Loop Dreams

The phone rang early Thursday morning in the caddyshack at Congressional, the golf club for the rich and powerful in Potomac. The call came from Avenel, another picturesque adult playpen located about a John Daly 3-wood down River Road from Congressional.

“We need a caddie over here. Now!” ordered the caller.

Because he was closest to the phone, James Henry, an Oxon Hill resident and professional caddie, was asked if he wanted the job.

Henry genuinely digs his steady gig caddying (“looping” in links parlance) at Congressional, but this was opening day of the Kemper Open, the high-dollar, highfalutin PGA Tour’s annual stop at Avenel. That other course, though far younger, shorter, and less storied than Congressional, was hosting several of the biggest names in golf—pampered swingers with names like Daly and Pavin and Stewart and Price. Avenel is where a seven-figure pie would be sliced up before a national television audience....

Henry, 51, first fell for golf in grade school, when he took home $1.50 a round for lugging the clubs of oil men in Odessa, Texas.

“It was golf-o-matic for me from the first time I went to a course,” laughs Henry. “I couldn’t get enough of the game. Still can’t. Golf is what I eat, sleep, drink, play, watch...whatever.”

Henry caddied in Odessa and around the Southwest through his teen years. A stint in the military took him away from golf, but he got back into looping on a part-time basis when he returned to civilian life and moved to the Washington area in 1968. After retiring last year from his job as a computer specialist with the Justice Department, Henry decided the most appealing way to supplement his government pension would be carrying 15-to-40-pound golf bags full-time at Congressional. (On his days off, Henry can be found caddying for himself at the far more public Langston Golf Course on Benning Road.)

Since looping became his day job, Henry’s had several brushes with greatness, including twice serving as First Caddie for President Clinton. “Bill Clinton’s got a good game,” Henry says of his most commanding client. “Shoots an 85 or 86. Doesn’t cheat.”

Doesn’t cheat? Not at all?

“Nope. Doesn’t cheat at all.”

Never? Ever?

“Well, he might hit two balls now and then...”

Aha! Forget Whitewater! Move over, Paula Jones! Here we have eyewitness testimony that the President HITS TWO BALLS! On the same hole! Are you listening, Al D’Amato?

“...but he always plays the first ball. Every time.”

Oh. Never mind.

Playing laborer/coach/cheerleader/psychoanalyst for those who wield power off the course—the kind of power so many of Congressional’s regulars possess—has its rewards. Mostly financial ones: Henry pocketed $270 last time out with Clinton, for example. But any true golf aficionado would rather loop for somebody whose clout is from tee to hole. Even if he weren’t giddy about going to the show, the caddie’s credo holds that you never, ever turn down a loop. So when that desperate call from Avenel came last Thursday, Henry really didn’t have to think too hard.

“I’ll work the Kemper,” he announced.

For a half hour or so after taking the Avenel job, Henry was like a high-schooler who’d been asked to the big dance but didn’t have anything to wear. The clothes he’d worn to Congressional wouldn’t meet the PGA’s dress code, but there wasn’t time to drive back to Oxon Hill to pick up code-friendly apparel from home. He had no choice but to buy a pair of pants off the rack at Congressional’s super-expensive pro shop. Henry was in the hole financially before he’d even left the club.

He put on his pricey new trousers and rushed over to the Avenel clubhouse to get his working papers. Right away, Henry found out he wouldn’t be looping for Daly or Pavin or Stewart or Price or any of the tour’s marquee names. Instead, he was paired with Gary Koch of Tampa, Fla., whose regular caddie called in sick at the last minute. Despite having six wins and more than $1.6 million in earnings during his PGA Tour career, Koch’s current renown comes via his role as a golf analyst for ESPN. As a player, Koch hadn’t even made the cut at a PGA event in several years. Henry didn’t fret over the recent shortcomings of his assignee, however. This was still big-time golf, after all, and besides, Henry was expected to be at the first tee with Koch in less than 90 minutes.

As he strapped on his caddie’s bib, Henry articulated his game plan.

“All I know about Gary Koch is that I’ve seen him talk about golf on TV,” Henry said, without a trace of the pre-tee jitters. “As a caddie, you’d like to be familiar with a player’s game, but there’s not enough time to do that now. I’ll go watch his stroke now at the driving range and the practice green, see what I can see, and then ask him if he wants advice. Nobody knows everything about golf, but I know the game well enough to where I feel comfortable giving out advice to those who want it, even one of these guys. If Gary Koch wants it and needs advice, I’ll be ready.”

Knowing the game as he does, Henry was aware that if Koch shot well enough to make the cut after 36 holes, his own payday would be far beyond what he got from the presidential foursome—caddies on the PGA Tour regularly get 6 and sometimes even 10 percent of their players’ winnings. What’s more, just about everybody who’s still on the board Saturday, when the network cameras take over from cable channels, is solicited as a mobile model by representatives of ball and equipment manufacturers or sports apparel companies hoping to get their firms’ names splashed on America’s TV screens. When asked what he thought about the sponsorship dollars that could be thrown his way if things worked out, Henry, for the first time since getting to Avenel, let on that he was aware of the hugeness of the event he was about to participate in.

“I’d love to be asked to wear a hat or a shirt for money,” Henry chuckled just before picking up Koch’s bag and heading off for his first meeting with the player. “If I get my guy to stay inside the ropes all four days here, that could happen. I hope it does. I really do.”

So much for hope. As things turned out, this year’s Kemper wouldn’t be, as Bill Murray’s Karl would put it, a Shinderella Shtory for Henry and Koch. Off the tee at the par-four first hole, Koch sliced his drive very, very badly to the right. Henry stood expressionless as his meal ticket’s opening shot of the tournament settled in the bunker well off the fairway. Any sincere advice for Koch at that point would have to include finding another day job, but Henry wisely kept his own counsel.

On the long walk uphill toward the sand trap a few paces behind Koch, caddying on the big-time circuit didn’t seem quite so sublime to Henry. As Koch’s round continued in similarly dreadful fashion, the looper’s thoughts of making the cut, of drawing the attention of sponsors and taking home some serious PGA dollars, began to wither away. Henry soon had matters far more mundane than golf celebrityhood to dwell on. Like how he was going to convince the pro shop at Congressional to take back his slacks.—Dave McKenna

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