Tour caddie performs double duty
WHITE SULPHUR SPRINGS, W. Va. -- When the Hulka's Overland Players Express (H.O.P.E.) rolled onto The Greenbrier grounds Monday morning, four players participating in The Greenbrier Classic stood waiting.
The 24-foot trailer driven by Steve Hulka contained not only their luggage for the week, but also the tools of their trade -- their clubs.
Hulka, who performs double duty as a caddy for British player Brian Davis, and his wife Mary spend 36 weeks a year hauling luggage, clubs and sometimes Jordan Spieth's fishing rods from tournament to tournament.
"After 9/11, it was very hard for the players to get through airport security, so I pitched the idea to the tour and they liked it," he explained.
So in 2003, H.O.P.E. was born.
"We thought that was the perfect acronym, because we 'hoped' they (players) used it," Hulka said, laughing. "The name was easy, but the hard part was to earn the trust of the players to let us take their clubs -- the instruments of their trade -- and put it on the trailer and drive all Sunday night and get it to the next town and have it there, usually ahead of them."
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In that first year, the business transported for just five players, but continued to grow each year.
"We earned their trust and appreciation for what we did for them in those first few years and business just kept growing," he said, adding that it now transports luggage full-time for 50 players each year in addition to picking up other players from tournament to tournament.
It probably helped that Hulka was not a stranger to the golf world.
The Chicago native had his own playing dreams in his younger years, but after two years on the junior varsity team in college, he "happened" upon a tournament south of Champaign and, along with a couple of friends, was given the opportunity to caddie.
"It was amazing," he said of the experience. "I got to see the tour for the very first time from inside the ropes."
He returned the following year and, in the summer of 1972, met a few guys who were caddying all summer who he said told him, "'We're having a ball. We're seeing the best of the world play golf and we're getting paid $20 a day to do it.'
"The almighty $20 a day," he continued. "So I got rolling on the idea of being a tour caddie and my parents gave me the green light to do it full-time."
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Hulka's first full season as a caddie was 1973. At the time, he said, it was easy to get a job as most of the caddies were club caddies from Augusta, Ga., or Jackson, Miss., who traveled during the winters but returned south.
"There wasn't a full-time (caddie) job to be had probably until the years I started," he said, adding that it wasn't until later that major events like The Masters and U.S. Open allowed players to bring their own caddies.
Hulka saw success working for David Graham -- who won several tournaments in his career including the PGA Championship and U.S. Open -- through 1979, when he said he grew tired of the "suitcase life."
"I said a little prayer and I said, 'Lord, I'm coming home and I want to meet the right woman,'" he recalled.
He found Mary, who at the time was working as a secretary at the Chicago Golf Club, where he was hired as an assistant golf pro.
Hulka unpacked his suitcase and he and Mary had three children, but 10 years later, when a PGA event came to Illinois and Tom Watson responded favorably to a letter, he again got the itch.
"I wrote the letter and told him I knew the course really well and I'd caddied for him a couple of times and I asked if I could work for him and he said, 'Absolutely,'" Hulka recalled. "Tom finished 9th, and at the end of the season, I told Mary, 'Honey, I've got to go back.'"
"It's in their blood," Mary said.
In his years away from the caddying, Hulka said the business of golf had changed a bit as names like Faldo, Couples and Azinger turned it into a bigger business while names like Nicklaus, Palmer and Player moved to the Senior tour.
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When David Graham, whom he had caddied for before he stepped away, turned 50, he moved with him to the Senior tour, meeting up with familiar faces.
"I got to see all my old caddy buddies who had gone out there with their players and got to see all the old stars who were having the time of their lives making big money on the Senior tour when before they had been out there playing for nickels," he said.
"That was nice."
Hulka enjoyed his second go as a caddy, but H.O.P.E. actually gave the family an opportunity to spend more time together.
The couple's youngest son, Ben, now 26, began working as his dad's summer help when he was 16. Mary, who progressed to manager of the golf club, flew out to help on the weekends, until finally coming on board full-time eight years ago.
It's probably a good thing she's there to help, too, as both say he is a terrible packer.
"He likes to pack leaning loads," Mary said.
"She won't let me near the front of that trailer," he added. "She is the Tetris mistress. She loves to pack the puzzle."
The Hulkas along with Ben -- now an equipment manager for the Seattle Seahawks, who came in to help for a few weeks -- transported luggage for 72 players from Hartford to West Virginia for The Greenbrier Classic.
Mary rented a Suburban and drove ahead catching a few hours of sleep while the men finished the load.
Not all of the players from Hartford made the trip to The Greenbrier, so Friday the family drove into Lewisburg where they rented a U-Haul. They transferred for those players over and Ben headed to Chicago -- next week's tournament location -- ahead of them Saturday morning.
Hulka, of course, has a full plate right now, as he is in his seventh season -- a 2- 1/2 year break included -- as Brian Davis' caddie.
The goal, of course, is that Mary will always be on her own for most of Sunday's packing duties as that will mean Hulka's guy has made the cut.
"It's a good problem to have," they say.
At 62, Hulka is now one of the oldest caddies on the tour. He has seen many changes and many faces through the years, but his enthusiasm and love for the game remain the same.
"I see Lee Trevino out here this week," he said, with a smile. "I love that guy. I grew up watching him play and win tournaments and Jack (Nicklaus) and Arnie (Palmer) and Gary (Player) and all these guys. To see the greats play the game the way they knew how to play and to win tournaments and to be in the ropes watching them do it and to actually experience it with David Graham ...
"Sam Snead was still playing golf when I started caddying," he continued. "To this day that blows my mind because that's how long I've been doing this."
Despite the passage of time and the changing of the guard, Hulka said one thing remains the same.
"The generations change, but the golf stays the same," he said. "The players change, but they're still the best in the world at what they do."
This article was written by Michelle James from The Register-Herald, Beckley, W.Va. and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.