Pinehurst Heritage Archive

Legendary Pinehurst caddie Willie McRae announces retirement

WIllie McRae announced this month he has retired from day-to-day caddying at Pinehurst, but he will still take special requests

On May 19, 1943, Willie McRae turned 10, and his father asked him if he was ready to caddie at Pinehurst.

Seventy-four years later, McRae is still willing to caddie.

He’s just finally ready to slow down a little.

McRae, one of the last two remaining men alive to have participated in the 1951 Ryder Cup on Pinehurst No. 2, officially retired from day-to-day caddying at Pinehurst this month. McRae still plans to take special requests, but they will be limited.

“I love Pinehurst. Everybody has always been so good to me here,” McRae says. “This place has been my whole life.”

He began a legendary career that led to enshrinement into three different Halls of Fame on that spring day with his father, earning $1.75 a loop.

“I’d bring that $1.75 home to my mother, but I’d get 50 cents for a tip, and that would be mine,” McRae recalls. “I’d spend 25 cents of that on candy, and I’d have candy for the whole week.”

McRae’s career at Pinehurst parallels much of the great history of the game of golf. He has caddied for five presidents, celebrities from Mickey Mantle to Michael Jordan and many of golf’s greatest players, including Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead. Along with American player Jack Burke Jr., McRae is one of just two living participants of the 1951 Ryder Cup, and he remembers looping for Donald Ross on Ross’s crown jewel, No. 2.

McRae has caddied in several of golf’s greatest championships, ranging from that Ryder Cup to multiple U.S. Opens and U.S Women’s Opens. A great player in his own time – McRae won the annual caddie tournament at Pinehurst three times – in the 1950s the U.S. Army stationed McRae at Fort Dix instead of shipping him overseas, installing him as the captain of the golf team.

“To me, everybody’s a celebrity. Everybody is special in their unique way.” -Willie McRae

It is that sentiment that endures.

“Caddies possess an extraordinary knowledge of the game and its players, and by word of mouth, each caddie develops his own reputation,” writes World Golf Hall-of-Famer and two-time Masters Champion Ben Crenshaw. “In this sense, Willie was always highly sought after by so many fine players who played Pinehurst and returned there. Great players such as Jack Burke Jr., Tommy Bolt, Gene Sarazen and Julius Boros – just to name a few – specifically asked for Willie’s expertise. That these wonderful players sought out Willie is high praise indeed.”

But it’s the everyman whom McRae always enjoyed caddying for the most. “To me,” McRae says, “everybody’s a celebrity. Everybody is special in their unique way.”

“He’s one of the many parts that make up the fabric of Pinehurst,” says former Pinehurst President Don Padgett II of McRae. “He cares dearly for the place, he’s proud to have been a part of it, he loves it and has a great deal of gratitude for being able to spend all these years here. And it has always shown in the way he has treated people.”

It’s a legacy that continues, not only among the caddies at Pinehurst, but in McRae’s family as well. McRae’s son, Paul, has been one of leading instructors of the Pinehurst Golf Academy for more than 20 years, and his grandson, Darick, also caddies on No. 2.

“Here are a couple things people must know about Willie,” says Jimmy Smith, Pinehurst’s longtime caddiemaster. “He treats everyone the same, no matter who they are, how much money they have, whatever. He just loves people.

“If he had never worked so hard to get to where he is, who knows where we would be right now. He laid the pathway for us to come and be who we are.” -Darick McRae, grandson and fellow Pinehurst caddie

“But another thing that not many people see: When a new caddie shows up, it can be a little tough. We all get along and we all like each other, but a new guy coming in still can mean money out of your pocket. But Willie always takes care of the new guys. No one is better at lending a hand, teaching and listening than Willie. And now I see that happen throughout the caddie room. And we’ll see it for years to come, maybe even another 100 years. And that comes from Willie.”

It’s a way of life that Willie passes on to his family, including Paul and Darick. They are the life lessons that both continue to hold dear and reflect upon nearly every day.

“Dad taught me patience,” says Paul McRae. “Also, to learn how to listen to people. You can learn a lot of ways to help someone if you just listen to them. And that goes for more than golf.”

Darick, who’s caddied at Pinehurst since 2001, recognizes that Willie’s career has meant more than just carrying a golf bag and reading greens.

“If he had never worked so hard to get to where he is, who knows where we would be right now,” Darick says. “He laid the pathway for us to come and be who we are.”

Recently, Willie McRae was honored with a reception at Pinehurst:

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Seeing Donald Ross


IT’S A “STOP AND SMELL THE ROSES” KIND OF MOMENT. But instead of that turn of phrase, something that can happen when walking around Pinehurst, especially for the golfer, is a “stop and see Donald Ross” kind of moment.

It happened to us on Thursday when walking around Pinehurst No. 1, which Ross redesigned after his arrival at Pinehurst at the turn of the 20th century. Standing on the tee of the 218-yard par-3 12th hole (the number of the hole has changed over the years), it hits you – THIS is Donald Ross.

While it’s about a different hole on a different Pinehurst course, author Chris Buie explains here what you see before you so often on Pinehurst No. 1, and especially the 12th:

An example of how Ross brought so much personality to his courses can be found on a par-3 on Pinehurst No. 3.
The uphill 14th is not your standard par-3. In the days of hickory clubs, it played 208 yards to a green placed at the top of a fairly sharp hill. No one but the ace player was expected to reach the green with their drive. But Ross never forgot the shorter player. There is ample room for a tee shot left of the green leaving a short pitch. Like many of golf’s finest holes (such as the 13th of Augusta), it is essentially a “half-par hole”.

As you can see, the 12th on No. 1 has many of the same characteristics, just with plenty of room to the right in this example. It’s pure Donald Ross.

And it’s good to be reminded that we get to see Mr. Ross every day.

(Editor’s Note: We know what Lee means here: “Looks good in sepia as well.” But it’s also great to see how little the hole has changed since this vintage photo was taken.

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Moving the PGA Championship date isn’t new, and when it came to Pinehurst in 1936, it was because of Donald Ross

The cover to the program for the 1936 PGA Championhsip at Pinehurst.

The cover to the program for the 1936 PGA Championhsip at Pinehurst.

BY LEE PACE

The PGA Championship has been anchored in its early August time slot in the golf calendar since the mid-1960s, but in the old days it was a match play competition held in May or June. And for five years in the 1950s, it was played the week after the British Open, making it impractical for golfers to play in both of what are now considered major championships. Sometimes the tournament dates were set to coincide with the operational calendar of the host course.

A case in point was 1936, the venue was Pinehurst and the date was the week before Thanksgiving.

A vintage photo of The Carolina Hotel. Photo Courtesy of the Tufts Archives

A vintage photo of The Carolina Hotel. Photo Courtesy of the Tufts Archives

Pinehurst was conceived as a wintertime resort for residents of the Northeast who had neither the time nor the resources for a two-day train journey to Florida during the cold-weather months. Thus The Carolina Hotel and Pinehurst Country Club were open from mid-autumn to mid-spring; they closed down in the summer and the cooks, waiters, bellhops, housekeepers, golf pros and caddies moved to the mountains or New England for summertime work.

The U.S. Open was contested in the fall at times during the very early part of the 20th century, but it has been essentially locked into its June dates since World War I. So Pinehurst was never an option for the Open until the advent and proliferation of air conditioning in the 1960s allowed the Resort to expand to a year-around operation.

In the mid-1930s, famed architect Donald Ross, perhaps miffed because of losing out on a chance to design Bobby Jones' new course in Augusta, Ga., refocused his efforts into his prived Pinehurst No. 2. A photo from the 1936 North & South shows the care Ross took in updating his gem. This is No. 2's second green.

In the mid-1930s, famed architect Donald Ross, perhaps miffed because of losing out on a chance to design Bobby Jones’ new course in Augusta, Ga., refocused his efforts into his prized Pinehurst No. 2. A photo from the 1936 North & South shows the care Ross took in updating his gem from sand to clay to grass greens. This is No. 2’s second green. Photo Courtesy of the Tufts Archives.

But the PGA was more flexible with its dates, and an important connection between the PGA and Pinehurst head golf professional and architect-in-residence Donald Ross made the 1936 event a logical arrangement for both the PGA and Pinehurst. Though Ross is known as the foremost golf architect in America in the first half of the 1900s—with nearly 400 courses to his credit —he came to America in 1899 from Scotland with the skills of a golf pro and green superintendent.

Charlotte Observer columnist Jake Wade shed some interesting light on Ross’s priorities in May 1945 upon Ross’s visit to Charlotte to work on his design of Myers Park Country Club.  Despite Ross’s fame and popularity in designing golf courses, Wade noted that Ross had always maintained his membership in the PGA.

“Mr. Ross looks like a banker and indeed must be quite a wealthy man,” Wade wrote. “Yet with his dignity and reserve and gentleness of manner and easy, aristocratic touch, he still likes to be known as a golf professional.”

No doubt Ross’s connections with the PGA and his desire to showcase a major overhaul of his prized No. 2 course worked to bring the PGA Championship to Pinehurst. There was little if any new design work available in the throes of the Great Depression throughout the first half of the 1930s, so naturally Ross turned his attention to the course he could access by walking out his back door and onto the third green.

Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross

Alister MacKenzie and Donald Ross

And the proud Scotsman was motivated by the emergence of a new course in Augusta, Ga., one conceived by golf champion Bob Jones. Ross believed he had a handshake agreement with Jones to build what would become Augusta National Golf Club, but Jones later decided to work with Alister MacKenzie after seeing MacKenzie’s work at Cypress Point on the California coast.

“Ross was a proud, reserved, standoffish man, almost egotistically so,” author and historian Charles Price noted. “He was miffed. He considered himself to be America’s foremost architect.”

Ross and green superintendent Frank Maples had made significant agronomic improvements to No. 2 in recent years. They converted all the tees to grass in 1929. They laid five miles of irrigation pipe down the fairways in 1933 so the new winter rye grass could be properly watered (architects Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw would use those very pipe lines in 2010-11 in restoring the fairways to their original dimensions and contours). And by 1934, Ross believed he had developed a strain of Bermuda grass that could survive cold weather and heavy foot traffic well enough that he built three experimental grass greens on No. 2. They did well over the 1934-35 season, and he converted all the greens on No. 2 from sand and clay to Bermuda the following year.

The fourth green of Pinehurst No. 2, as it appeared during the 1936 North & South - the same year Pinehurst hosted its first major event, the 1936 PGA Championship. Photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives.

The fourth green of Pinehurst No. 2, as it appeared during the 1936 North & South – the same year Pinehurst hosted its first major event, the 1936 PGA Championship. Photo courtesy of the Tufts Archives.

Finally, Ross arrived his current hole configuration in 1935, adding the fourth and fifth holes and abandoning two that ran between the current 10th and 11th on ground now occupied by course No. 4. The fifth hole, incidentally, was originally played as a par 5 at 467 yards until it was changed to a par 4 prior to the 1951 Ryder Cup Matches; that historical precedent is among the reasons the USGA played it as a par 5 again for the 2014 U.S. Open.

“No. 2 has always been a pet of mine,” Ross said. “In building these fine new greens, I have been able to carry out many of the changes which I have long visualized but only now have been able to put into practice.”

Another key change was sculpting the sandy soil around the new putting surfaces into the swales, humps and hollows Ross knew so well from his hometown course in Dornoch, on the northeast coast of Scotland.

The 6th hole of Pinehurst No. 2.

The 6th hole of Pinehurst No. 2 in the mid-1940s.

“This mounding makes possible an infinite variety of nasty short shots that no other form of hazard can call for,” Ross said prior to the 1936 PGA. “Competitors whose second shots have wandered a bit will be disturbed by these innocent appearing slopes and by the shot they will have to invent to recover.”

It was the perfect confluence of events and the times for Pinehurst to host its first national championship.

“I have actually played No. 2 in my mind, in marvelous figures, a hundred times the last few months while I have waited for sleep to take me,” Tommy Armour said prior to the tournament. “It’s the kind of course that gets into the blood of an old trooper.”

Lee Pace is a regular contributor to the Pinehurst Blog. He latest book, “The Golden Age of Pinehurst—The Rebirth of No. 2,” is available in all retail shops at Pinehurst.

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Looking back on Amelia Earhart at Pinehurst, and news that “could rewrite history”

Shortly before aviation pioneer Amelia Earhart and her navigator Fred Noonan mysteriously disappeared in her attempt to circumnavigate the world in 1937, Earhart and her husband George Putnam were frequent guests at The Carolina Hotel at Pinehurst Resort. Earhart would often fly her Beech-Nut Autogyro in and out of the Pinehurst Flying Field in the early 1930s. In the photo below, taken at the Pinehurst Flying Field, Earhart is shown with Lloyd Yost.

An upcoming documentary on the History channel claims to have unearthed a photograph that could be Earhart and Noonan in Japanese custody. The Today Show this morning had an intriguing story about the photo and the documentary:

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Looking back: Phil, Pinehurst and the Beeper

With reports that Phil Mickleson is likely to miss the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills to instead attend his daughter’s high school graduation, we’re reminded of the scene in Pinehurst in 1999, summed up in the video above with interviews with Mickelson and Jim “Bones” Mackay.

As Golf Digest writes this week:

The narrative was established at the 1999 U.S. Open, when Mickelson played in the final pairing of the final round with Payne Stewart under the gauzy gray sky at Pinehurst No. 2 in Pinehurst, N.C. He was prepared to leave that championship at a moment’s notice, regardless of his score or station on the leaderboard, if his wife Amy went into labor with their first child.

The beeper he carried with him never went off. But Stewart did, one-putting the last three holes to relegate Mickelson to a runner-up finish. Then, after Stewart punched the sky, he cradled Mickelson’s face in his hands and reminded him that he wasn’t getting a consolation prize, but was about to receive the ultimate prize – fatherhood.

The first of his and Amy’s three children, Amanda, was born the next day, June 21, five days after Phil celebrated his 29th birthday.

 And then, of course, after Payne made the fateful putt:

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