McRae Pinehurst Genius Who Caddied for Stars and Common Man
Willie Lee McRae of Taylortown, North Carolina, never became a political superstar, a famous athlete, or renowned touring golfer, but those who did depended on him for his knowledge and guidance. From the age of 10 in 1943, he caddied at the famous Pinehurst Course, and racked up a clientele that featured five American presidents, a raft of famous athletes from various sports, famous golfers at crucial championships moments, and just about anyone else who asked, famous or otherwise. He had Pinehurst down to individual blades of grass, but didn’t get starstruck. In his words, “Everyone’s a celebrity.”
In the beginning , he made about $1.75 per round, adding a 50 cent tip. The fee he gave his mother, and got to keep the tip. His list of on-the-course associations includes Michael Jordan, Mickey Mantle, Gene Sarazen, Bobby Jones and Snead – Jack Burke, Jr., Tommy Bolt, and Julius Boros, Palmer, Hogan and Miller. Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Ford, he thought, were pretty nice folks, and the former didn’t play too badly. He was particularly fond of Chi Chi Rodriguez and Tom Lehmann. In the big picture, he was utterly in love with Pinehurst, and didn’t need to base himself anywhere else. And why should he? Sooner or later all the stars would come to him at a course like that. My impression is that Pinehurst felt much the same about McRae.
Employer Donald Ross was a fine player, although Jordan didn’t play as well as he imagined. At one point, he considered helping Charles Barkley with his swing, but reconsidered – “There just ain’t no help for that man.” That is the short list. McRae had a pretty good game going himself, serving as captain for the Army team at Fort Dix, where he was a colleague of Earl Woods. Mind you, Woods wasn’t nearly as good a golfer as he was. Together, they won a few local tournaments. McRae also won the caddie’s tournament at Pinehurst three times.
The institution of being a caddie means different things to different people. For many unknowing muni weekenders, caddies are similar to burros and llamas, beasts of burden and better off being silent about the client’s game. It does seem true that we who play a mediocre game cling to our beliefs more tightly than a star seeking improvement wherever it can be found. To a person who really knows, and needs specific information on a specific course, a caddie like Willie Lee McRae is the guy who packs your parachute. He is indispensable and must be trustworthy. Of course, the player still needs to hit the shot, but the caddie’s job is upping your percentage for success.
With all of his expertise, McRae didn’t take things too seriously, and sported a pretty good wit. One remark I had not heard, and would have not thought to employ since I clicked so well with my mother-in-law – “That was a mother-in-law [shot]. It looked good leaving.” Some of his recollections are colorful and interesting, but the one player who seemed to exhaust him was Gene Sarazen, who moved so quickly between shots that he was almost impossible to keep up with. McRae acted with restraint regarding those he did not enjoy, largely remaining silent. In a recent tribute to the great caddie, he discussed the various presidents for whom he had held the bag, and observed that he couldn’t remember the final one. When someone in the crowd piped up and asked “Lincoln?” Willie joined in with the humor.
We often think of the color, sensations and associations of the game, and include them in our fondest memories. For those who avail themselves of caddies, much of the nostalgia comes from the time spent with these men and women who have studied courses in such detail. Willie McRae occupied a spot among the most renowned and knowledgeable of the bunch, increasingly a prerequisite for selfies by golfers who got lucky and drew his number. Pinehurst, an icon itself, is a sadder place today for his loss.