Golf has always been a game of knowledge as well as skill. For the last 62 years, Pinehurst Resort in Pinehurst, N.C. (pop. 9,706), has been fortunate to have on its premises a veritable font of local golfing wisdom.
Willie McRae, 72, has caddied at Pinehurst since May 19, 1943, walking—it’s been estimated—the equivalent of five times around the world. He has carried the bags of golfing luminaries such as Gene Sarazen and Arnold Palmer, as well as legendary golf course architect Donald Ross, designer of Pinehurst courses Nos. 1, 2 and 3, built from 1899 to 1910.
In a time when it might appear that the era of the caddie is endangered by the omnipresent golf cart, McRae smiles and reminds golfers that a cart can’t tell you how to read the break on a green.
“A lot of young people are riding carts, and that’s killing them and their game,” McRae attests. “Golf is supposed to be a walking sport, not a riding sport. If you’re walking to the ball, you got time to think. When you’re riding down there so fast, you ain’t got time to think. That’s why you hit so many bad shots.”
Born in Taylortown—nicknamed Caddieville for the influx of caddies who took up residence in the little hamlet adjacent to Pinehurst in the early 1900s—McRae learned the tools of the trade at age 11 from his father, Thaddeus McRae, who also was a Pinehurst caddie.
“You got to know when to say something and know when not to say something,” instructs McRae, who caddied for the winning U.S. Ryder Cup team captained by Sam Snead when the event was held at Pinehurst in 1951. “When you say something, you’ve got to say the right thing. Man hit a bad shot, you got to pat him on the back and say, ‘Listen, come on, let’s hit a good shot. Just play.’”
It is that personal touch along with his long-earned course savvy that keeps McRae in demand.
“He has terrific people skills,” says Jimmy Smith, Pinehurst’s program manager. “He knows how to treat the guests. He makes them feel like a winner, like they’re the greatest in the world. Even though they could be a 25-handicapper, when they leave here, he makes them feel like, ‘Man, this is the greatest golf I’ve ever had.’ You can see it. He puts a smile on their face, and they always ask for him.”
Making the trip to work is all the sweeter for McRae, knowing that some family interaction may lie ahead during the course of the day.
“My son (Paul Kerry McRae) is a golf pro here at Pinehurst,” says McRae, of the third-generation member of McRaes to serve golfers at the resort. “He’s a good one; everybody wants him.”
While he may be advancing in age, you won’t find McRae settled back in a golf cart leisurely issuing lordly advice to golfers in need. During a typical tournament, he walks the course seven consecutive days.
“He carries two bags,” Smith says. “He’s solid as a rock.”
Away from the course, over the years, McRae, who now lives in nearby Carthage, N.C. (pop. 1,871), has developed a decided preference for the small-town way of life.
“There’s nothing like being out in the fresh air,” says McRae, inducted into the Professional Caddies Association’s Hall of Fame in October 2003. “When people see me, I don’t care where they see me at—the post office, anywhere—they’ll wave.”
That lights a wide smile on the venerable caddie’s face. For now, retirement is nowhere in sight, as his flame for the game still surges on.
“I tell you what,” McRae reflects, almost solemnly. “I love that game so good.”