c/o Toronto Star

c/o Toronto Star

I set out to write an article about the history of Augusta National’s racist past by chronicling the journey of the lives and contributions of the key figures. I wrote about Bobby Jones, the founder of Augusta National; Lee Elder, the first Black man to play in the tournament; Tiger Woods; and Carl Jackson, a longtime caddie at Augusta National. Hopefully, I will still write that article, but through my research and writing, I became consumed by the disturbing, charming, and riveting history of the Augusta National Caddie Corps. 

In 1930, Jones, along with businessman Clifford Roberts, purchased a 365-acre Indigofera plant farm in Augusta, Georgia. Jones had a vision of creating a serene and picturesque course for himself that could ultimately host a major golf tournament. Jones co-designed the course with architect Alister MacKenzie and Augusta National opened its doors in 1933. It held its inaugural tournament a year later, where Horton Smith became the first champion at Augusta. It was called the Augusta National Invitational until 1939, when its current name, “The Masters,” was adopted. With 87 editions of the tournament having been played at Augusta National, it has solidified its status as one of the premier venues in golf, second perhaps only to the Old Course at St Andrews Links in Scotland.

However, the beginnings of Augusta National were not a fairytale. The 365-acre land that Jones and Roberts purchased was once a slave plantation. The tournament name also elicits an eye raise, particularly in a state like Georgia where the word “master” evokes thoughts of slave owners. While Jones spearheaded the initial development of Augusta National, he took a backseat in the management once his dream came to fruition. Clifford Roberts became the inaugural chairman in 1934 and held the position until 1976. While Jones may not have held racist views, Roberts certainly did. In response to the question of Black men playing in the Masters, Roberts once said, “to make an exception would be practicing discrimination in reverse.” It wasn’t until 1975, 41 years after the tournament’s creation, that Lee Elder became the first Black man to tee up at Augusta. Augusta National’s policy wasn’t one of outright exclusion of people of color from their grounds, however. The majority of their service staff was Black, and all of the caddies were as well. 

While many who aren’t avid golf enthusiasts may perceive a caddie simply as someone who carries a golfer’s bag, the reality is that their role extends far beyond mere physical assistance. A caddie provides insights into the course, offers strategic advice, assists with club selection, reads greens, and practically works as a psychologist for five hours. Caddies are required to have intimate knowledge of the course, including its nuances, hazards, and optimal strategies for playing each hole. They play a crucial role in helping golfers make informed decisions and navigate the challenges of the game. Perhaps no other golf course in the world is a caddie more valuable than Augusta National, where trouble is at every turn and the greens undulate in ways the untrained eye could not recognize. Nowadays, golfers bring the caddies they employ year-round to assist them during the Masters, but this wasn’t always the case.

For the first 48 years of the Masters, until 1983, golfers had to employ the services of the club’s caddies rather than their own. This group of caddies, known as the Augusta National Caddie Corps, was composed of entirely Black individuals.

“As long as I’m alive, all the golfers will be white and all the caddies will be black,” Clifford Roberts notoriously said.

The tradition was rooted in racism. The Black man serving the white man has been a staple of white supremacist ideals for centuries. However, amidst this troubling backdrop, there are narratives of fascinating characters with remarkable achievements.

The story of the caddie corps can only begin with Willie Lee “Pappy” Stokes. Stokes was born in 1920 on the grounds of an Indigofera plant farm, the same land that Jones and Roberts purchased to build Augusta National. Stokes helped build Augusta National.

“I was born and raised there,” Stokes recalled. “It was a farm when I was young. I went out there every morning and I’d plow for cotton and corn. When they started building the course, I remember cutting down trees on No. 10 and No. 11.”

Stokes’ connection to the land gave him the ability to read fairways and greens like none other. He could tell which way a ball was going to break from 100 yards away. Stokes possessed a now well-known secret, but one that at the time only he and the caddies he mentored knew. Stokes knew that every ball would break towards Rae’s Creek, the 10-mile-long creek that haunts Amen Corner, holes 11–13 of Augusta that are infamous for ruining the rounds of countless golfers. Stokes imparted this secret, along with a wealth of knowledge about Augusta National, to his fellow caddies. The majority of these caddies grew up in Sand Hills, a historically Black district only three miles away from Augusta National. The majority of people who lived in Sand Hills worked in cotton mills, so the opportunity to carry a bag and give tips to the country’s elites for 11 months of the year and the best golfers in the world in April was a sought-after alternative for many young kids. Many of the kids started caddying when they reached double-digits, and Stokes’ Saturday caddie school became a beacon for the young kids of Sand Hills to learn the intricacies of Augusta National. 

Stokes had a close relationship with Roberts. Roberts would always employ Stokes when he played Augusta and when the first full week in April rolled around, Roberts would choose which players Stokes would caddie for. Stokes won his first Masters as a caddie in 1938, on the bag for hall-of-famer Henry Picard. It was the first of five wins Stokes was on the bag for; Claude Harmon, Ben Hogan–twice–and Jack Burke Jr. benefited from Stokes’s wisdom and captured the green jacket. Only Willie Peterson, who was on the bag for five of Jack Nicklaus’ six triumphs, has as many wins as a caddie, and no caddie has been on the bag for four different winners. 

The caddies of Augusta National were known for two things above all: their expert knowledge and vibrant nicknames. Stokes received his nickname Pappy because even at a young age he walked like an elderly man. Caddies were not always caddying and they weren’t allowed in the clubhouse under any circumstances. Thus, their free time was spent either studying the course or hanging out with each other in the Caddies’ Pen. They would play games, crack jokes, and tell each other stories. During this time, they developed nicknames.

Tommy “Burnt Biscuits” Bennett caddied for Tiger Woods in his first ever Masters and earned his nickname because he burnt himself as a kid trying to steal biscuits from his grandmother’s stove. 

Willie “Cemetery” Perteet was given his nickname by Dwight D. Eisenhower. Cemetery survived a knife attack from his ex-girlfriend and much to the surprise of the attending staff woke up in the hospital morgue. 

John H. “Stovepipe” Gordon was the caddie for Gene Sarazen in his 1935 victory that consisted of the famous ‘shot heard round the world’ where Sarazen made a double eagle on 15 en route to a five-shot victory. Before his shot, Sarazen rubbed a ring over Stovepipe’s head which consisted of a tall stovepipe hat, hence the nickname.

Nathaniel “Iron Man” Avery, who it is rumored earned his nickname because he lost a finger in a firecracker accident, was on the bag for Arnold Palmer’s four victories. In 1960, with Palmer down after the 15th hole, Iron Man famously asked him, “Mr. Palmer, are we chokin’?” Palmer came in with two birdies to win the Masters and credits Iron Man for knowing what made him focus. 

Fuzzy Zoeller is the last man to win the green jacket in his first Masters appearance back in 1979. On the bag for Zoeller was Jariah “Bubba” Beard. Zoeller credits Bubba for his victory.

“He called all of the shots,” Zoeller said. “He led me around like I was a blind man. Before I even got to the green, he’d tell me how the putts were breaking.” 

Perhaps the most famous of the caddies is Carl “Skillet” Jackson, who famously caddied for Ben Crenshaw. The two began their partnership in 1976 and after a second-place finish, Skillet remained on Crenshaw’s bag until 2015 when the pair retired together. Skillet and Crenshaw won two Masters together including a win in 1995 that is one of the most iconic triumphs in tournament history. Leading up to the event, Crenshaw, grappling with swing troubles after losing his mentor and swing coach, found pivotal guidance from Skillet. During their final practice round, Skillet advised Crenshaw to adjust his stance, urging him to move closer to the ball and execute a tighter turn with his left shoulder. Within a few swings, Crenshaw knew his swing was fixed. 70 holes later, Crenshaw found himself on the 16th tee tied for the lead with Davis Love III. With his trusty drawback, Crenshaw hoisted a 7 iron onto the center of the green where it caught the slope and funneled down to inside five feet. Crenshaw converted the birdie putt to get to -14 where he finished the tournament and captured his second Green Jackets. After making his putt to win, Crenshaw was consoled by Skillet on the 18th green and the two shared a hug in one of the most emotional scenes in tournament history.

However, everything changed in 1982. Many of the players were campaigning to bring their own caddies for some time now. Roberts staunchly opposed it, but following his death in 1977 and an incident during the 1982 tournament where players’ bags got soaked and some caddies arrived late, chairman Hord Hardin rescinded the prohibition on outside caddies. The following year, only 18 of the 82 golfers in the field used Augusta caddies. This number continued to decrease, and now club caddies are rarely seen in April. 

A select few of the men, like Skillet, who stayed on Crenshaw’s bag, and Charles “Bull” Williams, who caddied for President Bush when he played, maintained their jobs, but most of the approximately 90 caddies lost their jobs. It was a disappointing and difficult transition for many of these caddies, as the income they got from working at Augusta was what many of these men relied on. Some of the men picked up odd jobs, like Bubba, who returned to his night shift at a paper company. Others continued caddying at other nearby courses, but their pay and experience were much worse. Some men even fell out of work completely. 

This shift away from the image of a white man accompanied by a black caddie represented, on a broader scale, a positive evolution from the plantation era in the South to a more progressive era. But for the caddies it not only meant a loss of job, but a loss of a place in golf for the Black man. Although there are no race restrictions present anymore, there is only one Black man in the 2024 Masters (Tiger Woods) and the number of black caddies can be counted on one hand. So while there has been progress from its racist origins, Augusta and golf as a whole is still lacking in diversity. 

Sam Weitzman-Kurker can be reached at sweitzmankur@wesleyan.edu