There was a column last Thursday on Mark Kinderwater and his experience as a novice caddie for Jack Nicklaus in the 1965 St. Paul Open. There was a player draft for potential young caddies based on their selling of tournament tickets.
Kinderwater had the third choice and wound up with Nicklaus after Arnold Palmer went first and Tony Lema went second. This brought up a question: Who took Lema over Nicklaus, who already had four majors at 25?
I received an e-mail from Cal Simmons, an acquaintance and a good local player, confessing that he was the ticket-selling caddie who went for Lema. That wasn’t really a surprise, since Tony had earned the nickname “Champagne Tony’’ and was considered to be the game’s reigning character.
Lema was a British Open champion, having won at St. Andrews in 1964. He died in a plane crash along with his wife and two others after flying from the PGA Championship at Firestone Country Club in 1966.
I asked Cal a few questions about his experiences caddying as a teenager for Lema and other touring pros in those days and here was his response:
“I was 16 as a caddie for Lema. I caddied in four St Paul Opens and one Minnesota Golf Classic, which was the follow to the St Paul Open.
“I was a caddie at the Wayzata Country Club. Keller was a long trip in the early ‘60s, with no 394, 94 or improved Hwy. 36. There were few caddies that wanted to make the long drive (or find someone to drive them), over to St Paul. For me, it was the thrill of my summer to caddie for tour players.
“At the time Arnold Palmer was the only person to be traveling with a caddie, Creme Caroline. Creme was a character. The St Paul Jaycees did not allow him to caddie, which he took in stride.
“There was a lot of media attention to the big names coming to St Paul that year. When I learned that I was the No. 2 season-ticket seller, which was on Monday of the tournament, I had a tough decision: Tony Lema or Jack Nicklaus?
“I decided on Lema because he was the British Open champion and because he had a much bigger personality than the young Jack Nicklaus. Certainly if I had won the selling contest I would have taken Arnold.
“Lema played OK but not great. I distinctly remember shagging balls for him. In those days every player had a shag bag of golf balls. At Keller, the practice area was on the east side of the first hole. Caddies would stand out in the range and pick up the balls as the player hit them. It was like being on a shooting range with guys with bad aim.
“With Tony Lema, there was no running to get the balls he hit, just stand next to the shag bag and pick them up as they rolled to the bag. I remember he would hit 4-woods and drivers and I would take a step left or right, catch the ball on the bounce and drop it back into the bag.
“One day I was in the locker room when Nicklaus was there and had received some new Foot Joy shoes. He took each shoe, bent each one backwards and sat on them to loosen them up – an oddity that a kid remembers when around the big guys.
“Champagne Tony was also popular at the time for the ‘Lema Rain Hat,’ which was no more than a common bucket hat that we know today. I remember one of the first things I did after meeting him was digging around in his bag to find that rain hat. It was kind of gray in color and all wrinkled up. He used it later that week during a brief rain.
“I also remember his wife, who also died in the plane crash less that a year later. To a kid of 16, she was a bombshell. Red hair, beautiful.
“I was always one of the top sellers. As a result I had great players to carry for. British Open champion, Kel Nagel, Doug Sanders at his peak, and Billy Casper, who sadly withdrew from the tournament where was going to be his caddie.
“A great way to spend a week in the summer … caddying at the St. Paul Open.’’