by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

AUGUSTA, Ga. — “Sure, I’ll talk to you,” he says, sitting down on the porch.
“Ain’t got nothing else to do.”

Leon McClatty tugs on his blue cap and smiles through crooked teeth. Once, he would have no time for interviews. Not during Masters week. He was a caddie at Augusta National, and there were bags to haul, golf clubs to polish. Mr. Nicklaus might be waiting. Or Mr. Watson. Or Mr. Moody. For nearly 30 years, Leon caddied for all three players, and many more, back when the rules required Masters golfers to employ a house caddie, all of whom were black. Leon — “That’s all you gotta call me, just Leon” — was Watson’s caddie for six years, including the two years he won here, 1977 and 1981. Leon carried his bag. Advised him on putts. Had this big feeling in his stomach when Watson slipped on the champion’s green jacket. Leon calls it “My glory time.”

Now there is no glory. Now no one is waiting. Augusta National changed the rules nine years ago: Golfers may bring their own caddies. Leon came out during Masters week the following April, looking for Watson, figuring to work together as they had done the last six years. “Then I saw he had this new guy with him. He didn’t even tell me.”

He looks off into the sky. “A man shouldn’t do that to another man.”

“Did you talk to him?” I ask.

“Naw. We ain’t talked since.”

He glances around the caddie barn. Big name golfers are coming and going, followed by their personal caddies, white men in crisp white uniforms. A few of the old black caddies wander aimlessly in street clothes, hoping someone shows up late or calls in sick.

Bigotry prevails

There is a feeling in this magnificent golf course, a feeling beneath the dogwood tress and the magnolias and the velvet green fairways that stretch like endless pool tables. It is a feeling of discomfort. Of quiet bigotry. Never mind CBS and all those whispering announcers who would like to turn Augusta National into church at High Mass. This is a club for bigots, a place where there is one black member, added only because of outside pressure. Every other black man here seems to carry a tray or a broom.

“But we used to wait all year for the Masters,” Leon recalls. “It was something, I tell you. Made you feel important. Walking up them fairways, all them people, all them TV cameras. And after the thing was over, we’d sit around and argue. We’d say, ‘My guy woulda won if he’da listened to me.’ “

When the rules changed, the luster disappeared from the caddie position; so did much of the money. Leon and his peers could make as much during Masters

week — tips and percentage of winnings — as they made the rest of the season. Now they have only the $30 per bag they get from members and guests. And during the biggest week in Augusta, they sit around, doing nothing.

I ask about the one black member the club allowed in this year. Leon looks both ways, then lowers his voice. “They just did that to quiet everybody down.”

I ask if guys like Nicklaus or Moody ever gave him anything to show their appreciation.

“Oh, yeah,” Leon chuckles, “Mr. Moody did. He gave me a lot of dead presidents.”

“Dead presidents?”

“You know, dead presidents on the dollar bills. Washington on the $1. Lincoln on the $5. Ben Franklin on the $100. Franklin wasn’t no president, but he’ll do.”

Playing the game

Leon met a live president once. Back in the ’50s, Dwight Eisenhower used to golf here. Leon, then a teenager, served as his caddie on several occasions. One time, Eisenhower, who wasn’t much of a golfer, teed off into a water trap and went wading in after his ball. When Leon offered a club to help pull the President back up, Eisenhower, as a joke, yanked the club instead, pulling Leon into the water. The symbolism of that is too sad to address.

Leon McClatty has played Augusta National “more times than I got toes and fingers.” He used to sneak on as a kid and play with one club — until they chased him out through the bushes. On Employees Day, he and the waiters played every hole over and over. “I love the game, see? You must play the game to be a good caddie.”

He looks off, his eyes squinting. The sound of a golf cart rumbles, then disappears. “You can call me on the phone in the middle of the night, tell me what green you’re on, and I’ll tell you which way the ball’s gonna break,” he says. “I know this golf course.”

And it doesn’t seem to matter. Of all the famous players who once used the house caddies, a few still do. Leon and the others sit around, waiting. You’ll hear a lot about the Masters today, its majesty, its tradition. And maybe, for some, that’s true. But for others, Augusta National is just another southern place where it’s no blessing to be a black man, and there’s no work to be found this week.


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