Golfweek senior writer Beth Ann Nichols revisits the WGA Caddie Academy

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 Beth Ann Nichols
Golfweek Senior Writer
Golf Channel Contributor

Joanna Hernandez remembers the family conversation like it was yesterday. Going away to a seven-week summer camp – even if it wasn’t too far from her southside Chicago home – was a big deal.

“Especially in my family and my culture,” said Hernandez, “you don’t leave home unless you’re married.”

But this wasn’t any summer camp. This was the inaugural Western Golf Association Caddie Academy, a seven-week program that came with the potential to earn a full tuition and housing college scholarship. This camp had the power to change the trajectory of her life.

That was back in 2012, when the Caddie Academy launched with a dozen young girls, including Hernandez, who went on to receive the Evans Scholarship and graduate from Marquette University. Hernandez is now a senior manager at the WGA, where she works on the Caddie Academy, which this summer will have 150 participants across seven chapters in Chicago, Minneapolis, Seattle, Pennsylvania, Columbus and Washington, D.C.

Everyone who loves the royal and ancient game has a story about how they got started, but few can match the origin stories that arise from the Caddie Academy. For 125 years, the WGA has supported the game’s treasured caddie tradition and, since 1930, has awarded college scholarships to caddies with limited financial means through the Evans Scholars Foundation. The Caddie Academy was designed to help boost the number of junior girls eligible for the Evans Scholarship and has expanded to include a chapter for young men.

Many of the girls who sign up for the Caddie Academy know little of golf beyond Tiger Woods. The vision of the program is to open the students’ eyes to their full potential and give them the tools needed to get there.

Seven years ago, I met Melina Scofield, an 18-year-old who used a bubble metaphor in her scholarship application to describe how the Caddie Academy had popped the insecurities that once held her back. It’s impossible to put a value on the interpersonal skills teens gain from hours spent walking alongside successful professionals who offer advice, internships, and patience. One caddie I met had even looped for former KPMG U.S. Chairman and CEO Lynne Doughtie at an LPGA major. The foursome included former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

These are some of the remarkable, intangible benefits students receive from the program. Sarahi Ortiz, another Caddie Academy graduate, points to areas more sobering, such as the stability the camp provides with regular meals, a place to stay and tip money that will greatly impact the family budget.

“The Caddie Academy is their safe space,” said Ortiz, an Evans Scholar who graduated from the University of Oregon and now works alongside Hernandez at the WGA.

More than a decade ago, when a homesick 15-year-old Ortiz called home to California from the Caddie Academy, her mother would say, “Just give it one more week.”

Eventually, Ortiz never wanted to leave.

Golf is often described as a spiritual game. Its great courses are cathedrals, and its lessons are timeless.

But for some, the ancient game represents something far deeper. It’s a vehicle to a better life. A chance to create generational change.

And it begins with the simple act of picking up a bag.