabbers and willing to carry two rounds a day, could wind up with lots more in their account when Labor Day and the end of camp came.
According to the Times article, Sankaty Head caddies today can earn from $3,500 to as much as $9,000 for a summer’s work, which includes generous tips from well-heeled club members.
My recollection of that summer of ’51 is not about the money, but the experience itself. The location was unparalleled, the course located on the edge of panoramic Nantucket Sound with tricky marsh grasses and unforgiving water hazards as well as challenging fairways bordered by tall pine trees.
There were the other caddies from many parts of New England whose presence did much to undermine my provincialism and naivete. They told stories as well as lies about all kind of experiences that were new to me, but riveting nonetheless..
The living quarters were close – an arc of rudimentary wooden stuctures covered with green canvass, ticking filled with hay served as mattresses for the half dozen bunk beds in each unit. Gang showers and outdoor plumbing served as bathrooms, and there was a large mess hall presided over by a young Korean-American gymnast from Springfield College.
Besides typical boys’ camp activities, the emphasis was very heavily focused on golf. Caddies could play a full round on the course one day a week, and each late afternoon and early evening we were out on the course playing at will. The camp fielded a team that played caddies from other camps on the Cape, and there was an annual caddie tournament for the Hyannisport gang.
The mere requirement of caddying for adult golfers provided an education of how the game should and should not be played, what kind of swing produced good results, and which players, lacing in proper technique, were hopeless hackers. Perhaps the most instructive rounds were caddying for visiting professionals as well as lugging the very heavy bag for the club pro.
Players who cheated in counting their strokes might be surprised to learn their caddie could try to compensate for that by kicking the offending golfer’s ball behind a tree or intentionally not finding the ball of an errant shot.
Of course, there was heavy duty instruction for the caddies about the dos and donts of the game as it related to the caddie’s role. Be quiet, be deferential, be almost invisible, but be ready with the right club when demanded. We picked up very quickly the elements of convention and courtesy that characterize the game and these lessons would be helpful to us in future endeavors.
Nearby Craigville Beach provided swimming and surf activities and one day a week each caddie had a free day.
I recall that on one of those days, I hitchhiked round trip to Falmouth to visit my older sister who had a summer job taking care of a child and doing simple housekeeping.
Saturday nights we were transported into Hyannis for a look at the sights, which for a 15 year old did not provide a whole lot of excitement.
An unusual aspect of that summer were the series of nights when groups of caddies were invited to the Kennedy compound hard by the golf club for a cookout and then a movie – thanks to patriarch Joseph Kennedy who was a big shot in the film industry - shown in the basement theater of the Kennedy summer home.
Besides our tours of duty with Rose, we also had opportunities to caddy for her daughters, although I can’t recall seeing any of the sons on the course.
The summer of “51 served no larger purpose than to provide a teenager with new environment, a chance to share common experiences with new friends, and escape from parental oversight.
Maybe caddie camp did have a beneficial purpose after all.
Learning Rules of the Game
Both in Life and on the Links
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