A Caddie’s Son

The search for a lost father begins and ends with a walk up the fairway
Listen to a reading of this feature by the author

The daily card draw is at 7 a.m. It’s performed to the distant hum of lawn mowers prepping the golf course and cars pulling into the parking lot. The course is waking up for another humid summer Saturday’s play, and the assistant pro emerges from the side door of the pro shop with a clipboard and a deck of cards. He follows the wraparound patio to the back of the building while beneath him carts are pulled out of the garage. The caddies seated on a long bench spot him and snap to attention, put down their phones and line up. The next few hours of their lives ride on how the deck treats them, and life is easier if you have the high card.

At Clovernook Country Club, a 95-year-old private club 10 miles north of Cincinnati, Ohio, members can play the golf course with the help of an electric cart, a pushcart or even one of those surfboard-like GolfBoards. Or they can hire a local kid to take their bag and walk.

Among the hopeful caddies is 15-year-old Josh Moeller, a talkative blond sophomore from La Salle High School, the all-male Catholic school 3 miles south of the course. This summer is his third as a caddie, and he has risen from the B beginner level through the A phase and on to the esteemed AA in the club’s caddie-ranking system. 

As an August rain threatens, he is looking for his 36th loop of the season. He goes first in the draw, cutting the deck with one hand and showing the assistant pro a jack of spades. He then writes his caddie number, 37, on the clipboard under the jack column. The other two caddies line up and pull their cards: a 10 and a nine. Moeller’s jack wins.

Less than two hours after the draw, the pro appears again. With three words—“Josh, you’re up”—he sets Moeller’s day in motion. The boy tucks his phone into a backpack, shoves the backpack under the bench and heads for the bag room, where a rack of Clovernook Country Club caddie vests hangs from shelves stacked with members’ golf bags. He puts a green vest over his white collared shirt and heads for the first tee. 

For Moeller, Round 36 is about to begin. For the generations of Clovernook caddies who have worn the vest and carried the bags, he is continuing a legacy. 

I never wore a Clovernook vest. But it’s my legacy too.

Nearly six decades ago, my father was one of those caddies drawing a card and waiting for a bag.

Evidence of his years here is memorialized on the wall outside the pro shop, a few steps from the bench where today’s caddies await their assignments. There, a sign honors the Evans Scholars from Clovernook Country Club. If you know caddying, you might know the Evans Scholars Foundation, which awards full college scholarships to young men and women with exemplary grades and caddie skills but limited financial resources for college.

More than 130 plates are on the sign. The first one, at top left, reads:

Mark J. Schwarb

Ohio State – 1969

Through caddying, my dad found a first job, a path to a new world and, ultimately, a passion for golf that intertwined with so much of his life. That passion was passed down to me, and the sport became a bridge between us, from my brooding teenage years to adulthood; our relationship evolved as our games did. Many of my favorite memories of my dad are centered on golf.

I just wasn’t done making them when he died at age 70 in September 2017.

In the fog of grief, grasping for something, anything, to fill the hole left by his absence, I latched onto Clovernook as my window into where Dad’s golf life began. A month after he died, I drove from my home in Indianapolis, Indiana, to Cincinnati. I found the Evans Scholars sign. Drove past the house where he grew up. Visited North College Hill Bakery, a favorite for 80 years in the neighborhood where he was raised, one of the few remaining establishments that weave through both his childhood and mine.

In the months that followed, I sought to reconnect with Dad by unearthing his Clovernook past. I tracked down his fellow caddies as well as Clovernook members who had joined decades ago and could tell me more about the club he knew. I pressed my uncles who also caddied with him to go deep into their memory banks. I walked the same fairways Dad did on so many summer days.

I tried to find satisfaction in the journey, if not all the answers I wanted.

When they first moved to North College Hill, a working-class community some 10 miles north of downtown Cincinnati, the three oldest Schwarb boys followed their new neighborhood friends to Clovernook Country Club—not to play golf, but to work.

My grandparents had moved their family in the summer of 1958, out of an undersized first-floor apartment in the near-downtown neighborhood of Clifton. The apartment had two bedrooms, one for Richard and Jean Schwarb and one for their four boys: Rick, Mark, Roger and Paul. At night, two bunk beds corralled the boys. During the day, the apartment wasn’t anywhere near big enough for four kids ages 4 to 12—and the space got tighter when a fifth, Bruce, arrived in February of that year.

So the Schwarbs moved to a two-story house at 6957 Mulberry Street. It had three upstairs bedrooms: one for my grandparents; one for the two eldest boys, Rick and Mark; and another for the other three. Money remained tight, but at least they had more space. And a golf course down the street.

Clovernook was a prominent feature of the neighborhood—a course named after a nearby home for the blind that had been founded by radio and automobile entrepreneur Powel Crosley Jr. The future owner of the Cincinnati Reds incorporated Clovernook in 1923 after purchasing a 108-acre farm for $28,000 with the vision of building the first country club in that part of Cincinnati, not far from where he had grown up. The parcel included two meandering creeks and hilly Ohio River–carved terrain that featured the third-highest point in Cincinnati’s Hamilton County.

Clovernook was an unpretentious club that mirrored the neighborhood, with members who were accountants, merchants, insurance agents and small-business owners. “I was never treated poorly,” Uncle Roger recalled. “Everybody got along.”

Electric carts had begun to pop up at clubs, including Clovernook, in the 1950s. E-Z-GO began manufacturing golf cars in 1954; Club Car joined the fray in 1958. But they were more of a novelty, or a vehicle for those who couldn’t comfortably walk their round. By the time the Schwarb boys arrived in 1959, cart paths were still years away at Clovernook. Members preferred to walk, keeping the caddie ranks busy.  

Beginner caddies had to be 10 years old, though Uncle Roger managed to squeeze in at age 9 based on his older brothers’ good reputations. He was mostly assigned to women and their lighter bags, but even that work wasn’t easy for such young novices. 

“I started at 10, and the first time, I couldn’t finish the round,” said John Cummings, who caddied at the same time as Dad and would go on to be the third Evans Scholar from Clovernook. “The player carried for parts of holes to give me a break.”

Caddies also shagged balls for players as they warmed up. The “driving range” was makeshift, not to mention dangerous, with players standing off the side of the ninth green and firing irons down the fairway to waiting caddies, who had to watch not only for those balls, but also for drives coming off the ninth tee.

Every former caddie I talked to fondly remembered the nuts and bolts of the job. They remembered starting out with a C classification and being sent out in groups with A caddies to learn the ropes. They remembered the money: the Cs earning $1.25 a bag and in a year making $1.50 per bag if they rose to the B rank. The A caddies, with at least two years’ experience, earned $2 a bag. Tips were also part of the gig, and double-bag jobs, if you could get them, earned twice the going rate plus tips. 

I relished these details and unearthed a nugget about how good Dad was at the job. “Sheldon Braun, the best player at the club, picked up your dad from the house,” Uncle Rick explained. 

When Uncle Rick and Dad started out, their caddie numbers were 909 and 905, a reflection of their beginner status. Over time, Rick rose to hold No. 2 and Dad, 21 months younger, was No. 1 when he got in with Braun, who was among the top amateurs in Cincinnati. Braun used Dad as his personal caddie at tournaments around town.

Successful as it was, how that relationship emerged and what Dad brought to the bag remain unclear. At Clovernook, giving yardages and reading putts weren’t in the job description. The old caddie axiom of “Show up, keep up, shut up” held true.

“You kept quiet when they were teeing off, you stayed out of the way, you got to the ball first,” said John Moorehead, a classmate of Uncle Roger’s who was the fifth Evans Scholar from the club. “Some of the older gentlemen who played first thing in the morning couldn’t see that well, and you had to find the ball for them. But no one really asked your opinion, even as you got older and became A caddies. They were just out to play golf. They weren’t asking for your advice.”

The club was closed to members on Mondays, and that was the caddies’ day to play golf. Not every caddie took an interest in playing, but the Schwarb boys managed to scrounge up some cheap clubs and didn’t miss many Mondays while teaching themselves how to play. Dad and Rick played a lot, and Dad began to hone an aptitude for the game that he carried for 50 years.

You can draw a fairly direct line from Clovernook to my existence. If Dad hadn’t received that Evans Scholarship on the basis of his caddying, top-10 class status and financial need, he wouldn’t have gone to Ohio State and earned a business degree that landed him a job in New York City, where he met my mom at a Tax Day party in 1970. (Mom went there planning to meet someone else, but that’s a different story.)

Dad’s work as a manager in Macy’s department stores, and his desire to start a family, led him and Mom to Kansas City, Missouri, and I arrived in 1974.

At this point, the narrative should continue with Dad introducing me to the game he loved. In that version of the story, we would hit golf balls in the backyard and one day walk fairways together as father and young son like some kind of present-day grow-the-game advertisement.

Real life, as we know, doesn’t often work that way. My childhood memories of Dad and golf are more scattered. There was his home office, with golf artwork and tchotchkes. An Evans Scholars paddle on the wall. On a shelf, a ghastly trophy of a fat man in a tam-o’-shanter standing next to a pot of gold, the prize for the longest drive at a golf outing for the Haggar Company, where he later worked.

There was also the Tour-sized red Spalding leather staff bag, stocked with persimmon woods and Tommy Armour–blade irons, all covered in a red top for traveling. I knew that bag as more closed than open because that’s what it looked like when, after moving to Atlanta in 1978, we picked him up from Hartsfield Airport every Friday night after another week on the road in his sales job. My mom, younger brother, baby sister and I would ride the underground train with its computerized monotone driver (“Please move to the center of the vehicle and away from the doors—beep beep beep”) right to his arrival gate, two decades before the era of increased security put an end to such roaming. Then it was off to baggage claim—to the carousels for the suitcase, then the special conveyor belt on the wall for the golf bag. Before travel bags became ubiquitous, that big red Spalding bag would just go on the plane as it was. 

Dad played golf on the road and at home on the weekends at the neighborhood country club, and I was never a part of either. Perhaps it was because he was introduced to the game as a Clovernook caddie in the 1960s, a time and place where he never saw members on the course with their children. “Kids were a no-no,” Uncle Roger remembered. “It was just the etiquette of the time.” Or maybe he didn’t invite me because of the post-round bar visit and card game. (I know the story of his lone hole-in-one not for what happened on the course, but for how Mom had to fetch him at the clubhouse because he couldn’t drive home after the requisite congratulatory drinks and cards. She was unimpressed by his feat.)

As I approached my teenage years, I tried to play golf because that’s what he did. My sports career had been mediocre at best—I was a light-hitting baseball player, no-shot basketball player and a tackling dummy in football—and I felt like I was somehow letting him down. So I took up golf and was just as bad, hacking away during family vacations and stewing that I couldn’t just pick up a club and instantly match Dad’s 3-handicap.

Around the time I entered high school, he handed down the Tommy Armour blades to me and got new Ping Eye 2s. I would take his old shag bag to an empty field down near the Chattahoochee River not far from our house and beat balls every afternoon after school. As far as I remember, he stopped by just once to give me pointers, but I was largely on my own to figure out the game. Just as he had been.

But those old blades had no margin for error, and I never got much of a feel for persimmon woods, either. I made an ill-fated attempt to try out for my high school’s golf team and could barely stay out of everyone else’s way. Dad just told me to stick with it. 

Which I did, because I felt it was my easiest path to him. When I went away to college at Indiana University—choosing a Big Ten school because he did too—I took some lessons, set up shop for countless hours at the lighted university range and finally started to get a handle on the game.

Growing up, I didn’t learn much about Dad’s caddie life from him. I knew he was the first Evans Scholar from the club. I knew the money he made went back to his parents to support the household. I also remember a story he once told me about working for a member who walked off the 18th green and dropped dead from a heart attack.

But I learned more about him when I was in college. When I was a senior at Indiana, my friend and classmate John Jackson died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. His family launched a scholarship fund in his name, and a few years later, John’s other friends and I started a golf tournament to pump money into the fund. I invited Dad, Uncle Rick and Uncle Roger to play in the first Take It Easy Open in Bloomington, Indiana, in 2001. For 15 consecutive years, tournament weekend meant my dad, uncles and me traveling from four states to play as Team Schwarb.

By 2001, I was five years out of college, married and on my way in a career as a sports reporter. I was in the “real world,” and Dad and I related to each other far better there than when I was home as a moody teenager. Like him, I had a nomadic work life and plenty of stories from the road. He was also a lifelong sports fan, and I could give him insights from the press boxes and sidelines. (Even though his first question after every event, without fail, was “What did they feed you?”)

Golf, as I so badly wanted it to be years ago, finally turned into our strongest connection. The best Christmas gift I ever gave him (after years of socks and ties and a ball retriever that went straight back to the store—today, I understand why) was a trip to the 2002 U.S. Open at Bethpage. There, he got to show me the New York City he knew before he became a father, and we got to see everyone from Tiger to Phil to Daly take on the big muni.

That same year, he joined Bulls Bay Golf Club, not far from the family home outside Charleston, South Carolina. Bulls Bay is a pure golfers’ club, a little like Clovernook in a different tax bracket, with a Mike Strantz–designed puzzle of a course that requires many tours to decipher. Dad loved courses with hidden secrets, like a putt on Bulls Bay’s sixth green that breaks away from a neighboring pond despite all visual and common-sense evidence to the contrary. (Members still call it “The Schwarbie.”) The membership was unpretentious and friendly, and Dad loved that he could make a game with anyone from Charleston tax attorneys to Darius Rucker, who frequently played with him in the early mornings.

Dad loved fast rounds, the Rules of Golf, the Masters and being in the first group of the day. He thought Tiger was on TV too much and that the pros hit the ball too far. We had plenty to talk about come every summer at the Take It Easy Open. Through the scramble and a day or two of additional golf, the Schwarb boys would give each other the needle but also reminisce about caddying at Clovernook so many decades earlier. There would be little snippets about players, holes, moments. I never wrote any of the best stories down because, well, who does that in the middle of a round? Then comes the day when you really wish you had.

Dad was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in May 2017 and missed the Take It Easy Open that July. By October, he was gone. 

When I called the Greater Cincinnati Golf Association for a source on the history of Clovernook, I was connected with Gerry Lanham, a board member and historian who was also a caddie at Clovernook around the same time as Dad. When The Golfer’s Journal hired Cincinnati-based photographer Ryan Meyer to shoot my uncles and me playing a round at Clovernook, I learned Meyer was once a Clovernook caddie too, as were his father and an uncle.

Each coincidence lifted my spirits, making me believe I was inching closer to a connection that would answer questions I couldn’t even put into words. Another amazing moment came during a search of Clovernook Country Club’s website, which unearthed a program from the 1968 Buckeye Savings Invitational LPGA event played there. A page inside was reserved for the Evans Scholars program, with headshots of the club’s first five scholarship winners. There, like on the sign at the club, Dad was listed first.

Yet coincidences, hazy memories and story snippets were just about all I found. Cummings, who graduated two years after Dad from Ohio State, remembered most that he was a snappy dresser (foreshadowing his future career in the garment business). “I can remember his face…but he was a senior when I was a freshman,” Moorehead recalled.

No one could remember being in the same caddie foursome with Dad at Clovernook. Perhaps that was in part because the caddie pool was so big and the odds were against it. Or the caddies’ regular guys didn’t run in the same circles. Or they were, and it just wasn’t memorable. Which is entirely possible when you caddie for dozens of rounds, year after year.

As a reporter, I was frustrated; as a son, still heartbroken. My dad was gone, and when I went looking for him, I couldn’t get past a plaque and an LPGA program. 

My research culminated in August 2018 with one more visit to North College Hill, Clovernook and a round on the course that shaped Dad’s life.

The neighborhood that surrounds Clovernook has changed. North College Hill has lost 25 percent of its population from when the Schwarbs lived on Mulberry Street, as families have moved to suburbs. The venerable North College Hill Bakery—where my grandmother faithfully bought jelly rolls—is still there, but other dining and shopping options are best found a few miles away.

Many Clovernook members now hail from other Cincinnati hamlets, like Kenwood and Blue Ash, and even from farther away, like Lawrenceburg, Indiana. The Ronald Reagan Cross County Highway, completed in 1997, is a par-5 away from Clovernook’s entrance off Galbraith Road. It has helped make the club more accessible to out-of-town members, if not completely saved its life. There are simply no new members to be had from North College Hill.

Many of the current members continue to support the caddie program, though its population has also changed since my dad carried bags. The Clovernook caddie stable that numbered somewhere between 80 and 100 decades ago is now half that, matching a trend at similar clubs. Young people are pulled in many more directions today than a half-century ago, and golf carts—with their convenience and course-fortifying revenue—took over long ago.

But Clovernook still towers above its Cincinnati club neighbors in one area: producing Evans Scholars. Since Dad earned the first one in 1965, the course has averaged more than two new scholars per year. Only Inverness Club in Toledo, where carts are heavily restricted and the caddie roster is in the hundreds, produces more Evans Scholars in Ohio. And it’s a tight race: Inverness has the title by just a few students.

The day I played, I didn’t get Josh Moeller, the kid who drew the high card. For my 11 a.m. tee time, I was assigned a lanky 16-year-old named Gilbert Hernandez, a senior at nearby Mt. Healthy High School with plans to study engineering. Though not a golfer himself, he came out to caddie for the first time at the start of the summer and worked his way up to the A level with 30-plus rounds. (Clovernook caddies are now classified as B, A, AA and Honor, with fees of $14, $16, $18 and $22 for 18 holes, plus tip.)

Clovernook Country Club

Gilbert was the lone caddie in my group with Uncle Rick, Uncle Roger’s son-in-law Rob and 35-year Clovernook member and family friend Dick Miller. Uncle Roger was recovering from back surgery and couldn’t play, but rode along to join in our 18-hole tour through time. Soon after we teed off, the stories started to fly.

Years ago, the runoff from a car wash at the corner of Mulberry and Galbraith, near the old family house, Rick explained, went through sewers straight into the creek that bisects fairways on the first few holes. So you’d cross the creek and see foamy water.

Clovernook has hosted U.S. Open sectional qualifiers 38 times, including nearly every year between 1956 and 1991. One year during a practice round, in a story passed down through the membership, Gary Player came up short with a 7-iron on the 163-yard par-3 sixth. Unconvinced of the accuracy of the yardage plate, he sent his caddie to pace it off—three times. 

The par-4 15th hole runs roughly parallel to Galbraith Road at the club’s northernmost border. A half-century ago it was much more parallel, so much so that sliced tee shots from right-handers repeatedly found the yard of a North College Hill policeman. Finally, Sergeant Waldeck firmly asked the club to do something, so Clovernook brought in Indianapolis-based architect Bill Diddle to strategically place three trees in front of the tee box and tilt the fairway with just enough right-to-left movement to spare the homeowners.  

And then there was the par-5 17th hole with the famous Tay Baker tree. The former Cincinnati and Xavier basketball coach was playing in a tournament at Clovernook with a lose-it-and-you’re-out ball; while trying to reach the green in two, he hit a towering 80-yard oak tree on the other side of a lake. The ball ricocheted back into the drink.

This time, I wrote down the stories.

My dad watched me play a lot of golf in my life. He didn’t watch me play a lot of good golf, though.

As much as my game improved over the years, from the high schooler who could barely get a ball in the air to a regular 80s player who could occasionally sneak in a 79 or 78, I couldn’t consistently find my swing in front of him. Every year at the Take It Easy Open, I’d work to get my game sharp, only to have it fall apart under Dad’s gaze. It drove me crazy until I just accepted it, though over the years when I would call him to report a good round, I wondered if he even believed me. 

Which brings me to the back nine on that August day at Clovernook.

After bogeying three of the first four holes, I saved par from short of the green at the par-3 14th, then holed a 30-foot birdie at 15 thanks to a read from Miller, who told me to look 2 feet farther out from the hole than I was targeting. A member’s read, the kind Dad would have appreciated. 

I got up-and-down for pars on the next two holes, both par 5s, including a successful avoidance of the Tay Baker tree at 17. Then, at 18, Clovernook’s short par-4 that’s drivable for big hitters, I hit a fine drive, a short wedge to 6 feet and made birdie. The afternoon was so full—the walk, the family, the caddie, the stories. It didn’t hit me until I totaled the scorecard in the car and realized the back side added up to 1-over 37. That number had never before been next to my name.

I had tried to rediscover Dad through his golf beginnings, but had found only pieces that didn’t quite make up a whole, as if I had been looking through the wrong end of a kaleidoscope.

Perhaps Dad was with me that day. But maybe the story is that he has been there all along. 

Clovernook Country Club