U.S. SENIOR AMATEUR
Veteran Caddie Answers the Call for No. 3 Seed Lewis September 19, 2016 | St. Louis, Mo. By Tom Mackin

Mike Smith's days as a caddie at Old Warson Country Club precede the 1971 Ryder Cup, when he carried for Jack Nicklaus. (USGA/Chris Keane)

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Randal Lewis, of Alma, Mich., begins match play in the 2016 U.S. Senior Amateur Championship on Monday with a powerful resource by his side: Mike Smith, the most experienced caddie at Old Warson Country Club.

The successful pairing started when Lewis called the club a few months ago. Smith, who is the assistant caddiemaster, answered the phone.

“He said he was an exempt player looking to hire the best caddie at the club for the championship,” said Smith. “Not to brag or nothing, but I said that he was talking to him. I did tell him we had the best caddie program in the state and probably 15 to 20 caddies as good as I am. I can just read the greens a little better.”

In fact, Smith said the 68 by Lewis in Saturday’s first round of stroke play was the lowest round he’s ever witnessed at Old Warson Country Club.

“I’ve only seen two people shoot under par out here the last five years, and one was one of our ladies club champions who shot 2 or 3 under about five years ago,” he said. “It’s really hard to stay under par on this golf course. It’s so difficult. You might make the turn at 1 or 2 under, but after that it gets very hard.”

Smith calls 59-year-old Lewis the best amateur he has ever caddied for.

“He’s so good I just tell him which side of the pin to keep the ball on for an easier putt,” said Smith. “He won the 2011 U.S. Mid-Amateur and played in the Masters, so he could probably do this with any caddie we have. I’m sure he would have liked to have been the medalist this year (Lewis finished two strokes behind Tim Jackson of Germantown, Tenn.), but when he told me that he was the medalist in this championship last year, I didn’t need to hear that. Now he’s supposed to have the best caddie who can read the greens like nobody else, so there’s a lot of pressure.”

After Saturday’s 68, Lewis returned the favor, saying of Smith: “He’s a genius when it comes to this golf course. When you have somebody that you have total confidence in and knows the course as well as he does, all I have to do is replicate what he tells me.”

After Smith’s father taught him how to play at Forest Park Golf Course in St. Louis, he started working at Old Warson as an 11-year-old, earning $4 per bag (the rate is almost $100 per bag today). Three years later, when the club hosted the 1971 Ryder Cup, he was randomly picked to work with Jack Nicklaus, who at that time had won nine of his record 18 career major championships.

“Back in those Ryder Cup days you couldn’t bring your own caddie, so there was a blind draw,” said Smith. “A month before the event, caddie and player names were on pieces of paper and drawn out of empty Footjoy shoe boxes on the front porch of the pro shop. Before they announced me with Nicklaus, I could see through the paper that I was going to get him. I was nervous as could be. I was a freshman at Bishop DuBourg High School at the time and I was a rock star in school after that. People were asking me for autographs.”

Smith met Nicklaus in the locker room before a practice round. “I think he kind of looked at me like, ‘You’re kind of young, kid.’ He never asked me to read a putt, of course. We talked a lot during the practice rounds, but once play started there was nothing more than an occasional thank you. I knew everybody was coming to see him. Trevino was here, Palmer was here, but all the crowds followed Jack.”

Things didn’t start well, however. “He lost his first match (Nicklaus and partner Dave Stockton fell to Brian Huggett and Tony Jacklin, 3 and 2) and all the older caddies said I was going to get fired, but that didn’t happen. I told them it wasn’t my fault. Then he just rolled along in his next five matches (the USA defeated Great Britain & Ireland, 18½ to 13½). He was playing 36 holes a day with an extremely heavy bag. I was in shape back then. I’m not in that shape now, but I still do two loops a day from late March through late October.”

Mike Smith's hard hat signed by Jack Nicklaus in the 1971 Ryder Cup is on display in the Old Warson Country Club trophy room. (USGA/Chris Keane)

In the new trophy room in the Old Warson clubhouse sits the plastic hardhat Smith wore during that 1971 Ryder Cup. “It was sitting in my closet for 45 years in a plastic bag from Schnuck’s,” he said. “Nicklaus signed it. It looks good in that case.”

Smith caddied at the club until 1975, then had various jobs in the golf industry, including running a golf shop at a driving range in Afton, Mo. He also became a PGA professional and played in numerous local events.

“I won the first tournament I ever played in with 125 pros,” he said. “I think I paid $120 to get in and my check was for $225 at Greenbriar Hills Country Club in St. Louis. It was the only check I cashed in three years of playing local events. So I got the heck out of the PGA.”

He returned to Old Warson in 1993. During the 1999 U.S. Mid-Amateur he caddied for Clay Uselton, a former member’s son who lost in a playoff to advance to match play.

One of 11 children, Smith trains every new caddie at the club, a task that has included working with two of his three children: Brandon, now 32, is an assistant golf professional at Old Warson, and daughter Taylor, 22, is a Chick Evans Scholar who attends the University of Missouri. His 26-year-old son Trevor is in the U.S. Army Reserves and has served in Iraq, Italy and Afghanistan.

“I didn’t go to college, so there’s a reason I’m a 59-year-old caddie,” said Smith. “But I’ll tell you what, my brother Butchie was a plumber making good money. He would say to me, ‘When are you going to get a real job?’ I said to him, ‘I make more money than you do, and you’re a plumber and I’m a caddie!’”

At age 59, and nursing an arthritic right ankle, how much longer will Smith work at what he tells other caddies is the best job in St. Louis? “Until I can’t. I will go until they have to drag me off the course.”

Arizona resident Tom Mackin is a frequent contributor to USGA websites.

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