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A former trucker and ex-felon, Sturgill, 50, came to caddying as a second chance. In his late teens he got hooked on cocaine and started stealing money to support his habit, then was convicted in Alaska on eight counts of embezzlement and fraud. A sympathetic judge trimmed what could have been a 56-year sentence to 12 months. Sturgill emerged from prison humbled and reborn, having found Christ following the death of a close friend.
His first Tour job was a trunk-slammer: He flagged down Curt Byrum at the 1991 Texas Open as Byrum pulled into the parking lot. "He asked me if I knew the course, and I told him I did," says Sturgill, who had caddied at a country club as a kid. "But then we get in the tournament, and he asks me a yardage. Not only hadn't I seen the course, I also didn't know how to read a yardage book."
"You lied to me, didn't you?" Byrum said. Sturgill nodded. Byrum frowned, but out of begrudging respect for the initiative, didn't fire him.
Some 20 years later Sturgill is a seasoned hand who has served as the Tour sidekick to Erik Compton, Dennis Paulson and David Peoples, among others. Recently divorced, he tools around in a white Mazda wagon, crashing on friends' couches from coast to coast. "When you've slept in a prison bunk," Sturgill says, "any other bed is more than comfortable enough."
In February, Sturgill drove from Florida to California, arriving so late on Sunday before the Northern Trust that he bunked down in his Mazda in a Walmart parking lot. The next afternoon, when his man, Tour winner Eric Axley, failed to Monday-qualify, Sturgill jumped back behind the wheel and beelined east. He worked in Puerto Rico and at the Honda Classic, then turned up in Tampa, along with Svendsen and several of their cohorts: a gaggle of caddies trailing the Tour, like gulls following a fishing boat.
On golf's big stage, the lead-up to a tournament is a kind of outdoor job fair, with hurried introductions, business cards in hand. "Got anyone this week?" "You've got my number." "Shoot me a text if you ever need a guy." Sturgill had his man for the Transitions' Monday qualifier: Tour rookie Scott Gordon. Josh Svendsen didn't. But he figured an appearance was worth a shot, particularly at a mid-tier event like the Transitions, with lesser lights who might not have a caddie. "If you don't show up," Svendsen says, "you'll never know."
As dawn broke over the qualifying venue, the Island course at the Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club, 150 golfers were vying for four spots, and a dozen or so caddies were looking for a loop. They gathered along a cart path outside the pro shop, waiting for players to walk by.
Standing behind Svendsen was Tim Duffy, a veteran caddie itching for a job and struggling not to show the strain of recent weeks. Like Svendsen and Sturgill, Duffy had swung south of the border. Unlike them, he had spent more than he made. That's not uncommon. During tournament weeks on the PGA Tour most caddies earn a flat rate of around $1,200 (on the Nationwide tour, the average sum is closer to $700), plus 5% to 10% of a player's winnings. Travel, lodging and food all come on their own dime. A fine line separates profit from loss, and it lies somewhere around the top 150 on the money list. "Anything less than that and you're breaking even at best," Duffy says.
An accomplished junior player, Duffy got his chance to caddie in 1993, while banging balls on the driving range at Bay Hill. "How can you play with a swing like that?" a voice wisecracked behind him. Duffy wheeled. It was Arnold Palmer.
"Your swing doesn't look so good either," Duffy shot back. Palmer liked the moxie and hired Duffy on the spot.