Toting around 40-pound golf bags for professional golfers like Nancy Lopez and Lauren Howe may not be everyone’s way to marital bliss, but for Jerry (Dee) and Jean Darden, life on the LPGA tour has it all over the suburbs, station wagons and 9-to-5 jobs.
“Caddies are free spirits,” says Dee, 56, a robust, retired Air Force pilot. “No homework, no unions, no lists of rules. Just show up, check your yardage and take off.” Adds Jean, 28, a former cocktail waitress: “With the new people, new cities, new restaurants, there’s no time for boredom.”
Of course, it helps if you take off with winners like Dee’s superstar boss Lopez, who has more than 30 tournament victories entering this week’s World Championship of Women’s Golf at Pine Isle Resort in Buford, Ga. “Dee’s always there for me,” says Lopez. “He never says anything negative.” This season Jean has caddied for Howe and several others. Their employers are always out to beat each other, so the Dardens are, in a sense, rivals. “The best we can hope for,” says Dee, “is that our golfers finish one-two.” That has happened only once; while Dee has caddied for the winner in 16 tournaments, Jean has brought home two victors.
Caddies like the Dardens—the only husband and wife duo to work the LPGA tour regularly—get 10 percent of a winner’s purse or 5 percent of a nonwinner’s take, plus a weekly salary. Their earnings last year, supplemented by Dee’s retirement pay, was more than enough to save for a house they plan to build on 15 acres in North Carolina. “Someday we’ll settle,” says Jean, a trim, strawberry blond who grew up traveling as a Navy brat. “But now I want to see more of the world.”
Then she adds a sentiment shared by Dee: “We’re just normal, everyday folks, but when we get out there with all the attention and the galleries—I can’t tell you what it’s like. There’s nothing as great as walking up to the 18th green when you’re sitting on a two-stroke lead.” The Dardens travel to the tour sites in their beige motor home, equipped with every convenience of a stationary domicile except a washer-dryer. They have three TVs, a CB, an outdoor grill for cookouts, potted plants in macramé holders, candid photos of the pros and a big bed surrounded by 300 colorful “caddie badges” for each of the tournaments they’ve worked. Usually living in campgrounds—unless they’re off to Hawaii or Europe with the golfers—they travel to roughly 26 tournament sites a year. “Dee drives and I’m the stewardess,” Jean explains.
In 1978, before she carried golf clubs, Jean Wood served drinks at a country club in Charleston, S.C. There she met Dee, a divorced ex-lieutenant colonel from Fayetteville, N.C. who credits Vietnam burnout with helping to break up his previous 26-year marriage. “He swept me right up,” Jean recalls. “He was a perfect gentleman—rugged, tan, perfectly proportioned.” For Dee, the freckled young waitress had a “certain expression, the nicest face.”
Six months later she joined him on the tour. They were wed in 1982—a blue jeans and sneakers affair in Las Vegas—and she began to caddie the following year. “At first I was a little self-conscious about the age difference,” admits Jean, “but now I’m very comfortable with it.” As for his four grown children (the eldest is 31), Dee says when they all get together, “you’d think Jean was just one of the kids.”
Dee, who’s been on the LPGA tour for 10 years, says women pros are much friendlier than the men: “They work harder and don’t complain as much.” One rule for the caddie, who must often recommend clubs and bolster a player’s morale, is to know when to keep his mouth shut. “You can go from hero to zero in one stroke if you give the wrong yardage,” explains Dee, who meticulously measures and charts every course prior to each round.
The Dardens try to leave their golfers’ woes behind them. “Damn it,” says Dee, “I’ve been shot at so many times that a bogey’s not the end of the world.” On off days, they go to the movies, play tennis and, yes, even golf. Dee’s got a four-handicap and Jean, who briefly considered turning pro herself, has an eight. And do they tote their own bags? “You bet,” says Dee, “although sometimes we really live it up and use an electric cart.”