During my 11 years as a caddie I carried the bags of CEOs, movie stars and Tour players and made more than 1,500 loops, but I remember only one in living color: the July day in 1979 when I worked for Willie (the Wedge) Turnesa at Knollwood Country Club in Elmsford, N.Y. Most country club golfers greet their caddies with feigned interest; not Willie. A short, dapper man of 70, he walked across the 1st tee and looked straight into my bashful 12-year-old eyes. "Young man, it's a pleasure to meet you," he said, making me feel like a kid on Santa's lap.
Scarsdale Golf Club was my home track. The only reason I was at Knollwood—a three-mile bike ride away—was that the club had unexpectedly found itself short of caddies. (Knollwood's caddiemaster called other clubs for help, and I volunteered.) Turnesa, though, treated me as if I were his steady, spending more time with me than the golfers in our foursome. At one point Turnesa and I were so engrossed in conversation that he wouldn't even allow me to tend to my duties. When one of the men snap-hooked his drive into the woods, Turnesa said to him, "You'll have to find your ball yourself. Rick and I have things to discuss."
Turnesa wanted to know everything—my favorite classes in school, what books I had read, which sports I played—and he bought me a hamburger and chips at the halfway house. (That was big, because a golfer seldom picked up his caddie's lunch tab.) In turn, he wanted me to know everything about the Westchester Golf Association Caddie Scholarship Fund, which he had cofounded in the mid-'50s. Late in the round, Turnesa pulled from his pocket an application for the scholarship, wrote his phone number on it and handed it to me. "You keep looping hard and doing well in school," he said for what seemed like the thousandth time. "Bring this back to us when you're ready for college, and we'll have a scholarship for you."
I was on cloud nine as I rode home that evening, determined to caddie my way to a scholarship (which I did six years later) and grateful for having made the acquaintance of such a kind man. At the time I didn't know that Turnesa was much more than that. After Bobby Jones, he was the most accomplished American amateur in history, winner of the British and two U.S. Amateurs, and a three-time Walker Cup player. The son of a green-keeper and the youngest of the seven Turnesa brothers—the greatest golfing family ever in the U.S.—Willie was also the only player besides Jones to have a ticker-tape parade in his honor. Willie was feted in New York City on June 9, 1947, hours after he had disembarked from the Queen Elizabeth on the way home from Scotland, where he had won the British Amateur at Carnoustie and led the U.S. to victory in the Walker Cup at St. Andrews.
Only later did I learn that it was no coincidence that I was given Knollwood's best bag on my first day at the club. Age hadn't spoiled the long arc or graceful rhythm of Turnesa's swing, but he rarely played a full 18 holes in those days. He preferred, instead, simply to chum around with his pals and scout talent for his scholarship program. That's why the caddiemaster was always under strict orders to assign a kid, preferably one Turnesa had never met, to his bag.
The last surviving Turnesa brother, Willie died on June 16 in Sleepy Hollow, N.Y. His passing was noted but did not make headlines. The father of three, he counted the thousands of caddies he helped as part of his family.
Thanks, Mr. Turnesa, for including me.