Augusta’s king of caddies: how Willie Lee Stokes set the tone for an era


Who connects the 1938 Masters to that of 1948, 1951, 1953 and 1956? The answer lies in the kind of story Augusta National should celebrate, just as it did this week with the belated recognition afforded to Lee Elder for his pioneer status among black golfers. Willie Lee Stokes, only 17 when Henry Picard triumphed a year before the onset of the second world war, was the caddie during five different Masters wins for four players. The record looks even more astonishing decades later. The late Willie Peterson also caddied for five champions; all of whom were named Jack Nicklaus.

Stokes’s life touched fairytale. He was brought up on farmland where his father worked, which was subsequently bought by Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts to build Augusta National. A decade before his death in 2006, aged 86, Stokes delivered memories of helping to cut down trees as the course took shape. In the same year, Stokes was inducted into the caddie hall of fame.

Roberts, the hard business brain behind Augusta’s formation, took an instant shine to Stokes. “He always caddied for Clifford Roberts,” Stokes’s brother, Latimer, said at the time of Willie’s death. “He loved Clifford dearly. Clifford was always his man.” It was Roberts, apparently, who was instrumental in choosing which players Stokes should work for at any given Masters.

Picard, Claude Harmon, Ben Hogan – twice – and Jack Burke Jr benefited from Stokes’s wisdom as Green Jackets were earned. In his book, It’s Only A Game, Burke recalls how Stokes’s habit of spinning a single club in hand while walking proved soothing. Burke only ever asked for advice from a caddie once in his career; when over the decisive putt in that 1956 Masters. “Just go on and cruise her on in there,” said the bagman in confirming Burke’s read.

Those, of course, were different times. Until Elder broke the mould in 1975, Masters players were white and caddies were black. Augusta’s own club caddies simply continued their work during Masters week.

Jerry Beard, who caddied for Fuzzy Zoeller during his Masters triumph as a debutant in 1979, will be 80 in January. His warmth for Stokes is abundantly clear. “He was the king of the caddies,” says Beard. “That golf course is about green reading, you have to know those greens. That’s what made him so good, he taught all of us how to read the greens. When the course was being built, he was living in the area so he knew more about the land than anybody else. He could read greens when 100 yards from the hole, he knew what the putt would do every time.

“When I started caddying at 15, the caddie master would put me out with him to learn. He called me ‘Little Bull’ as a young boy … ‘OK Little Bull, this putt is going to do such and such and such and such’ and … bang. In the hole. He told you what every putt would do, then it was up to you to tell your player. You made your money by how well you caddied. Players wouldn’t tip good if you didn’t caddie well. A lot of people were very, very generous back in those days.

“He was a super guy. Loved to have fun. And he was a pretty good athlete, he was older than us but loved to race and outrun us.”

In 1983, Augusta National decreed that players could bring their own caddies to the Masters. This marked the beginning of the end for the club’s long-established caddie culture. “We were a big part of that tournament,” Beard says. “Things changed, it was all about the money. We were all black guys at the time and I would have had no problem if they integrated on the golf course. If everyone had learned to caddie on the golf course like I had to learn, not just bring them in and let them earn the big money. I thought that was wrong.

“Everything was segregated in the south. Most people back then felt like it was a menial job so they didn’t want to caddie. When the money all shot up, it went to what you have now. All white guys. That’s what the whole deal was about, money.”

While “so disappointed” by the change, Beard returned to his night shift with a paper company. He felt immensely sorry for those who had lost the Masters pay day; Augusta National closes to members from May until October. “I had another way to make a living because I had a wife and five kids but I felt really sorry for those guys when it was all they had.”

Carl Jackson, another of Augusta’s decorated caddies, still works at an exclusive club in Arkansas. Beard, such a charming man, laughs when it is suggested not enough is made of this contingent’s contribution to the tournament. “Well, there’s not many of us left …” Which seems all the more reason to make a fuss. “I look at it on TV,” adds Beard of the Masters. “I can’t walk the hills any more. I went to watch it for a couple of years then I stopped going. Some of the greens have changed but I still know what the ball will do before a player putts.” Knowledge gleamed from Willie Lee Stokes. Augusta National should remember him fondly.