When Women Invaded the Caddyshack

04/11/2012 02:37 pm ET Updated Jun 11, 2012

Tiger Woods, the Augusta National Golf Club and the Masters tournament are back, and a recent story about the demise of black caddies indirectly raised an interesting question: What about female caddies? Did they ever exist? Thanks to creative caddie master Franz Rickaby, who wrote numerous articles for Golfer Magazine, the precursor to Golf, and a self-published memoirist, Edith Gilbert, we have a glimpse of girls as caddies.

It was 1918 in Charlevoix, Michigan. The sleepy town on the shores of Lake Michigan became a tony resort when the railroad arrived. Two elegant hotels and an 18- hole golf course were soon built, attracting well- heeled vacationers from Chicago, Detroit, St Louis and New Orleans. They arrived with their children, maids and nannies, trunks and golf clubs. Caddies were plentiful.

No one really knows where the word caddy comes from: Some say it refers to poor young men in 17th century Edinburgh who found odd jobs on the streets carrying packages; others say it comes from Mary Queen of Scots, who had military cadets in France carry her golf clubs. In any case, golf caddies have existed since the 1600s.

In 1890 the august Royal and Ancient Golf Club of St. Andrews in Scotland sought to improve the chaotic conditions for caddies by raising their fees and hiring Nicholas Robb, a retired military man with the wisdom and sensitivity of a parent, as the first ever caddie master. At the same time, Scottish designers came to America and built hundreds of courses in America, including the one in Charlevoix.

When Franz Rickaby, an English student at Knox College, was hired in 1913 as the first caddie master in Charlevoix (with part-time work as bandmaster at dinner dances), conditions were poor. Unruly and rambunctious, the caddies, local boys with no professional experience and sometimes no schooling, were unsupervised, undisciplined and eager for money. They fought among themselves for jobs and fought one another for diversion. The sheriff was routinely called to the club. Rickaby was hired to "untie the knot."

The bigger caddies intimidated the smaller ones, but Rickaby encouraged younger boys to participate, establishing mandatory training for all 150 caddies. He abolished the survival of the fittest system with a number system that equalized the work among them. He introduced a range of activities to keep them busy between golf games and allowed the well-behaved ones to play golf on Sunday mornings. The caddies earned 50 cents for nine holes, 75 cents for 18, 10 cents to carry the clubs to and from the clubhouse, and 50 cents an hour to chase balls during driving practice. At the end of the summer Rickaby distributed bonuses for outstanding service and convinced the club to add 10% to any boys' savings account. He began a Red Cross fund to encourage generosity among the boys, and an annual day-long sailing trip with "no unduly supervision" ended their season. Things were far better.

But in 1918 Rickaby, by then a professor of English at the University of North Dakota during the school year, faced a dilemma. New golf courses had opened in Northern Michigan, the needs of WWI provided new job opportunities for young boys, and the old time caddies had grown careless and lackadaisical. The club had a caddie shortage.

"Nothing aids in keeping the grade of commodities up... quite like competition," Rickaby wrote. He would add girls to the squad!

He took three weeks to lay the groundwork, speaking individually to skeptical players, reassuring local parents and mollifying the boy caddies. He supplemented these efforts with his weekly column in the local newspaper defending the fairness of his decision and encouraging the girls to apply, smoothing their eventual reception. Fourteen girls applied, joining 88 boys. Most were local, but a few came from faraway towns and slept in the clubhouse, which took some maneuvering on Rickaby's part; the following summer they had their own cabin.

The girls learned to carry and balance the bag, flag the hole, hand the clubs, understand and use the lingo, spot the bird nests, replace the divots, rake the sand traps and keep the score. They learned the advantages of loose clothing and the disadvantages of high heels and tight waistbands. By the end of the season, all but two or three girls had succeeded to give good service, the exact same rate as the boys.

"It's a bit like china -- chinaware we use at home and chinaware used by a short order cook -- either dish will serve a hungry man and the cleaning is the same, but the crash and the clatter ... allowable for one are entirely wrong for the other," Rickaby wrote. "But now when a player turns to see his clubs taken... by some wee bit lassie, he no longer shakes his head dubiously."

Rickaby's last summer in Charlevoix was in 1920, the third year with girls. But, like Rosie the Riveter, girl caddies soon lost their jobs to boys and boys lost their jobs to electric carts. Today only one of three golf courses in Charlevoix has caddies; it has about a dozen each summer, all boys. The club says girls would be welcome, but none have applied for many, many years. In fact, the few female caddies who do exist today, called "caddy chicks" and "caddy mates," are invariably young women, often scantily dressed, working on courses in Las Vegas and Scottsdale, "cleaning clubs, keeping score and ordering drinks."

Sources for this blog include seven articles in Golfer Magazine by Franz Rickaby published between January 1918 and July 1920, including "The Girl as Caddie" from November 1918, and Edith Gilbert's nemoir "Summer Resort Life," published in Petoskey, MI, by The Crooked Tree Arts Council in 1976.