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As Hall of Fame caddy, 98-year-old Clark is part of golf's history

Jim Clark has been walking the fairways of golf courses in the United States for nearly eight decades. The 98-year-old caddie, who retired a year after being inducted into the Professional Caddies Association Hall of Fame in 2001, knows a thing or two about the game.

As a man who has been alive for 92 of the 107 previous U.S. Opens, Clark will be watching intently as the national championship begins June 12 at Torrey Pines in San Diego.

Clark has toted a bag himself in the spotlight of a major, working for Jerry Moulds in the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J. The winner that year was a young Jack Nicklaus.

In its history, Baltusrol has hosted seven U.S. Opens and Clark is certainly a part of that major championship lore.

Clark got a first-hand look at some of the best golfers in the world that week 41 years ago. He saw the big crowds and the intense competition as Nicklaus won the second of his four career U.S. Open titles at Baltusrol. You don't have to tell Clark how big the U.S. Open is for most golfers.

"We had people all over the place," Clark said. "I can't recall exactly how many fans were there, but it was a big turnout. ... That was a big event for me as well as a lot of fans. ... That was really special for me."

Clark got his start on the links before World War II, before the invention of the television and even before the Great Depression. Warren Harding was the sitting U.S. president.

Clark began caddying in 1922 at Rock Creek Golf Course in Washington, D.C., where he looped for Goose Goslin, the Washington Senators' Hall of Fame pitcher.

"I was 12 years old at the time," Clark said. "I remember going out on the course with Goose Goslin. That was the first time for me. I was just happy to be out there. That goes back a long way."

Although Clark started his career in the nation's capital, he spent more than 30 years at Baltusrol. He was quite a fixture there.

"At that time, they had a lot of black caddies," Clark said. "Of course, we worked for the amateurs. It wasn't until recently that white people started caddying and that came later. Now, you don't see any black caddies.

"We used to caddie for $80 to $100 for 18 holes. That was 4½ hours of work. I know they're making more than that now. They make a certain percentage from the tournaments. They make as much as 10 percent. I really enjoy playing golf. I just didn't have the ambition because they weren't taking black players at that time. I played in a caddie's tournament. I won the tournament. I was 67 years old when I did that."

In general, it is widely understood that golf hasn't been very kind to African-Americans over the years. For a long time, blacks weren't welcome at many of the private clubs around the country.

That slowly started to change because of people like Charlie Sifford. He was the first black golfer to play on the PGA Tour and the first to win a PGA Tour event.

When he wasn't allowed to play in PGA Tour events, Sifford competed in golf tournaments that African-American golfers arranged themselves because of their exclusion from the PGA Tour. Sifford, now 86, became a member of the tour in 1961 and won the Greater Hartford Open Invitational in 1967.

"Charlie is a real good friend of mine," Clark said, who talks on the phone with Sifford as often as he can. "Charlie was an exceptional golfer. He could really play the game."

Sifford does have quite a legacy. For a man who opened the doors for black golfers, Sifford said he's very impressed with Clark's career.

"Jim really likes golf," Sifford said, who has known Clark for five years. "What he has done for golf is really amazing. The good lord has been on his side. He had a long and great career as a caddie."

While Clark never caddied for Sifford, he did work for another African-American golf legend, Lee Elder, at the Upper Montclair Country Club in New Jersey and at the 1968 Thunderbird Classic.

"Mr. Clark is a very knowledgeable person," Elder said. "He was a big help to me. It was always a pleasure working with him. Mr. Clark played the game. He knew what clubs to use. He could tell you where to stand on the course. He's a good person who has made a big contribution to the sport. He's a great humanitarian, too."

Elder himself has been a trailblazer for many black golfers. In 1975, he became the first African-American to play in the Masters.

Two years ago, Clark met Kultida Woods while at Baltusrol. The mother of the world's No. 1 golfer was nearby as her son, Tiger, was practicing.

The chance meeting came at a difficult time for the Woods family as Tiger's father Earl was in ill health. Even though Clark didn't get to meet the world's most famous golfer, he did tell Kultida Woods that he would call Tiger's father to wish him well.

"I had a chance to talk to his mother," Clark said. "She's a real nice person. Tiger was playing on the course. I just wished I had a chance to talk to him. He's such a great player. But I told his mother that I would call Tiger's father. He didn't know me at all. I gave him a call in the hospital. I told him I was praying for him. He really appreciated the call."

Clark has been recognized for his career in golf, including some honors in recent years. Last summer, Pennsylvania state senator Vincent Hughes recognized Clark at the lawmaker's annual golf tournament as one of the African American legends of golf. That pronouncement was just a few years after Clark's induction to the hall of fame.

Throughout his career, Clark worked a number of full-time jobs, including 17 years as a custodian. Today, he resides in Montclair, N.J., just a year after his wife, Minnie, passed away. He has five children, 17 grandchildren and 23 great grandchildren.

The patriarch of the family doesn't play golf anymore due to arthritis in his right arm. But he still tries to stay close to the game, occasionally visiting Baltusrol. And when the U.S. Open begins next week, you can bet he'll be watching, thinking about his day in the spotlight 41 years ago.

Donald Hunt is also a columnist for The Philadelphia Tribune. His e-mail address is
dhunt37261@aol.com.