A collection of stories from behind the golf bag

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Mike Brill of Aurora didn’t play his first round of golf until the 1990s, and yet some 30 years earlier he was part of a famous PGA golf tournament, rubbing shoulders with some of the greats of all-time, an ending described then as “one of the most exciting finishes in televised golf history.”
Mike, just recently retired from his job with Palmer-Scheffel Monument Company, grew up in northeast Ohio-Hartville to be exact-a small Amish/farming blue collar community located mainly north and just east of Canton, the home to the NFL Hall of Fame.
Mike’s dad and older brother both worked as caddies at Congress Lake Golf Club, so as a junior high kid, Mike became one, too, working Tuesdays through Sundays on the course that was 10 to 15 miles away from home.
“My dad’s big thing was, ‘If I’m working, you’re working,’” Mike said about his early childhood. “I learned to work at a young age. Mom packed my lunch and drove me to the ‘caddie corner’, which was about two miles away,” Mike said. “She never waited to see if I got a ride to the club. I stood there waiting for doctors, lawyers, CEOs, the Goodyear Blimp owner and others who could afford membership. If you didn’t drive that’s how you got there.”
Mike said his experience at the club was reporting to the caddie shack with 50 to 60 other guys, waiting to be called up to a bench by the first tee. At the shack, the boys played cards, horseshoes and other games. Sometimes Mike’s name was called, and sometimes it wasn’t.
“After I gained experience, I went directly to the caddie bench,” Mike pointed out. “There, the 20 best guys waited for the caddie master to assign you to a golfer. I was a double looper. A loop is a round of golf. On Saturdays and Sundays I often did two loops.
“At that time I weighed about 150 pounds and carried two bags for 18 holes. The course was 6500 yards long (3.7 miles), and the average weight for a bag was 20 to 25 pounds. I took care of the golfers, raked sand traps, watched their ball (land), and tended the flag stick on the green. Then there was a lunch house after nine holes. The caddies ate out back. My routine was to go to the back door to buy a drink and then hope your golfer offered to buy your whole lunch. And I saved my lunch for the trip home.
When he was done for the day, Mike would have to hitch hike home, exhausted and often times dehydrated from the hot, humid Ohio summers, collapsing into bed after a shower.
The next day, he would get up and do it all over again.
“I learned to work at a very young age, every morning up catching a ride at 6 a.m.,” Mike said. “Six days a week, May through October. My dad taught me work ethic. He was a steel worker. All my uncles worked in the steel mills.”

Hard work pays off
All of that hard work paid off in August of 1968 when The American Golf Classic was to be played at nearby Firestone Country Club in Akron. Mike, entering his sophomore year in high school, was selected along with 19 others from his home course of Congress Lake, since area courses were providing caddies for the professional golfers who at that time didn’t have their own personal caddies.
“Caddies were given a number and mine was 122. You were assigned a golfer when they signed you in. Arnold Palmer was 121. Jack Nicklaus was 123. Chi Chi Rodriquez was 125. My golfer was Bobby Verwey from South Africa. His brother-in-law is Gary Player. Verwey played two days but missed the cut. I don’t remember what I was paid, maybe $100.”
Mike went on to say that caddies at the tournament were also given a t-shirt and a plastic helmet to wear, similar to a helmet fans can buy at baseball games, and not one for protective purposes.
“I was on the practice green, picking up short iron balls that Bobby was hitting to me,” Mike recalled, “and Nicklaus and Doug Sanders were on each side of him, hitting long balls. There I stood with my plastic helmet while missiles whizzed by my head. It was crazy.”
He said the tournament was far different than his home golf course.
“I didn’t know Verwey or the course that much, so pretty much all I did was carry his bag. I didn’t scout the course before hand. I was basically a good caddy at the club so I was an average caddy in the PGA. I don’t know if Verwey ever had much of a career.
“There were three in a group,” he continued. “I can’t remember who was in our group, but the most memorable thing was to realize the tremendous crowd sizes and the TV cameras. They were intimidating. Hundreds of people in the fairways and the greens surrounded. I stood next to guys who at that time were on top (of the golf world), and I got to meet pretty much all of them. It was an honor to be selected.”
Nicklaus ended up winning the tournament in a five-hole sudden death playoff over rookie golfer Lee Elder and Frank Beard. Nicklaus took home the $25,000 first place money, while Elder and Beard had to share the second place $12,187 payout.
“I had a lot of money as a kid,” Mike pointed out. “My last year I was making 20 bucks a round, which was pretty good money back then. I bought clothes, guitars and records, but I never played golf. Why would I play? I was there six days a week.”
After high school Mike said he was a mess, a hippie to the max so to say, but then got caught up in the Jesus Movement, heading off to a bible college in Missouri where he got his life turned around. It’s there that he met his wife, Cindy, moving to Washington state for 10 years, to Colorado and then to Aurora, close to her parents in Kearney.
He taught at Nebraska Christian for 10 years before working for Palmer-Scheffel, and he now plans on becoming a substitute teacher along with maintaining his weekend church speaking engagements.
Teaching, he said, is still his thing, and no doubt can be traced back to lessons learned on and off the golf course.
“When I’m back home, I always make the drive to Congress Lake,” he added. “You can’t get in because it’s gated now, but you can see enough of the course. So the memories are more positive than negative.
“I loved being outside, and I loved the smell of the grass.”
And he loved being a part of one special golf tournament.
DAVE BRADLEY can be reached at advertising@hamilton.net.

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