Income inequality in America, golf caddy edition

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The latest Sports Illustrated has a nice little reminiscence from Jariah Beard about his years of caddying (1979-1982) for Fuzzy Zoeller at the Masters. Before 1983, only Augusta locals were allowed to caddy at the tournament. Beard tells about the fun that was had in 1979, when Zoeller won the tournament on his first try, then writes:

Later he asked me if I wanted to become his full-time caddie, but I told him that I had a wife and five children and a decent job with benefits as a filter-plant operator at International Paper. I had always caddied during the day and worked the night shift at the plant. I took my vacation from the plant during Masters week.

This seemed like very much an artifact of an earlier, more egalitarian age. In 1979 it made more economic sense to keep working night shifts as filter-plant operator at a paper plant than to caddy for one of the top golfers in the land. That can’t be true anymore, I thought.

So I checked Payscale.com to get a sense of what a filter-plant operator at International Paper might make today. I couldn’t get an exact number, but for an experienced guy $25 an hour seemed to be in the ballpark. That’s $52,000 a year. Let’s say he gets another $8,000 a year in overtime pay. So $60,000. And he caddies during the day at Augusta National, a golf club with a membership extremely heavy on CEOs and other wealthy folk. I can’t imagine he could caddy full-time and work at the plant full-time, but even part-time at a club like that he could pull in another $15,000, right? (I’m guessing here.) Now we’re up to a total of $75,000.

And what do caddies for top pro golfers make? Forbes.com has the scoop, or at least did a couple years ago. Zoeller was No. 9 on the money list in 1979. The caddy for 2006′s No. 9, Luke Donald, made an estimated $263,552. Zoeller would only make it into the top 10 two more times in his career, and while Beard can’t have known that, he also wouldn’t have counted on Zoeller making it every year. So let’s say $150,000 a year as a prospective income, and the Forbes article says about 25% of that will go to travel and lodging expenses. Which brings us down to $112,000.There’s no guarantee you’d even end up with that much. Assuming you get along with your wife and five kids, the pay gap is, even now, really not enough of an incentive to make you leave a secure job in Augusta.

The differential was presumably even smaller in 1979, but that the real change since then is that is that there aren’t as many steady, well-paid manufacturing jobs with good benefits to go around. The IP Augusta mill is still there, but I’ll bet it needs fewer workers than in 1979. And caddying on the PGA tour is much more lucrative than working the register at a McDonald’s.

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