The first time he ever worked as a caddy, he was 12 years old and carried the bag of a guy known at a New Jersey golf course as “Big Red.” The golfer wore red shoes, red clothes and owned a heavy red bag.
Nate Ross, now 65, still remembers what he learned that day. Stay out of the way and speak when spoken to. Ross, a caddy at Kiawah’s Ocean Course for the past 17 years, has a lot of stories to tell, though, and waiting to be asked might be the toughest part of his job.
Ross came to Charleston as a basketball coach. He spent eight years at Appalachian State after a chance hiring by Bobby Cremins. Cremins, from New York, took a chance on Ross, a high school teacher from New Jersey.
Maybe it was his accent. They might have been the only two people in Boone, North Carolina, who could understand what the other one was saying.
Ross then spent seven more years as an assistant coach at The Citadel. After that, there were five long years attempting to own and manage a sandwich shop on King Street.
In 2000, he and a friend heard they were looking for caddies at Kiawah. He went for an interview on a Monday and was told to be back Tuesday morning. He’s been going to work there ever since.
There are generally three rules for a caddy to remember:
Ross never had an issue with the first two. He’s learned the importance of waiting for a conversational opportunity. When that door opens, he’s ready to rush in with a couple of quick stories. Ross can certainly read a green, but he’d rather tell you about where Rory McElroy hit his drive when winning the PGA Championship or where Seve Ballesteros displayed some gamesmanship in the Ryder Cup.
The customer is usually far more interested in that.
Does he ever wonder what in the world some of the players pack into their golf bags? At times, he’ll politely suggest the customer consider lightening the load. Most players have never had a caddy. They’re nervous and not too sure how the experience is supposed to work. Ross’ job is to make their four-and-a-half hours together fun.
Ross rarely carries twice in one day. That’s left to the younger guys, especially in the summer.
People from all over the world visit Kiawah and want to play the Ocean Course. He’s learned to say “good shot” in Japanese and knows how to communicate “left” and “right” in Spanish.
When not caddying, Ross goes full tilt on his other passion as a TV analyst for college sports. He worked 60 games last year: football, basketball, baseball and even some women’s lacrosse. It doesn’t involve as much walking, but still gives him a chance to tell some stories.
When the summer brings him back to the quick greens and lush fairways, he’s back on the schedule and ready to clock the miles with the next group on the tee.
“On the first hole, I’ll tell my player if you need help, just ask,” says Ross. “After that, I just stay out of the way. By the fifth hole, he’s usually looking for help.”
Getting to walk where some of the game’s greatest have journeyed is a daily privilege for Ross and the other caddies. When visitors pony up a greens fee that is north of $300 per round, they expect an experience.
With Ross on the bag, that player regularly gets his money’s worth. Ross show up and will definitely keep up, but that round will probably involve one or two stories along the way that the player is likely to remember as much as a putt that did or didn’t drop.
Reach Warren Peper at firstname.lastname@example.org