In the old days, when Merion was truly starched-collar, the caddies waited in the cellar, underneath the clubhouse, until their number (not name) was called. In the spring of 1950 there was a wet-eared bag carrier among the World War I veterans, reprobates and collegians in the so-called dungeon, cool and dank and lit by hanging bulbs. The new guy was Fred Anton, a gangly junior at nearby Haverford High, who was carrying doubles, showing ambition and, as Jack Nicklaus would say years later in another context, hanging around. Fred was only 16, but he already understood the value of hanging around.
The U.S. Open was being played at Merion that June. There were stars (Sam Snead, Ben Hogan), legends (Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour) and rising talents (Julius Boros, Cary Middlecoff) coming to town, and Fred, a golf nerd long before the term existed, could tell you all about them. Even though he was low man on the totem pole, Fred wanted to caddie in the tournament, and he was going to try. He already understood the value of that three-letter word.
On Tuesday, June 6, two days before the start of the tournament, Fred headed to Merion right after the final bell at school. As he and his Haverford High buddy, Roger Cole, remember it, Fred was in the dungeon, alone, when one of the game's aging masters, Lawson Little, approached the Merion caddie master, Joe Markey. Little had fired his assigned caddie and wanted another one. In this era, all caddies came from the host and local clubs. Markey told Little, the winner of the 1940 U.S. Open, that his supply was exhausted. Little was not happy.
"No, you have one—Fred's downstairs," said Cole, who had just come in from a practice round with his man.
"Well, go get him," Markey told Cole.
On Wednesday, Fred skipped school and caddied for Little in the final practice round. On the 3rd hole, an uphill par-3, Little hit a shot left of the green, beside a tree. His teenage caddie said, "Could I hold that branch back for you?"
And 63 years later, the caddie, now 79, remembers Little's precise words and kindly tone: "I'd love you to, but that would be against the rules."
Fred was beside Little as he shot 79 and 74 in the Thursday and Friday rounds, missing the cut by four shots. Little paid his man with three crisp $10 bills. That would be roughly $300 today. Fred, whose father was a mail clerk on the Pennsylvania Railroad and whose mother was a homemaker, had never seen such money in his life. Merion in general, and the 1950 U.S. Open in particular, gave young Fred Anton a glimpse into both the good life and the golfing life. He liked what he saw.
He was standing on the left side of the 18th hole when Hogan hit his famous approach shot in the fourth round of that Open. A couple of years later Fred, a duffer but not a hacker, won the Merion caddie championship. (Markey's assistant, a man named Gibby, asked Fred that day, "Did you hole 'em all out?" Sixty years later his question still visits Fred at odd hours of the day and night.) In 1953, when Hogan won his fourth and final U.S. Open, at Oakmont, on the other side of Pennsylvania, Fred was there. Picture this, on the side of the Pennsylvania Turnpike: a kid, well over six feet, skinnier than a Sunday carry bag, big head, in golf duds, thumb out, hitchhiking to a tournament not to work it but to watch.
In 1964, the year Ken Venturi won the U.S. Open at Congressional, Fred folded himself into his VW Bug, parked along the side of a suburban road, sneaked under a fence and watched the steamy 36-hole finale. "Venturi says if everybody who said they were there had actually been there, 50,000 people would have been following him that day," Fred told me over a recent breakfast. "There were maybe 300 people following him, and I was one of them." In the 1971 Open at Merion, when Lee Trevino beat Jack Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff, Fred was standing near Trevino on the 18th tee on Sunday when his caddie dropped his driver and Trevino said, "Are you choking already?"