Fred “Topsy” Bugna had a good job at the Blaw-Knox Steel Co. in the Pittsburgh suburbs. He also had a wife and two boys, so he got another job, caddieing at Oakmont Country Club, to help support the family.
Blaw-Knox provided security and benefits, but Oakmont delivered cash and a chance to get out of the mill for a few hours, filling his lungs with fresh air and feeling the sun on his face instead of the heat of the blast furnace.
It also provided the opportunity of a lifetime
“My dad was a part-time guy, a weekend caddie because he was still working steel,” said Bugna’s elder son, also named Fred. “In those days, clubs supplied the caddies for the pros so everyone wanted the top guys. Jack [Nicklaus] was just a rookie in 1962, so nobody wanted him for the Open. Dad thought it would be a great opportunity to caddie in the U.S. Open., so he said, ‘I will take him.’ They wound up winning in a playoff.’”
Bugna's sons, Fred and Bob, are 62 and 60. They have seen too much to engage in hyperbole. Most people would call it the playoff, the day the Kid conquered the King, when Arnie’s Army couldn’t help avoid the changing of the guard in Palmer’s back yard.
Topsy earned $2,000 from Nicklaus for his week’s work. Fred said his father also earned a job offer from Charlie Nicklaus to team up with his son permanently on the PGA Tour.
“He had a good job and wasn’t going to leave it,” said Fred. “He regretted not doing it over the years but he was a family man and had to do the right thing.”
Topsy’s moment in the sun continued that summer, when he was invited to appear on “Who In the World?” a game show about people who made news around the U.S.
“He and Jack Garbo, who caddied for Arnie Palmer, were supposed to go to California to do the show,” said Fred. “Jack didn’t go but Dad did. When it aired, on a Sunday night, it felt like the whole town of Verona, where we grew up, was in our house.”
Before long, Topsy was back at Blaw-Knox. He stayed at Oakmont for a few years but always felt the pull of that special week in 1962. He caddied for Bob Rosburg in the 1965 PGA Championship at Laurel Valley Country Club, but Rosburg shot 78-79 and missed the cut. On the eve of the 1973 U.S. Open, Topsy was back in the news, speaking fondly and loyally of Nicklaus in a Pittsburgh Press preview story. "He knows me, he always talks to me when he sees me," said Topsy. "And you can print this… he'll win it this year."
Johnny Miller may have won in 1973, but Topsy Bugna’s win in ’62 set up what has become a legacy business at Oakmont. Fred, known as “Boogs,” first caddied at Green Oaks Country Club in Verona when he was 12. That was 1966. By 1979, Bob began carrying bags at Oakmont, the same year Bob Ford embarked on his legendary career as the club’s head golf professional. For years, he has worked from 10:30 p.m. to 7 a.m. at Smithfield Foods before heading over to Oakmont to pick up a loop.
“It’s 35 degrees where I work at night,” said Bob, whom Ford years earlier nicknamed “Tipsy.” “When my shift is over, I come to Oakmont to walk the course with our members and guests and warm up. Honestly, I didn’t think I was going to like it when I first started, but then it turned into a bad habit,” he says with a hearty laugh.
Fred joined his brother as an Oakmont caddie in 1989. Like Bob and their father, he’s worked a variety of jobs, but has a special affection for the storied club.
“It is a great place,” said Fred. “The members are great, they treat their people well and we are loyal. It’s always been a great job and now that I am retired [he was most recently a driver for a rehab center], it’s even better. Now I am here at least five days a week.”