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PGA Tour players aren’t the only ones getting in some swings this week.
Part tradition, part laugh factory, part Skins game, caddies for several players in this week’s American Express field gathered under the desert stars Tuesday night for a round at the 18-hole, par-3 grounds of The Lights at Indio.
The annual gathering of caddies at The Lights has been a pre-tourney ritual since 2011, according to the course. On occasion, a few caddie bosses of note also have made the occasion. In the first year, Bubba Watson appeared to play; three years later, Rickie Fowler popped in to join the fun.
On Tuesday, evidencing the popularity of the yearly gathering, nearly 60 professional caddies showed up to duel across two-man scramble teams (with Skins).
An engaging cacophony of characters, arriving entrants paid organizer Steve Hulka their respective green and team fees while eyeing an event rules sheet, taped to The Lights’ clubhouse window, reading, in part, “No Fighting, No Spitting, No Drinking (Haha), No Gambling (Again Haha) . . ..”
Hulka, now retired from four decades of carrying various bags and founding a thriving shipping business for Tour players, held court pre-round while collecting $100 bills in one hand and sipping a hard seltzer with the other.
“We’ve now organized it out where we put together a nice event, and (Lights at Indio director of golf) Dave Ruvolo and I just rode around together and set up the course together before dark,” Hulka said between storytelling and recalling the modest inception of the gathering. “And the greens are perfect. I’ve never seen the course in better shape. We’re really appreciative for Dave having us out here every year, because we don’t get the opportunity to do stuff like this very much.”
David Flynn, caddie for Kevin Tway, has helped Hulka with organizing the event in recent years.
“It’s a fraternity in a sense. There’s this connection we all have, and it’s nice to be able to get together like this,” said Flynn. “Playing under the lights, it’s the perfect venue for us. All year ‘round, caddies look forward to this week. It’s a great time just to be able to get away, have a few bucks on the line and play a little golf.”
Veteran caddie Kip Henley, working this week for Stephen Stallings, Jr., has been coming to the gathering since its inception.
“It is pretty rare to get together like this. We used to have a couple of good poker tournaments back in the day, but those have kinda’ faded away,” Henley said. “But the ‘Hulkster’ makes sure this thing always goes off and is a great time. And this is pretty cool to see. When we first started, we had maybe 25 guys, but now, just look at all the guys here tonight.”
The collection of caddies included no shortage of fine players in their own rights, including one-time touring pros, USGA competitors and a host of former D-I golfers in the bunch.
“We’re all working in daylight hours, so to have a night course is awesome for us to come out and cut it up a bit,” said Ted Scott, caddie for Scottie Scheffler.
Mark Carens, caddie for J.J. Spaun, echoed the sentiment.
“It’s so fun. Just out to have a good time, and it’s a chance to hang out with old friends but also to meet the new guys,” Carens said.
Scott was on Bubba Watson’s bag when the two showed up to play The Lights 11 years ago.
“A lot of us love golf, but it’s tough to find the time and we don’t get to compete as golfers very often,” Scott added. “But you can see all the good swings out here; lots of good players.”
Ben Hulka, son of Steve Hulka and caddie for C.T. Pan, arrived Tuesday to play the event for the fourth time.
“It’s very rare that this many caddies gather together for an event of any kind,” said Hulka before taking on The Lights’ formidable, 240-yard fourth hole. “But the turnout for this is always one of the best caddie events of the year. Guys look forward to this, and its reputation has built over the years.”
Other caddies were making their Lights’ debut.
“It’s my first time, so I’m fired up. Just look at all the guys here; it’s a stellar crew,” said Pete Persolja (known as “Crunchy Pete”), caddying at the American Express this week for Ben Kohles. “Some are here for fun and some are here to flat-out win it. With my game, I’m here to have some fun, but I have actually played a bunch of night golf back in the day in Naples, Florida, so I’ve got a sneaky good night golf history. And a lot of these guys are used to really fast greens, so give me a slower green, I’ll put the power press on it, forward press, and just hammer that sucker in. Roll after roll.”
Chris Rice, caddie for Harold Varner III, was making duel debuts Tuesday.
“This is my first time in Palm Springs, and this is my first time playing night golf,” said Rice, a native of Liverpool, England. “And the guys have been hyped up about tonight. It’s nice to get out here and have a bit of fun. We have busy travels, and I don’t even usually travel with my clubs. But after a few months off, I’ve got the (golf) bug back.”
Other entrants present included caddies for Tour players Abraham Ancer, Brian Gay, Brandon Hagy, Nate Lashley, Adam Long, J.T. Poston, Patrick Reed, Adam Schenk, Brandt Snedeker and Hudson Swafford.
And in what may prove a serendipitous outcome from Tuesday, Brian Vranesh, caddie for defending American Express champion Si Woo Kim, teamed with Derek Smith (caddie for Denny McCarthy) to form the winning team at 10-under.
While Vranesh had himself a taste of the PGA Tour (including a top-10 at the 2009 Buick Open), for most players Tuesday was a rare chance to take a club out of the bag for themselves.
“This night is something that everybody looks forward to,” David Flynn said. “If there’s the ‘Caddie Majors,’ this would certainly be on the list. And since it’s the first get together of the season, I guess this would be our Masters.”
This article originally appeared on Palm Springs Desert Sun: American Express: PGA Tour caddies enjoy friendly competition