An army without leaders is like a foot without a big toe....I think we owe a big round of applause our newest, bestest buddy, and big toe...Sergeant Hulka.
-Bill Murray, Stripes
A PGA Tour caddie for over four decades, longtime looper Steve Hulka carries a lot more than his client's clubs.
In 2002, Chicago-native Hulka started his eponymous Hulka's Overland Players Express, which trucks and trailers all manner of player gear and personal effects from tourney-to-tourney along the Tour trail for upwards of 40 events a year.
Upbeat, comical and buoyant in nature, the impetus for Hulka's "night job" was realized, earnestly enough, in the wake of 9/11.
"I was flying through the Baltimore airport, not that long after 9/11," recalls Hulka. "And when I found myself in a two-hour line carrying just a backpack and there are two Army guys standing in the hallway with M-16s, I asked myself, 'Am I in Beirut?' I mean, I'm in fricking Baltimore! And I started to wonder how the Tour players were going to get their baby strollers, their golf clubs, their suitcases through lines like this."
Hulka answered his own inner monologue by fast inquiring with his close contacts at the PGA Tour, ensuring he received approval for his idea. After being informed that the Tour had just received a similar idea from a caddie on the Champions Tour, Hulka, when asked if he had a formal business plan – ended up banging out an eight-page proposal overnight.
With the Tour's green light, Hulka's Big Tow pressed the pedal.
Long familiar with the road life from his barnstorming caddie days in the 1970s, Hulka brought his brainstorm to a core of players: Ben Crane, Jonathan Byrd, Tim Herron, Paul Stankowski, a former boss of his, along with his boss at the time, Pat Bates. Each planted a seed of $1,500. Hulka bought a Chevy Silverado and a trailer, and the acronym of H.O.P.E. was in gear.
"Or, as I said at the beginning of all this: I sure 'hope' they use it,'" laughs Hulka.
Come the onset of the 2003 campaign, Hulka posted locker room signage of his business and rig and was pleased to find instant results.
Recalls Hulka: "Corey Pavin came up to me and said, 'Hulka: You're telling me you're gonna' haul my luggage for me from week-to-week? Sign me up.'"
Eighteen years and over 800,000 miles later, Hulka's hope has been realized in full. Now on his fourth Silverado, the business has about 55 full-time Tour clients and, on a given week, the trailer is full with over 250 player items and 60 easy-stack bins.
With time, the logistics have become (mostly) rote.
"We detail everything we carry every week, for every player, caddie or official who we're working with," says Hulka of his log book. "At this point, we've come to memorize about 90 percent of it."
Working closely with tournament head ops officials at each event, Hulka has players drop off their stuff at his trailer on Sunday afternoons (or, Friday if they miss the cut) -- whatever the haul contents or distance to the next tournament, there's never getting an early start.
"It's always last putt if we need to wait for clients playing in the last couple groups; or, of course, if we wait-out a playoff," explains Hulka, who is based in the Phoenix area. "The hardest guy to wait for? That would be Rickie Fowler – and, believe me, that's not a slight. A few years back at the Honda, he signed a thousand autographs before then going to the press room; then, back in the locker room, he apologized profusely for having to put a few things in his bin and give us the clubs. But he's one of the greatest guys to come down the pike. When Rickie comes to our trailer, the way he interacts with the kids, everybody...I'm tearing up thinking about how proud Arnold Palmer would be of Rickie. He gets it, and I wish more guys were like him."
Some H.O.P.E. commutes are easier than others -- for example, the recent SoCal segue from American Express in the Palm Springs-area to the Farmers in San Diego was a mere two-hour drive time for the Hulka trailer.
"We were done unloading by 11:30 on Sunday night, door to door," says Hulka.
Other drives...not always so easy: Come late may, Hulka will roll from the Charles Schwab Challenge in Ft. Worth, Texas, to the Rocket Mortgage Classic in Detroit, Mich., totaling about 1,200 miles.
Varying levels of client commitment denote Hulka's haul; for many players, it's a matter of taking golf gear from the locker room of one event to the next. For others, it's a full tee sheet of items.
Gary Woodland and Kevin Chappell opt for Hulka's highest level of service.
"It's for a Sunday pickup, where we get everything from the hotel they're staying at and deliver it right to the next hotel, or the house they may be renting," Hulka details. "Gaby, Gary's wife, she's so organized, and they also travel with a chef, and now they’ve got three kids, so all five of the Woodlands are on the road together, and this service enables Gary to just focus on golf."
On occasion, Hulka bangs-out walk-up business.
"Like, I just got a text this morning from Luke Donald, asking me to haul clubs from Waste Management in Phoenix to Pebble for the AT&T," offers Hulka. "I wasn't at the course right then, but told him to pack up his clubs, leave 'em at his locker and we'll square-up in NorCal. Boom. That's kinda' how it works."
The cargo stacks from clubs to, well, whatever folks need to get to the next stop. Hulka has hauled everything from a personal trainer's spin bike to Paul Casey's mountain bike to a caddie's BMW motorcycle during a rainy travel week.
"The strangest thing used to be Louis Oosthuizen's queen-size mattress," says Hulka. "The most unique thing we're carrying these days is Matthew Wolff's grandmother's electric scooter, which she needs to ride on while she watches him play."
And though Hulka is still far from needing his own senior scooter to get around a course, he admits that his road work is nearing an end. Now in his late 60s, having caddied for over 150 players (most notably, eight-time Tour winner, Australian David Graham) and crisscrossing the country for 40 years, he's readying to join his longtime travel partner, wife Mary, in retirement. After 11 years beside him in the truck (as both passenger and driver), she hung-up the hauling spikes two years ago to play full-time Grammy, and Hulka will soon do the same; in good time, he'll pass the bustling business along to son and daughter-in-law.
As for any opportunistic highwaymen thinking they may get the drop on this road warrior and his precious cargo?
That idea is best avoided.
"There hasn't been a situation in 18 years," concludes Hulka. "But if there ever is, I'm ready."