On May 19, 1943, Willie McRae turned 10, and his father asked him if he was ready to caddie at Pinehurst.
He caddied for nearly 75 years, carrying bags for U.S. presidents, for the greatest of superstar athletes and celebrities, and, also, for anyone who asked. “To me,” McRae often said, “everybody’s a celebrity.”
On Sunday morning, Oct. 28, 2018, we were saddened to learn that McRae passed away.
McRae, who with Jackie Burke Jr. was 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 just last year. Still, he would return to take special requests.
“I love Pinehurst. Everybody has always been so good to me here,” McRae said. “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 recalled. “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 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. McRae remembered looping for Donald Ross on Ross’s crown jewel, No. 2.
McRae 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. There he would often team with Earl Woods, Tiger’s father, winning local tournaments.
“Caddies possess an extraordinary knowledge of the game and its players, and by word of mouth, each caddie develops his own reputation,” wrote 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.”
Willie McRae, far left, watches as Ben Hogan tees off during the 1951 Ryder Cup at Pinehurst.
But it’s the everyman whom McRae always enjoyed caddying for the most. “To me,” McRae would say, “everybody’s a celebrity. Everybody is special in their unique way.”
It is that sentiment that endures.
“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 treated everyone the same, no matter who they are, how much money they have, whatever. He just loved people.
“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 took care of the new guys. No one was 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.”
Willie McRae chats with ESPN before the 2014 U.S. Open championships.
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.”