Don Snyder went to St. Andrews to learn how to be a caddie. He wound up learning as much about life as he did about golf.
One day Snyder, 63, an American author who lives in Scarborough, Maine, was caddying for a father and son from California. The father had arranged a golf trip to Scotland as a graduation present for his son, who had just earned his MBA. The son had game – could hit the ball a mile. The father had once been a college golfer with a plus-2 handicap, but now he had multiple sclerosis, could hardly walk, was losing control of his right hand and could barely hit the ball. Yet none of that mattered to him. He was so happy to watch his son play so well.
When the round was over, Snyder took their picture. Looking through the camera’s viewfinder, he saw the son lift a hand to his father’s face. It took Snyder a moment to realize why. The father had begun to cry and the son was wiping away a tear.
Snyder tells this and other tales in his newest book, “Walking With Jack: A Father’s Journey to Become His Son’s Caddie,” an excerpt of which is scheduled to be printed in the September issue of Golf Digest. As a caddie at St. Andrews, Snyder saw golf act as a healer time and again – for the man with MS; for another man who Snyder persuaded to bring his autistic son to a golf course for the first time; for countless others who had lost loved ones, whether through death or estrangement. Later, as a caddie for his son on a U.S. mini-tour, Don experienced his own healing – the kind that comes with the realization that your son loves you, has always loved you, even through the darkest hours of your relationship.
Now Snyder wants to play the role of healer, to give something back to the game. He is working on a plan to take a group of wounded veterans to Scotland to play golf on several courses, including the Old Course. He wants to give them a once-in-a-lifetime experience at the Mecca of golf. “There’s an amazing thing about the game of golf,” Snyder said. “Yes, it does inflict a certain kind of misery on everyone who plays it in almost every round, but it also captivates the mind so completely. There’s something about the game – it just requires such concentration, such a depth of concentration, that you can close out the rest of the world.
“For me, it was restorative. And I believe that same thing will happen to these wounded veterans. All we ask from the game at this level is that we get to walk beautiful ground with people we care about and that maybe we hit the sweet spot once or twice.”
THE STORY of how Don Snyder ended up as a caddie at St. Andrews begins when his son, Jack, was 5, and Don took him into their back yard and handed him a sawed-off golf club. “The first ball I dropped down in front of him, he hit it like he had played the game in another life,” Don said. If Jack ever made it onto a pro tour, Don promised, he would caddie for him.
Despite that early flash of brilliance, Jack didn’t take up golf seriously until high school, preferring the more physical pursuits of hockey and football. A broken foot suffered while playing the latter sport steered him back into the game. “I had a walking cast on, and the only thing I could really do was play golf,' he said. “I started playing golf and the first time I played, I shot 45 or something crazy for your first time playing golf.”
Jack went out for the high school golf team, becoming the only freshman to make the varsity, then taking permanent possession of the No. 1 position as a sophomore. “The golf swing was the same thing as a slapshot, and I was a big hockey player,” he said. “It just came naturally to me.”
Both Snyders expected that Jack would receive Div. 1 scholarship offers, but none materialized. Don fretted that his son was losing faith in himself. “When they stop believing in themselves, that’s when we step in as parents,” Don said. “We remind them that they have value, that they’re going to make it.”
Don had another worry – that he was “losing” Jack. He longed to restore the closeness they had when Jack was little. He knew Jack wasn’t a toddler anymore, didn’t need him the way that toddler had. He knew it’s a natural part of growing up that children, when they become teenagers, start tolerating their parents at best, despising them at worst. But he felt he had to do something.
He flashed back on the promise he had made to become his son’s caddie. It was time to act. If Don showed Jack that he was taking steps toward becoming a pro caddie, he thought, it would inspire Jack to resume his quest to become a pro golfer.
Don didn’t view caddying as just carrying a golf bag. If his son had to achieve a degree of proficiency to make it to a pro tour, well, Don would, too. He would learn how to become not just a caddie, but the best caddie he could be. “Show up, keep up, shut up” wasn’t at all what he had in mind.
He decided to enroll in the Harvard of caddie schools. He would go to St. Andrews, sign on as an apprentice caddie, and learn from the Scottish masters of the trade.
JACK'S ROAD to becoming a professional golfer was full of ups and downs (not to be confused with up-and-downs, although it was full of them, too). After high school he played well enough in a summer tournament to persuade the golf coach at the University of Toledo to let him walk on. But after some initial success, he allowed his grades to slip and was thrown off the team. Don took the news hard. After he got off the phone with Jack, he threw his BlackBerry against a tree “as hard as I could and watched with some satisfaction as it shattered.”
Don’s world shattered, too. He wrote to the caddiemaster at Kingsbarns, the St. Andrews-area course where he had worked the previous summer, telling him he would not be back. A writer who for years had made daily entries in his journal, he stopped writing them for nine months, until Christmas morning 2009, when his entry was as bitterly cold as Maine’s winter weather: “I haven’t felt like writing anything since Jack was thrown off the golf team, and now that he is home, I am sticking to the plan I made before he arrived – never to be alone with him in a room so that we won’t have to talk about him pissing away his chance to earn a golf scholarship … With his three sisters in school now at the same time, I needed him to win a scholarship. And I told him last summer that he was on his own from here on. He is taking the loans in his name and he will be repaying them until his hair turns gray.”
Despite his anger, Don couldn’t let go of his son. On St. Patrick’s Day 2010, he once again left his family and boarded a flight that would take him back to Scotland, back to caddying. He did it for one reason: to show Jack that his father still believed in him, still believed that one day, improbable as it now seemed, Jack would make it to a pro tour and Don would be his caddie.
Exactly six months later, on Sept. 17, Don’s phone rang. Jack had news too important to consign to an e-mail. He had stayed in school, pulled up his grades, and was on schedule to graduate. But there was more. He had worked and worked on his game, taken the PGA of America’s playing-ability test – and passed. He was now a PGA member, a pro. As soon as he graduated, he said, “I want to do a pro tour.
“How would you feel about caddying for me?” he asked.
“Count on me,” Don said.
ALTHOUGH IT SEEMED that Jack and Don had completed their journey, they were just beginning its final, toughest leg. Jack didn’t want to just play on a pro tour. He wanted to win, then move up to the next level – until there were no more next levels. Don wanted this for Jack, too. In fact, he hadn’t come to this realization yet, but he wanted it more.
Cut to the chase: Jack played the Winter Series of the Adams Golf Pro Tour in and around Houston, Texas. He didn’t win. Sometimes he didn’t make the cut. At 6-foot-3, 250 pounds, he drove the ball huge distances and could pull off jaw-dropping long-iron shots. But his wedges often failed to cooperate and too many putts refused to drop. Spending virtually 24 hours a day in each other’s company, father and son inevitably got on each other’s nerves. Still, Don never gave up hope that Jack would have a breakthrough.
It took a neutral observer, a young Irish player who had befriended the Snyders, to make Don see what should have been obvious – Jack knew he wasn't going to break through, and more important, he was OK with the realization.
“He told me that you’re a dreamer and he’s a realist,” Barry O’Neill told Don in February 2012, shortly before the mini-tour’s final event. Jack, Barry said, simply wanted to “love his girl and hold down an honest job.”
Jack had already told Don as much. He had talked to his father about Jenna, and how he wanted to get into a management training program for Sherwin-Williams, the paint company, in Cleveland, where he and Jenna wanted to live so she could be near her family. Jack had even flat-out told Don, “I don’t have enough ability to make it any further.”
After the last tournament, Don watched Jack shake hands with O’Neill and tell him “I never played up to my potential here, Barry.” “In that moment,” Don later wrote, “I understood something about my son. He saw the grace in an ordinary life lived honestly. Something that big dreamers like myself almost never see.”
“You never want to break your father’s heart,” Jack said, “especially after everything he’s done for you. But I’m definitely a very realistic person and yes, he is a dreamer.
“The car ride home, I could just tell that he didn’t want it to be over, he wanted us to go on and do the next thing. I don’t think the point got across to him until he was back home in Maine and I had gotten a job.”
Though his attempt to become a touring pro didn’t work out, Jack is happy with his life. He manages a paint store, plays weekend golf just for enjoyment, and is getting ready to marry Jenna in November. He and Don talk on the phone a couple of times a week and exchange e-mails daily. “We’re definitely making a point to try to stay as close as possible,” Jack said.
DON SNYDER IS FOCUSING on veterans because of his family’s experience with the military: His father fought in the Korean War; Don likely would have been sent to fight in Vietnam had he not gotten a college scholarship; Jack considered joining the Marines if pro golf didn’t work out for him. Don acknowledges that his motivation is part compensating for not having served in the military, part gratitude to those who have.
“That’s very much a part of it,” he said. “In 1968, if I had not earned a sports scholarship for baseball and football, I was going right into the Army, right to Vietnam – my dad and I had already talked about it. But I didn’t, I was spared that. I was scoring touchdowns on a football field when my buddies, guys that I played high school football with, were over there fighting. Kids from Bangor, Maine, who never had the chance to go to college.
“And Jack, if he hadn’t gotten a chance to play golf at the University of Toledo, I think it’s very likely that he would have gone into the service.
What does he expect the veterans to get out of a golf trip to Scotland? “There’s got to be some justice in this world. Those guys who went off to war and love the game of golf and now are wounded, they need to get to play the Old Course.
“I think each one of these soldiers needs to make this trip so that they can believe again in this notion of justice.”