Golf gives more than it takes, and it takes an awful lot from any of us who love it.
The first paying job I ever had was at a golf course. I hand-picked a driving range at night for a local pro my dad knew. It was there where I first got a feeling for the game, for being around a big, green course. I still play that golf course sometimes and have an affinity for the place.
Right there on that same driving range is where I met my wife many years later. Golf gives gifts that last. Friendship and memories come to mind, and even love. You can never lose sight of the fact that at any given time, it can take your dignity and leave you naked, angry and at your wit's end. It can even make you sad.
Not that very long ago, down in Florida, I met a baby-faced caddie. He was pushing all of 20 but could have passed for 16. There's no way he was shaving every day. And, 24 years later, on the day he died, he probably still didn't need the razor more than a couple of times a week.
Jeff Jones, "Shadow" as he was dubbed early on in his tour life, died alone on a Mississippi highway, near Wiggins, Miss., on Sept. 4. I saw it on Golf Channel just before bed; the headline caught my ear, and then I saw his photo.
He was 44, an Illinois native, who grew up in the Tampa area. I didn't remember that he was a native of our state. He probably told me early on, and I lost track of that important biographical fact. The nickname came from the quiet way he would unexpectedly appear at your side.
Anyone who knows the caddie's life at all probably isn't surprised to learn that some of the boys die on the road.
He was well traveled, not a surprise. You'd be hard pressed to find a big town he hadn't been to, thanks to golf. And, he'd been to lots of small ones, too. Who knows how many times he'd been to this one? He was on tour for a couple of dozen years. It wouldn't surprise me to learn he'd been here 20 times. But, not even Shadow could answer that one. The tournaments and the towns blend together after only a few years. A caddie's points of reference are pretty simple and repetitive: golf courses, hotels, restaurants, bars and interstates.
I know this: On his last fateful trip, making his way south from a family gathering in northern Illinois to Biloxi and then on to a tournament in Mobile, he likely drove right past us on I-55. And, just weeks before, I had chatted with him over several days at Panther Creek during the State Farm Classic.
He gave me a phone number for Larry Macchia, "Burfeindt Larry," his buddy up in New Jersey. Shad was working on one of the practice greens shagging balls for his player who was chipping over and over. I thought he'd have to reach for an address book or something, but he just rattled it off the top of his head. Apparently, he was kind of famous for keeping dozens of phone numbers in his head.
As I scribbled down the number, I asked about Burfeindt, whom I haven't seen in 20 years: "Does he still like to gamble?"
Shadow paused for effect and replied, "What do you think?"
My guess, I said, based on Shadow's reaction, was the answer was affirmative. Shad dryly replied, "Dumb question, John Moody."
That was a typical exchange, brief and to the point, no wasted words with Shadow.
When he'd missed the cut, he would check the board one final time after the second round, bag still on his shoulder, and he would announce: "We're down the road." Off he would go, and you wouldn't see him until the next event, 1,000 miles away.
He was a decent guy, trustworthy, with a deadpan sense of humor. His handshake was fit for a cold, limp fish. He never married. He didn't drink or smoke. I never saw him mad, nor did I ever see anyone mad at him. He was gentle, quiet and without ego.
Oddly enough, some caddies have large egos. Just schlepping a bag around, anonymous, not hitting any shots. You wouldn't think that could happen, but it does. It never happened to Shadow. He was always modest.
His sad father told me on the phone from Florida that his son "had never been five minutes of trouble."
One thing he did like to do was bet at the racetrack - horses or dogs. And he liked to go to Off Track Betting and sports books.
I made a call to my old traveling partner in Vermont, Casey Crompton. Casey and Shad were pretty good pals.
"That's a guy I thought I'd see one more time," Casey said wistfully.
So, we both went online to caddie Larry Smich's Web site dedicated to the LPGA Tour and to caddies, www.lifeontour.wordpress.com. There are posts on the blog section of the site from all over the world. Connected caddies. Toting bags on a tour somewhere on the map. Sharing stories of their buddy, sharing grief. Some of the posts were from old retired loopers like me.
Caddies and players alike were inspired to not let their friend's passing go by without putting some thoughts down. There were many references to his love of Tampa Bay sports and to his gentle and calm nature. Many folks mentioned God and prayer and friendship. It made me proud to be connected to this band of golf nomads.
And it made me laugh, too. One of his mates wrote how when Shadow saw his favorite odds 5-2 on a chalkboard in a sports book, he saw it as a gift as he blurted out the famous Beatles lyric: "They say it's your birthday."
The guy had eight holes-in-one as a kid. I never heard him mention that, never heard him mention that he even played golf. His dad said he played every day during schoolboy summers, sometimes 54 holes at Largo Muni, near his home.
Burfeindt was "devastated" by the news. Shadow and Burfeindt, now 66, went to Florida last year for the offseason. They caddied at a club there waiting out the winter weather up north, waiting for the LPGA season to start again. They planned the same thing this year. Despite a couple of decades' difference in their ages, they made a good match. Both quiet guys who didn't drink but liked a little action.
"I went to a lot of racetracks with him and casinos," Burfeindt wrote on the site.
At the tournament in Mobile, there was a memorial service attended by a couple of hundred caddies, players, tour officials and LPGA Commissioner Carolyn Bivens. The temperature was around 95.
The tournament was won by Angela Stanford, who donated 10 percent of her winnings, $21,000, to the LPGA Foundation in Shadow's name.
"I had no idea that my son had so much impact on so many people," Dan Jones said of his lost child.
It's hard to imagine my pal not getting to be a gray-haired old caddie coming back to town in the years to come. A line from a John Prine song, "Angel from Montgomery," comes to mind: "Just give me one thing that I can hold on to. To believe in this living is such a hard way to go."
I am a caddie in recovery. I haven't carried a bag for a living for more than 20 years. But, it is a part of me, wrapped down in there in my core. Like the winding you used to find when you'd cut a golf ball open. They don't make them like that anymore. They don't make them like Shadow anymore either.
In light of my fallen friend's penchant for gambling, I'll make you a wager: I bet Shadow never did a mean thing to anyone all his life. Not possible. Take that bet, and you'll lose every time.
See you down the road, old friend.
POSTSCRIPT: I received the following letter from Ann Boer, who has been the caddie master for the State Farm Classic since 1988, after the magazine was published:
Dear Mr Moody,
I have been the caddie master for the State Farm Classic for the past 21 years. You can imagine my surprise and dismay upon reading your article in November's SO Magazine. I knew Jeff Jones, as I do all the tour caddies, and am saddened to hear of his untimely death. While I did not know him well, I found him to always be cooperative, friendly and pleasant.
I am probably the only person who can tell you how many times Jeff caddied in Springfield and who he caddied for. In case you are interested, I am listing it for your (and my) amusement.
That is as far back as my records go. I have occasionally had to check the list from the prior year but this is the first time I needed them all.
Thanks for your article.
Story published Friday, November 7, 2008 ( Volume 3, Number 6 )