A bagful of memories of a home in Augusta

Joyce Culpepper opened her door to some Masters caddies and a special friendship was born

Graeme McDowell  with his caddie Ken Comboy. “We upgraded the house as we went.”

Graeme McDowell with his caddie Ken Comboy. “We upgraded the house as we went.”

 

Before the Masters began, four caddies carved out a quiet moment to lift their bottles of beer in a toast to their favourite former nun, a Southern woman whose hospitality survived her death.

Joyce Culpepper, a retired teacher and patron of the arts, came into the lives of “the boys,” as she called them, in the late 1990s. She was renting a one-bedroom unit on her property near Augusta National Golf Club to Pete Coleman, Bernhard Langer’s caddie at the time. Coleman told her he had a few friends who needed a place to rent during the tournament.

Those friends – Ken Comboy, JP Fitzgerald, Cayce Kerr and Billy Foster – have changed bosses over the years, but one thing has remained the same; they have spent every Masters week since ensconced in the 68-year-old house off Washington Road, so close to the club it is possible to hear the patrons’ roars from the family room during the tournament. “It’s a great base because we can walk to the course,” said Comboy, who caddies for Graeme McDowell.

Even after Culpepper died in 2010, her will stipulated that the house was to be made available to them every year during the Masters for as long as they wished to stay there.

The Masters belongs to the world, not Augusta, whose residents generally exist on the periphery of the tournament. There are natives who have never set foot inside the club’s pristine gates. Instead, they watch from the sidelines as a sea of humanity descends on their city one week a year.

Sometimes, though, the connections made during the week of the Masters last forever.

“A lovely old lady,” Comboy said, describing Culpepper. “My parents met her. My wife and children met her. We exchanged Christmas cards.”

Secular life
They were unlikely pen pals. Culpepper spent 20 years with the Sisters of St Joseph of Carondelet before leaving the convent for a secular life as a public-school teacher. Her passion was classical music. Comboy is an Englishman and inveterate Manchester United fan.

To make room for her guests, Culpepper moved into the cottage she used to rent out to Coleman, and the caddies stayed in the main house. Perhaps because Culpepper had once taken a vow of poverty, they did not find many amenities in the beginning.

“Her house was beautiful, in pristine condition,” Comboy said, “but it was all very, very old-fashioned.”

The caddies were used to living austerely on the road, often sharing rooms to save money, but Culpepper’s 1970s-era television was pushing it. They pooled their cash and bought a flat-screen TV for her to enjoy between their annual visits. Another year, they paid her to have a more powerful shower head installed.

“So we upgraded the house as we went,” Comboy said.

To show their appreciation, the caddies would set aside one night every tournament to cook Culpepper dinner. They prepared a cottage pie, stew or spaghetti, to be washed down with a couple of bottles of a fine merlot.

“We’d force-feed her two glasses of wine – she’d trot back to her little cottage at the bottom of the garden all sloshed,” Comboy said, laughing. “She used to have a great night. I think that’s probably why she allowed us to keep staying.”

Kerr, who is caddying for Vijay Singh this year, once received a scolding from Culpepper after he moved one of her antique chairs outdoors so he could sit on the porch. Another year, Comboy returned from the course and found Culpepper seated in her garden. A snake had slithered into her cottage, she told him. She asked if he could kindly remove it. “I had to say, ‘Joyce, you’re going to have to get somebody else, because we don’t have snakes in Manchester. I don’t know what to do with it,’” Comboy said. “We got a neighbour around and cleared the place of snakes.”

Growing frailer
Culpepper died in September 2010 at 79. The caddies knew she was growing frailer, but her death came as a surprise. The house was inherited by her niece, Colleen Boykin. Boykin has added her own touches to her aunt’s Southern hospitality. Instead of the 12-pack of Heineken and 12-pack of Diet Coke that the caddies used to find stocked in the refrigerator, there is now a case of each.

She has also wired the house for the Internet and tried to hire a maid to come during their stay. Foster, who caddies for Lee Westwood, was all for it, but was outvoted by the others. “They really love the washer and dryer,” Boykin said.

On a wall in the kitchen, Culpepper had a chalkboard on which she wrote every year, “Welcome back boys”. At the end of the week, the caddies would write her a message back thanking her. When they returned in 2011, seven months after her death, they found she had not erased their message from the previous year. Boykin kept the chalkboard and the ritual. Her greeting this year was: “Welcome back to Augusta. Have a great week. We need a green jacket in the house.”

In 2011, the first Masters after Culpepper’s death, one of Boykin’s temporary tenants came close. Rory McIlroy, whose caddie is Fitzgerald, took a four-stroke lead into the final round. He closed with an 80 and finished tied for 15th.

McIlroy is one of the tournament favourites, and Boykin said she would be praying for him this week (but if Westwood, McDowell or Singh were to win, that would be fine, too, she said).

“As a child we used to sneak in through the back of the golf course and play until the men in white suits saw us, and then we’d scoot back under the fence,” said Boykin. She does not know why the boys keep brightening her door, only that she is glad this tradition is still going strong.

“I think they could find much better accommodations,” she said, “but they like coming back.”
New York Times Service

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