It is a few minutes after 7 a.m. at Conway Farms Golf Club.
A few members are grabbing coffee and a pastry before hitting the range in advance of the first starting time. It’s a typical scene at any golf course.
About 50 caddies are already on hand, ready to serve them. At Conway Farms, that’s also typical.
It is like this every day at Conway Farms, founded in 1991 by a trio of prominent Lake Forest families on the principle that golf is best played while walking.
By the time of the club’s founding just 21 years ago, decades of use of motorized carts had infiltrated most private clubs and virtually every public facility in the U.S. The caddie had become an endangered species, seemingly destined to go the way of the stymie.
Even in the Chicago area, where the Western Golf Association’s caddies- to-college Evans Scholars Program is centered, playing the game while riding in a cart had made significant inroads.
But not at Conway Farms, which hosts the 32nd U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship from Sept. 8-13.
If you play golf at Conway Farms, unless you have a medical condition, or are over 65 and the temperature has reached 100 degrees, you walk the course.
"It’s a sanctuary," said John Ormsby, a longtime member who is deeply involved with the Evans program. "I look upon it as the way golf was meant to be. We do everything we can to make the golf experience as great as possible. A ‘Conway experience’ is a whole philosophy on what golf is and should be."
That includes a challenging Tom Fazio-designed golf course, a handsome clubhouse and the caddie program, which, in summer, is a mixture of young and old. Dozens of teenagers from the area augment a roster of adult regulars who caddie at Conway from April to November, many of whom migrate north in the spring from clubs in Florida, California and Nevada.
Fazio was charged with designing the course as he saw fit, but with tees for the next hole close to the preceding green, as was typical until the rise of the cart and the building boom of golf residential communities. Except for the trek from the fourth green to the fifth tee, where wetlands intervened, he did so.
But Fazio also added gravel cart paths. Asked why when the original plan was presented, he told the steering committee the paths were needed to move equipment during construction. The winter after the club opened, charter member Frank Morley visited with Fazio in Florida, and told him the club’s all-walking policy was in effect, and thriving.
Fazio confessed that he added the cart paths because he didn’t think the concept would stick.
"Every club I ever open says it’s going to be a walking club," Fazio said.
Said Morley: "We stuck to our guns."
The 20-odd carts at the club are generally used only to ferry players to tees for shotgun starts in Monday outings, or to shuttle a player to the back of the driving range. Otherwise, they sit under a grove of trees behind the pro shop and caddie building to the left of the third fairway, forlorn targets for falling acorns. (The club’s cart revenue averages about $3,000 annually, compared to the low six figures for most Chicago-area clubs.)
A guest at Conway thus has two hosts: the member who invited him to play, and his caddie.
"They are junior ambassadors", said Ormsby, whose introduction to the game was as a caddie at Beverly Country Club on Chicago’s southwest border, where he was the recipient of a Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship. Beverly C.C. hosted the 2009 USGA Senior Amateur won by Marvin "Vinny" Giles.
Caddie master Tony Avila, with three decades in the business, first at nearby Indian Hill Club and the last three years at Conway Farms, trains five to six dozen teens every year. Not all stick around, but for a select few who stick it out, caddie for at least two years, and meet other qualifications, including a superior academic record, a great reward is possible.
"Every year, we’ll have one, two or three Evans Scholars who come from that group," said Jeff Mory, the club’s director of golf.
Most teens who caddie during the summer aren’t from this posh northern Chicago neighborhood. They hail from as far north as Antioch, near the Wisconsin border, and as far south as the Englewood section on Chicago’s gritty South Side. A train station within walking distance of the club brings caddies from a variety of areas.
For Avila, the challenge is in training the youngsters, then making sure they’re nurtured by the veteran caddies. He, too, is rewarded when the Evans grants are announced.
"Through the years, I still have some caddies from Indian Hill who call me and say, Tony, thanks for the chance. I’m a lawyer now, or whatever. And thank you and the club for supporting me for the Evans," Avila said.
Brandon Clarke of nearby Libertyville, a Conway caddie entering his junior year at Indiana University, is a recent Evans recipient.
After a fitful start, he warmed to the task.
"You do wonder why you’re doing it when you’re half-asleep waiting for a loop," said Clarke, whose first summer on the job was in 2005.
"It took me a little while before I decided I enjoyed it. And I do."
Encouragement by some members prompted Clarke to apply for the Evans Scholarship, which is named for legendary Chicago player Charles Chick Evans, who won the 1916 U.S. Open and the 1916 and 1920 U.S. Amateurs. Evans played in 50 consecutive amateurs. The scholarship covers tuition, books and housing for four years, and 14 universities, mostly in the Midwest, have Evans chapter houses. Some 835 scholars are enrolled this year. The program’s graduation rate is an impressive 92 percent.
Avila pairs young caddies with the veterans, first to ensure they learn to do their job effectively, and second so they pick up the nuances unique to Conway.
"A good handful of the guys looked out for us," Clarke said. "They mentored us. A member knows the course, but for a guest, I feel I’m a bit of a guru on the course."
Fred McCabe, 42, is among the mentoring veteran caddies.
"You want them to get the Evans, and for selfish reasons, you want them to do a good job when they’re out on a loop with you," McCabe said. "We definitely bring them up to speed. It’s more than a job.
"It’s not like going to McDonald’s and dropping French fries.
"You want them to take golf seriously, because it’s a great discipline for further life, for being around good people, for teaching a work ethic. It’s very important. You could have a 14-year-old kid from Waukegan, maybe their parents are struggling to get by, and all of a sudden, they’re with a CEO of a Fortune 500 company. And it’s not like being a waiter. You’re going to spend 4½ hours with these guys. You’ll see how they behave and you can definitely learn a lot when you wouldn’t otherwise have the opportunity."
Guests are delighted by the ambassador aspect of the program, while members expect nothing less.
"We have over 150 single-digit [Handicap] Index players here, so their expectations about our caddies knowledge of golf is higher," Mory said. "They expect an honor caddie here to know more about the game, reading greens, yardages, how the wind’s going to affect a shot, how the eighth hole plays uphill and it’s going to be half a club longer, the kinds of things that are unique to here.
"In a lot of ways, the caddie here is almost like the host. They need to really host the experience. We have a lot of guest play, more than most clubs, and often it’s a member and three guests, so that caddie experience of being able to do all those things and host the experience of Conway, even knowing the history of the club, is important."
The tradition extends to the way the game is played at Conway Farms.
"Here, they’re very serious about their golf," McCabe said. "They putt out and play by the Rules. We have very high heather, and they play it as a lost golf ball. They don’t just drop one; they do full stroke and distance. They’re very Rules-conscious, very serious golf guys."
The combination of teen and adult caddies, and a serious commitment to both walking and amateur golf, has elevated Conway Farms, 21 years young, to the elite level of Chicago-area clubs. Even in the spring and fall, with the kids in school, the walking tradition is upheld, with many caddies going out twice a day. (For the U.S. Mid-Amateur, the club’s second USGA championship, Conway’s veteran corps of about 55 men will be supplemented by top caddies from Knollwood Club, the companion course for stroke-play qualifying, and other nearby clubs.)
"It’s not easy," Avila said. "All the guys who go 36 go first. From 9 to 10:30 [a.m.], I send out all the guys who have second jobs. So that way, everybody goes home happy. Guys who want just one loop wait until 9.
"But the problem is, we don’t take tee times. [One recent] Tuesday, we opened at 7:30 in the morning. I assigned 24 caddies before 7:45."
And nobody rode a cart.
"If on October 20, we have 85 players, and we might, we can’t say, ‘Sorry, we’ll have to throw you on a buggy today,’" Mory said. "It’s just not our deal. We wouldn’t have jobs. On that end, it makes it truly unique, what we do and how we do it."
At Conway Farms, the love of the game is equaled by the love for the caddie program.
Said Ormsby: "I tell new Evans Scholars that what they appreciate now is that your parents are elated you’ll have a college education and no debt after it. But what you’re embarking on is a lifelong association with other Evans Scholars, and with the program. It’s there unless you actively reject it.
"It’s nice to be part of something that adds to the game, that gives a member a good feeling. You’re providing an environment that is productive."
One step at a time.
Tim Cronin is a Chicago-based writer who has authored six books on golf.