By James Johnson
In golf, the word “mulligan” is used to describe when a player is given a second-chance, or a “do-over.” After an unsatisfactory swing, a player can ask his fellow golfers for another crack at the ball and even though it is technically against the rules, in a friendly game, a golfer might just get that chance.
In life, mulligans are far less common. But that didn’t stop former Fayetteville VA Medical Center’s Chief of Physical Medicine, Dr. Chris Chambers, from heading out of the office after 32 years, and picking up a bag of golf clubs instead. At an age when most people are looking to put their feet up and relax, Chambers sought to begin anew, as possibly the world’s most overqualified golf caddy. At 55, Chambers got his mulligan, in the form of a new career, serving as a golf caddy for Pinehurst’s Golf Course.
“I knew I needed to stay active,” said Chambers, who is now 63, even if he doesn’t look it.
“All my years in rehabilitation, I knew that if you slowed down and stopped moving, that’s a bad thing.”
The Buffalo, New York native has been living in Fayetteville since 1977, and always had a keen interest in golf. It didn’t occur to him, however, to make working in golf a second career until he spotted an ad in the newspaper after he retired.
“The Fayetteville Observer had an advertisement in the paper for caddies at Pinehurst, and I had played Pinehurst many times. I had always thought that it was a great iconic American golf facility, so I answered the ad,” Chambers said. “I didn’t know that there would be such a vetting process. You have to go through a phone interview to verify your knowledge of golf. If you pass that, you have to go to be tested on your personality and prior drug use … and if you pass your interview, you get called in for five days of training.”
For those who’ve never set foot on the green, a golf caddy is a person who carries the player’s bags or clubs and offers advice on strategy. For Chambers, who had always been a player up until this point, the job was far more physically demanding than he had anticipated.
“At that point, at 55 years old, I weighed about 200 pounds, which at 6 feet tall, wasn’t that bad. I might have been a little overweight. Now that I look back on it, I was quite a bit overweight. I thought I was in pretty good shape, but not really, so I barely made it through the physical requirements,” Chambers said. “There is a lot of dexterity involved. A lot of stamina involved. I barely made it through that, but they took a chance on me.”
Chambers braved his first season at the Pinehurst course, but upon its completion, he said, he realized that he needed to be in better shape if he was going to keep up with his much younger co-workers.
“I created a fitness program for myself. I lost 30 pounds pretty quickly, just being a caddy,” Chambers said. “It is an effective weight loss program, though I realize that it’s not for everyone. I am in the gym two hours a day, five days a week, in addition to the caddy work.”
The caddy work is nothing to scoff at either. According to Chambers, during his first five years as a caddy, on a typical day he would travel up to 36 holes a day, all the while “double bagging,” which means carrying two golf bags.
“You’ll be traveling seven to eight miles, carrying an extra 60 pounds,” Chambers said. “It is very physically challenging, but it’s a lot of fun. I love the people that I meet, and I do love golf. I knew when I retired that I didn’t want to play golf every day, but that I wanted to be around it every day, so becoming a caddy sounded perfect.”
The caddy job is one typically done by younger people, just starting out in their careers and looking to make some extra money, not financially secure retired doctors. Chambers says that the experience of working with younger people, struggling to pay their rent and sharing stories of their overactive social lives, has been an eye-opening one, as it has helped him see the world from a completely foreign perspective and remind him of his own youth.
“Some of the opportunities that I’ve been afforded by this … putting myself in the caddyshack, I have met a lot of young people, who have been victims of poor choices, working very hard right next to me,” Chambers said.
“If I hadn't put myself in that position, I never would have met them. I will hear them struggle with their rent, and their bills and hear about their lives. I never have those discussions at the Highland Country Club. They happen here though, and it makes me thankful for what I have.”
Though it has been rare, he says that he has noticed some of his peers treating him differently, or behaving as if serving as a caddy was somehow reductive, which he views as an unfair and elitist point of view.
“I don’t see the caddy as an employee of the player, I see it as a partnership,” Chambers said. “If you start that relationship with mutual respect, you will be off to the races from there. I’ve had some of my peers who, well, they could not believe that I was taking on this job. They could not see me going from being a member of the golf club to working for it. But I have been a worker all of my life. I grew up, kind of poor, single mom, four kids. It wasn’t hard for me to imagine, but some of my peers couldn’t imagine how they could make that switch … I think it is kind of shortsighted.”
Chambers’ popularity among players at Pinehurst and his own worth ethic, has led to his being asked to assist the Caddy Master Enterprises in its efforts to train other caddies, not just in North Carolina, but at resorts across the globe. As a caddy trainer, Chambers has been able to travel as far as China to train new caddies at some of the world’s finest courses. In a way, traveling around the world, visiting exotic resorts and golf courses, is exactly what a lot of retirees long for, only Chambers is being paid for it.
“I needed something more stressful than sitting around the house, after being in the medical field for so long, I couldn’t just go to doing nothing,” Chambers said. “Being allowed to be in these beautiful places, doing what I love to do? I feel like I’m getting away with murder.”