Sports Illustrated's Bob Harig recalls caddying in the 1980 Western Open

In this collection of personal essays published to mark the 125th anniversary of the Western Golf Association’s founding, leading voices from the world of golf journalism share how their lives – and careers – have intersected with one of the most impactful organizations in the game.

By Bob Harig
Sports Illustrated Golf Writer
Evans Scholars Alum (Ind. ’85)

If you grew up in the greater Chicago area in the 1970s and ’80s – and especially if you caddied like I did – there was nothing like the arrival of the Western Open.

Known now as the BMW Championship, the Western Golf Association’s PGA Tour event dates back to 1899, when it quickly took up an important place in the golf landscape. That first year saw a couple of Scotsmen duel in a playoff, with Willie Smith defeating Laurie Auchterlonie.

Through the years, the Western Open’s fortunes rose as the game moved around the country. Chick Evans, the namesake of the Evans Scholars Foundation, won the Western Open in 1910, when it was played as a match play event. For a time, in the years prior to the emergence of the Masters, it was even viewed as a major championship.

Starting in 1962, the tournament became anchored in the Chicago area, a nod to the WGA’s roots and understandable move given the great courses it could move to including Medinah, Beverly and Olympia Fields, to name just a few. For more than 40 years, the tournament never left the area.

And for years, the Western Open shared a unique distinction with only the Masters: it required players to use local caddies instead of those who had full-time jobs working for the pros.

At the risk of dating myself considerably … I was one of the fortunate ones who got to take part in that experience. The year was 1980, the tournament was at Butler National in suburban Oak Brook, Ill., and somehow I was chosen along with a longtime friend (and future Evans Scholar at Indiana University like myself), Mark Riley from the Inverness Golf Club in Inverness, Ill., where we both caddied.

In those days, PGA Tour events still had robust Monday qualifying on site, and I drew the name of Marty Fleckman, whose claim to fame was leading the 1967 U.S. Open — won by Jack Nicklaus — through 54 holes as an amateur. Fleckman failed to advance to the tournament, but I did. A few days earlier, in bleachers behind Butler’s ninth green, some 100-plus caddies gathered to have their names drawn, allowing them to then pick a player of their choosing.

Among those in the field were Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw, Tom Kite, Tom Weiskopf, Curtis Strange and Hubert Green. When my name was called, probably 40-some kids into the process, I picked Jim Simons, who had finished among the top 10 a year earlier and was a three-time PGA Tour winner, including the 1978 Memorial. Simons also had an amateur brush with the U.S. Open: in 1971, he led through 54 holes at Merion, where Lee Trevino would defeat Nicklaus in a playoff.

Simons got himself into contention with rounds of 73-69 and we drew a third-round tee time with Andy Bean and John Cook, a long-haired hotshot out of Ohio State at the time. Simons would eventually tie for ninth – Scott Simpson captured his first PGA Tour victory. And no, I did not have to look this up!

Somewhere remains a photo of the check Simons wrote for my six days of caddying – $450.00. He made just more than $9,000 for the week. To me, it was as if I had been paid $9,000.

Several years later, when I had moved on to my sports writing career, I ran into Simons at a tournament I was covering. It took a little prodding, but he remembered having this young kid on his bag all that time earlier. He could not have been nicer. (Sadly, Simons passed away at age 55 in 2005).

Things change, and the move to having pro caddies do the job was already in play, becoming official in 1983. (The Masters did the same thing.) Given the money at stake, and the seriousness of the job, it is completely understandable.

But that is my ultimate tie to the tournament, a memory to last a lifetime. There would be more, as I would return as a spectator (seeing Nicklaus for the first time in person) and then for years as a golf writer at ESPN and now Sports Illustrated.

As a Chicago kid, I was sad when the event started to move around the country. But what a move that has turned out to be for the Evans Scholars Program and the WGA. BMW’s presence has enhanced the tournament as a FedExCup playoff event and having it at a place such as Castle Pines Golf Club in the summer of 2024 will be a home run for golf fans in Colorado and the WGA.

The tournament has evolved. But it’s always embraced its history, with more to be made.