Camp Sankaty -July 2009

The last caddy camp of its kind in the United States

by: Maureen Molloy Holmes

photography by: Jim Powers

When its 80th anniversary gala gets underway next year, Camp Sankaty will celebrate the distinction of being the last caddy camp of its kind in the United States.

Once commonplace in the mid-20th century, such camps fell out of favor with the advent of motorized golf carts and the widespread professionalization of the caddy role in the world of golf. But Sankaty Head Golf Club in Sconset isn’t having any of that.

Members of the private club, which borders Nantucket’s easternmost shoreline, continue to throw their support behind their young caddies even as other caddy camps nationwide slowly dissolved. The caddy service itself, after all, is secondary. The chief reason the camp exists is to shape and mold young men into people of good character.

“Developing fellowship, trustworthiness and industry as boys mature into young adulthood and, ultimately, into productive citizens, is the essence of our program,” said Bill Cox, president of the Sankaty Head Foundation and former board member of Dow Jones & Company, adding that life lessons are at the core of Camp Sankaty. “We hope to give these boys an unmatched summer experience while they attentively help us with our rounds of golf.”

The 2008 season was his last for Seth McLellan, a 21-year-old senior at the University of Virginia who came to the camp as a 13-year-old middle-school student from North Andover, Massachusetts. McLellan returned for the next eight years, and in his final year was promoted to caddy master, a position reserved for the camper who demonstrates the strongest leadership qualities over several seasons. “I am so grateful to have spent all of my summers here during high school and college,” said McLellan. “Many people don’t start learning who they are until they finish college, but I found myself by the time I was 16. This is the place where I grew up, and the values I learned here and the friends I’ve made here are the values and friends I want to keep in my life always.”

Camp Sankaty was formed in 1930, nine years after the creation of Sankaty Head Golf Club, by Donald Smith, director of the Worcester, Massachusetts YMCA, who later established two other caddy camps on Cape Cod. Originally consisting of five meager huts and a single pyramid tent, the rustic facilities have evolved over the decades into three berthing buildings that house 20 campers each, framed by a mess hall/kitchen, recreation hall, library, and staff and director’s quarters. The compound still sits on its native spot between Sankaty’s 11th and 13th fairways. Former naval officer Norman Claxton took over the camp’s operation in 1963 and instituted a military-style system that remains largely intact. His philosophy was meant to guide campers from parental dependence to self-sufficiency and allow them to forge fraternal bonds with their peers.

Matthew Lynch, a Westfield State College sophomore who has worked as a caddy for five summers, called the regimented style tough to take initially, but said it didn’t take long for him to accept and later welcome the rhythm of his days. Lynch counts his fellow campers among his dearest friends and said the self-mastery he gained smoothed the transition from high school to college.

“I was the worst procrastinator in high school, but without question I’m much less so in college. The camp has helped keep me on the right track, both academically and socially.”

Last summer Camp Sankaty hosted 60 boys, welcoming 43 returning caddies and 17 new arrivals. Campers pay a nominal fee of $5 a day for room and board, so virtually all of their summer savings can be brought home. During the eight-week season that spans the last week of June to the final week of August, rookies usually clear $2,000 to $5,000, and returning campers typically gross $3,000 to $8,000. Four campers last summer earned more than $8,000. Add to these earnings the opportunity to vie for scholarships, and a few select campers last summer left for school with about $20,000 in combined earnings and scholarships. Eligibility for the scholarships is confined to those who have been with the camp for two years or longer.

Creating lifelong friends is a common theme echoed by many campers. Boston University freshman Nick Barbati said he will return this summer for his fifth year. During the annual caddy banquet, held the week prior to Labor Day, Barbati said he had worked hard and netted good money, but at the same time he played hard, had fun and departed with happy memories.

“The money I’ve made has been great, and it’s an important reason why I’m here, but it’s my campmates and the club members who really keep me coming back each year,” he said.

Sankaty Head Golf Club members raised $5,000 when the Sankaty Head Foundation was formed in 1961 to establish policy for the camp. Today the association’s endowment exceeds $500,000, and a 15-person board of trustees oversees the camp’s operation and development. A camp director and staff manage and supervise the campers.

Sconset summer resident and Sankaty Head Foundation trustee Jack Welch, the retired head of General Electric, is one of the camp’s most ardent supporters. Having caddied himself for 10 years as a youngster, Welch said he’s a fervent fan because the experience taught him invaluable lessons.

“I saw firsthand the variety of human-nature responses to different unprotected situations and I witnessed behaviors I liked and those I didn’t find attractive at all, from silly emotional outbursts over bad shots to the generosity of spirit, or the lack thereof, in the tipping process,” he said. “I learned a lot that served me well later in life both on and off the golf course, and I want to support other young men having the same learning experience.”

Welch said Camp Sankaty is a microcosm of the real world and gives campers a taste of what lies in their future. “The best kids, both from a personality and caddying standpoint, are promoted to the best positions and receive the largest rewards in annual caddy fees and scholarship grants. The average fall into the middle, and those that don’t deliver get the weakest loops with the lowest pay and miss out on scholarship grants. This experience is just what they will see in whatever career they choose,” he said.

Campers come to the island from as far away as Florida and California, though most hail from the Northeast. Caddies are chosen through an application and referral process, with most applicants found via former campers. The camp director also solicits recommendations from schoolteachers and counselors and other leaders of youth civic organizations. Diversity is a key goal of the recruiting process, with boys sought from middle-class suburbs as well as from the lower-income neighborhoods of large cities.

Camp director Peter Montesano said this selection process has worked so well over the years that seldom have campers been dismissed due to bad behavior. Another key criterion that has helped retention is securing boys who are 13 or 14, capturing them while they’re still impressionable and less likely to blanch at the restrictions imposed on their budding adolescent independence.

“We want to get them before they’ve had a taste of too much freedom and hopefully before they’ve been exposed to the many perils that teenagers face today,” said Montesano. “By the time they’re 15 or 16 they’re more resistant to being reined in.”

The daily and weekly camp routine is outlined during the first week of orientation, when the caddy master and a few other experienced campers train the new recruits. On a tour of the 18-hole, links-style course, they learn about course layout and the various skills a good caddy must possess. Campers receive hands-on instruction in carrying a bag, spotting a ball, raking a bunker, tending the pin and other such skills.

Each morning the group awakens to reveille at 6 a.m. and is given two hours to shower, eat, make their beds and tidy their huts before inspection begins at 8 a.m. The check includes both the campers’ living space and their personal hygiene and dress. Next they are given their assignments and are called alphabetically to begin their daily caddy rotation. As the season progresses the more popular caddies are called ahead of others based on member requests.

The boys typically caddy one 18-hole game every weekday, each one lasting four to five hours, and on weekends it’s not unusual to caddy two rounds of golf. Not every summer day on Nantucket is breezy and sunny, and on occasion a caddy must carry a 25-pound golf bag – and sometimes two of them – along more than 6,600 yards of verdant fairways in rainy, blustery conditions or, conversely, at high noon during peak humidity. The young caddies’ presence along the course also serves as a reminder to club members and guests to remain courteous and exhibit good sportsmanship throughout the game.

The fees and tips the caddy earns at the end of each game are credited to an individual camp account, from which they can make occasional withdrawals. Fairfield University senior Brian Daly has caddied for the last seven summers and said he appreciates the money-management skills he’s acquired at the camp, among multiple other benefits.

Most days are spent on the Sankaty Head grounds, though campers are allowed so-called liberties every afternoon from 3:30 to 5:45 to visit the Sconset area. Most campers use this time to bike to the Sconset Market and surf the local beaches. Dinner is served promptly at 6 p.m., followed by a team-sports program that includes softball, touch football, golf, track and swimming. Staff members conduct a roll call in each hut at 10 p.m., after which lights are turned out.

A second period of liberty occurs on Thursday nights, when campers are permitted to play golf and then attend a movie at the nearby Sconset Casino. Campers can also attend church services Sunday morning if desired, and transportation is provided to and from the Sconset Chapel. Also in their free time, campers can head to the recreation hall to play Ping-Pong, listen to music and surf the Internet, or spend quieter time in the library, which is stocked with myriad books donated by club members.

Camp director Montesano said the focus is on keeping the campers ensconced in a salutary setting. Strict adherence to this lifestyle is mandatory, and possession of alcohol or illicit drugs are grounds for immediate expulsion.

“We want them to have fun, but only of the wholesome variety,” he said.

Summers at Camp Sankaty have become a legacy in the Riccardella family, starting with Robert Riccardella, who lived at the camp for two summers during the early 1970s. Now a councilman and director of emergency medical services for the borough of Wood-Ridge, New Jersey, Riccardella said he wanted his own sons to reap the benefits of the same experience.

“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he said. “It builds discipline and camaraderie that can have a lasting impact.” Many alumni stay actively involved in the camp, with two dozen or more returning annually in early June for a reunion dinner and “work party” to help ready the camp for the coming season.

Riccardella’s son Paul, 27, a former caddy of nine years and now a vice

president at Putnam Investments in Boston, said he is still close friends with several of his caddymates and feels a stronger bond to them than to his college and business-school friends. His brother Nick was also a caddy for 10 years and last summer became the camp’s assistant director. The 24-year-old said his job as a high-school history teacher in New Jersey enables him to return during his summer hiatus to act as a mentor to a new generation of young charges.

That the camp is a vestige from an earlier time is evident when guests join members for a round of golf, said Jim “Bud” Kielley, former CEO of the management-consulting firm Towers Perrin and current principal of Peabody, Kielley & Associates. Guests who are accustomed to a pro caddy sometimes express dismay that their sidekick is an inexperienced teen who more often than not is a golf novice, as they’ve come to expect an assistant who can help them read their shot, focus their swing, and generally help them improve their game.

“Most golf resorts view the caddy as another service to the club – and often an enormously helpful aid to the player’s game – but we see the caddy role as different from that,” said Kielley. “Our goal is not to find kids who have a great knowledge of the game. Their main role on the green is to help find the ball, and that requires that they be eager, alert and quick.”

Kielley said the camp helps preserve Sankaty Head’s tradition-bound culture that makes it unique among other clubs. “A significant part of Sankaty would be lost if we disbanded the camp and turned it into a professional operation,” he said. “We embrace the old-time ways of a summer golf club and strive not to fall prey to the tendency to go bigger and better.”

Besides, he added, many Sankaty members see the caddies in some ways like their own children or grandchildren.

“We like to watch how they develop as young men over the course of the season and several seasons,” he said. “The caddies are very much intertwined with the members’ summer lives.”

Campers say they are touched by the numerous club members who’ve taken a personal interest in their lives outside the camp, inquiring about their families and offering advice on college selection and career goals.

“It’s much more than an employer/employee relationship I feel between myself and the club members,” said Philip McArthur, a 20-year-old junior at Saint Bonaventure University who has caddied for the last seven years. “Each summer for me has been better than the last one.”

Maureen Molloy Holmes is a freelance writer.

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