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No caddies? Now an option for LPGA players amid coronavirus health concerns

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Caddies will be optional when the LPGA makes its scheduled restart in late July.

GolfChannel.com has learned that as part of the tour’s new safety protocols for returning amid the coronavirus pandemic, players will be allowed to carry their own bags for the rest of the 2020 season, if they so choose.

The tour informed its members this is a temporary option designed to protect players who don’t have regular tour caddies, who may feel a heightened risk working with unfamiliar local caddies.

Still, the news didn’t land well among LPGA caddies eager to return when the tour makes its scheduled restart this summer.

Les Luark, who caddies for Lydia Ko and formerly worked with Ariya Jutanguarn, said he totally supports safety considerations required amid the pandemic, but he is concerned that some players will abuse the intent of the caddie option. He said he isn’t alone among his colleagues.

“A vast majority of players appreciate what we do for a living, and this won’t impact caddies who work for those players,” Luark said. “But I think there’s a good portion of players who will take advantage of the monetary advantages they can get from this.

“Whether it’s younger players coming out of college, or Symetra Tour players who aren’t in a financially stable situation, or just players who don’t appreciate caddies, I’m concerned there will be some who think, 'I can save $1,300 or $1,400 a week for four months by going without a caddie.’ That bothers me.”

LPGA tour media director Christina Lance confirmed players were informed of the caddie option Wednesday during a players’ meeting in a video conference call.

"We expect an overwhelming number of players to use their full-time caddies," Lance said. "This is meant mainly to avoid the local caddie situation, where we don't know a caddie's background, and the player doen't know their background, and may feel health concerns working with someone they don't know."

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John Killeen, a long-time caddie who has toted bags for Patty Sheehan, Meg Mallon, Ayako Okamoto and Cristie Kerr, said he was so concerned when he heard the news that he texted LPGA commissioner Mike Whan about it.

“I asked him if this was the end of caddies as we know them,” Killeen said. “I was wondering if this was the way we are finally going to be squeezed out. He said, 'No way.’”

Lance also said that.

“We are 100 percent staying with our caddies,” she said. “This is not the beginning of a long-term plan to phase out caddies. Nothing could be further from the truth.”

That didn’t make this news land any softer for LPGA caddies, many of whom don’t enjoy the more lucrative savings that PGA Tour caddies enjoy.

“There are caddies out there planning to come back this summer who are going to get a phone call and hear a player say, 'Sorry, I don’t need you now,’” Killeen said. “That’s going to be heartfelt.

“I hope this 'optional’ thing doesn’t get out of hand.”

Like Luark, Killeen believes it may become a cost-cutting option more than a safety option for certain players.

“I could make a list right now of players who will take advantage of this,” he said. “I’m talking about veteran players, too.”

Killeen is concerned for fellow caddies who are struggling during golf’s shut down, long-time caddies who have worked the fringe for years but love the tour. He was hopeful the LPGA and its players would support some kind of fundraiser to help caddies during this down time. Instead, they got a gut punch Wednesday, learning fewer jobs may be available when the tour returns.

“There will be some caddies left out,” Killeen said.

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Killeen, 61, took his first caddie job thinking he would work it for eight months.

“Thirty-eight years later, I’m still doing it,” Killeen said. “It’s been a brilliant life.”

Killeen isn’t worried about a job this summer with a tour bag lined up, but he worries about the caddie life in general and how this may impact it, should the pandemic linger into next year. He was on a group text Wednesday with 10 caddies who share not only those fears, but concern over how resentments may grow for players who choose to play without caddies. He said he understands the financial burdens on fledgling and journeyman pros, but caddies have always been told they are an important part of the tour family.

“If Player A or B had a caddie and isn’t using him, it will be talked about among us,” Killeen said. “It’s terrible to say, but it will be frowned upon.”

Should caddies rake the bunkers for players who don’t have caddies?

Should they offer their towels to clean balls?

And how expendable will caddies feel watching players with bags strapped on their backs, or pushing pull carts? How will that affect the tour’s image?

These are challenges caddies who do return to work will face.

Killeen hopes his fears aren’t confirmed should a lot of players choose to tote their own bags.

Pernilla Lindberg, the 2018 ANA Inspiration winner, has a unique insight into the player/caddie dynamic. She is married to her caddie, Daniel Taylor.

“I’m close friends with a lot of caddies,” Lindberg said. “The players I know, we’ve all been really concerned about the caddies during this tough time. We want to give them a chance to come back to work. We hope girls who have regular tour caddies will go back to doing their normal thing, and they will have them out there.

“We’re a professional tour. Our caddies make us better. We want them to be a part of what we’re doing. Hopefully, that’s what other girls will be looking at.”