Ask golfers of a certain younger persuasion about caddies, and a lot of them will conjure certain images:
- a gruff Steve Williams, whose consistent inability to connect on a high-five with Tiger Woods is lore;
- the hunched-over slidestep of Mike “Fluff” Cowan; and,
- the sage tutelage of Webb Simpson by Paul Tesori, who himself longed to be the young major champion his man now is.
To younger golfers, caddies are pros, walking alongside the guys who play for seven-figure purses, who figure out numbers for the best in the world.
For many in the older set, a caddie is something they once were. You either got a paper route or you lugged bags in the summer to make money — either for yourself, your family or both. It might have paid for your 8-Track or your degree. But being a caddie was more than a source of income. It exposed young people to the pseudo- and true aristocrats that play our sport, examples of success and what it can do for you, as well, sadly in some cases, what it can do to you. In exchange for lugging an impossibly heavy bag in the hot sun over 4 miles in four hours, a caddie might earn 3 credits of business acumen and a contact in the Rolodex that might be the break they needed.
Despite the best efforts of the likes of the Chicago-based Evans Scholars Foundation and the on-air lamentations of Golf Channel’s Charlie Rymer, however, caddie programs have been steadily disappearing from this country’s golf scene. It’s hard to truly understand what impact the loss of local loopers has on the sport in this country, but a program half a world away in Kenya might give us an idea.
Mombasa is Kenya’s second-largest city. The population of the seaside haven and port is well over a million. While the African country has managed to attract foreign investment, the wealth that comes with it is yet to reach the masses. Unemployment remains high in Mombasa, with thousands living on the streets, including many children who struggle to find food and shelter. It’s easy to slide into crime and drug addiction and accept their illusions as an escape from a tough life.
A U.K.-based charity, however, has been using golf to offer a number of teens a chance to transform their lives.
In 2005, then-20-year-old Victoria Ferguson was on her gap year before heading to university in the U.K. She spent time during that year in Kenya, particularly taken aback that the thousands of Mombasa children who call the streets home had such a lack of formal support from the community. Ferguson decided to do something about it, working with her father to launch Glad’s House in June 2006.
They began with a simple game of soccer once a week, where they invited the children to come play and eat a provided lunch afterward. Eventually, the games became so popular they were played most days. As the games expanded, the offerings at Glad’s House did, too.
By 2009, Glad’s House offered programs staffed with counselors and social workers, offering classes and a place to rest. The bulk of the 600-700 kids Glad’s House serves each day turned to the streets before the age of 10, ending their formal and informal education at a critical time in their development.
“Many of them have faced tremendous traumas on the streets — psychological and physical,” Ferguson said in an interview. “Often times, the people who abuse them are the ones that should be taking care of them.”
The physical abuse and poverty often turn into dependencies on cheap glue or marijuana for a quick high.
Breaking the cycle of poverty and addiction is difficult to do without a last alternative. Unexpectedly for Ferguson, caddying proved to be just that. In 2009, the caddie program launched at the nearby Vipingo Ridge Golf Resort.
“Golf was quite a left-field thing,” Ferguson admitted.
The program, supported by the European Tour Players Foundation, begins with an intense 3-month training period. The participants are hand-selected by Glad’s House and supported financially while they learn the basics of golf and the finer art of caddying. Once they complete the program, they are self-employed, looping at the resort and keeping what they’re paid for each round they work.
The money is important, but Ferguson recognizes the safe haven the golf course provides.
“We’re taking them out of a very chaotic environment and giving them the space and time to reflect,” she said. “It’s very peaceful. Many of the children have been on the streets for over 10 years, so the contrast is stark.”
The caddies, young men and women varying in age from 18-25, embrace the responsibility.
“We’re giving them a position of trust, which no one has ever given them before,” Ferguson said. “The people that live there are politicians, very affluent people, and we’re saying to them, We trust you.”
Being treated as a human being with value, instead of being referred to in a derogatory way as chokora, is empowering and encouraging. Ultimately, golf is a vehicle to independence. The caddies eventually take jobs elsewhere in Mombasa. One is a cop, another works for the port, while another has come back to Glad’s House as a counselor.
The program has gone a step further, working with the European Challenge Tour to give street children a chance to caddie during the Kenya Open.
Some of the caddies have developed into talented players themselves. A number of them are refining their games in tournaments. Glad’s House pays the entry fee so their kids can compete.
“Golf is such an alien sport,” Ferguson said. “It’s affluent and rich, and these kids come from nothing, but they’re really good at it.”