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Trading Places Greg Puga, a respected caddie at prestigious Bel-Air, will be between the ropes at Augusta National for the first time--as the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion

April 02, 2001
April 02, 2001

Table of Contents
April 2, 2001

Golf Plus

Trading Places Greg Puga, a respected caddie at prestigious Bel-Air, will be between the ropes at Augusta National for the first time--as the U.S. Mid-Amateur champion

The golfers use the valet. They drop off their cars and their
clubs and their worries with the kid in the windbreaker at the
main entrance and enter a golfing oasis so lovely and rare and
secure they never want to leave, and some don't. There is an
employee for every member, or so it seems, Mexican men, many of
them, with dark hair and reddish skin. "Thank you, Miguel," the
member says, greeting both his waiter and his drink. The members
have made it in something--sales or entertainment or real
estate--and they come to Bel-Air Country Club, in a verdant West
Los Angeles canyon, to enjoy their accomplishments in the company
of others who have made it. Those who work there, the pretty girl
in the pro shop, the caddies, the bartenders, understand the high
purpose of their jobs: to make the members feel special.

This is an article from the April 2, 2001 issue

Greg Puga understands his role better than most. He has been a
caddie at Bel-Air since 1994. He has done hundreds of loops over
the bewitching 1926 George Thomas-designed course, carrying the
bags of scores of members, including Frank Chirkinian, Al
Michaels, Chris O'Donnell, Dennis Quaid and Jerry West. For the
guests in his group, he doubles as a tour guide. See that
house--it's listed for $31 million. They filmed the original
Tarzan on that hillside. Rupert Murdoch owns this house, but he
never uses it. All in the interest of making the game a little
more sparkly.

Every so often he'll offer one of his charges an unexpected
insight into golf, or life. Move the ball up in your stance for
bunker shots, not back. Or, Give it a hit, and don't try to be so
perfect. Every so often Puga's golfer will consider the caddie
and wonder: Who is this kid? Over the past few months the word
has leaked out. He's a player, the current U.S. Mid-Amateur
champion. That means he's playing in the Masters. These days,
having Greg Puga carrying in your group, that adds sparkle to the
occasion. If he's playing in your group, that's even better.

"Because I'm a good golfer, some of the members treat me like,
'He's one of us,' but I know I'm not," says Puga, who's 30. He's
6'1", 185 pounds and fit, but working a double up and down
Bel-Air's hills is still a slog for him. "If I weren't a good
golfer, I'd be just another Mexican caddie. Not that there's
anything wrong with that." He says these words without a hint of
resentment. He is proud of his profession, proud of his heritage
and his family, proud of his working-class East L.A. roots, proud
of his education. (He's only two semesters shy of a college
degree.) He's proud of his golf.

His dreams are all entwined with golf. Puga's most immediate
aspiration is to be the low amateur among the five competing at
the Masters next week. The low amateur is part of the awards
ceremony. Late Sunday afternoon he's on television in Butler
Cabin, and afterward he's on the 18th green, ringed by Masters
patrons. Puga is aching to be on Augusta's great stages. He has
been carrying for the famous and faintly famous for years. He's
ready to join them.

Late on a recent afternoon Puga slipped out for a round. A few of
the members came out to watch him play his first tee shot. He
smoked one down the middle. They murmured.

Driving is one of the strengths of his game. He drives the ball
in the fairway, hole after hole, although he's not long, not by
Tour standards, averaging about 270 yards. He putts well, his
bunker game is ordinary, his distance control with his long irons
is uneven. He's a good and improving amateur golfer, the youngest
ever to win the Mid-Am, but as Puga himself says, there are 50
amateurs in Southern California alone who can beat him as often
as he beats them.

He has won only one national event, but it was the right one.
Since 1989 the reigning Mid-Am champion has been invited to the
Masters, and getting to Augusta has been a goal for Puga from the
first time he watched the Masters on TV, in 1985. Puga was an
eighth-grader and a fledgling golfer, discovering the game at a
driving range and the par-3 course connected to it. A decade
later he was working the big member-guest at Bel-Air, carrying
for Joe Ford, an Augusta National member and the Masters vice
chairman. By then Puga could shoot in the mid-70s. A lot of
people, of course, can shoot in the mid-70s. As he was putting
Ford's golf bag into the trunk of his car after the final round,
Ford said, "Good luck in your golf, young man."

Puga said, "I'll see you at the Masters someday."

"That would be nice," Ford said.

"He probably figured as a spectator," Puga says now. "I was
thinking player."

Augusta will present a whole series of new challenges for Puga.
He has never played alongside the game's elite or in front of
large galleries or on a course that demands so much distance off
the tee and so much diplomacy on and near the greens. Then
there's this bit of history: Of the 12 Mid-Am winners who have
played in the Masters, only one has made the cut.

Puga is doing things, large and small, to prepare himself.
Invitees to the Masters can play Augusta National as often as
they like, so he made a trip to Georgia in February for four
practice rounds, concentrating particularly on the low, running
bump-and-run chip shots that Augusta requires and that most
California courses do not. He's immersing himself in the culture
of the Masters, reading about the tournament and its founder,
Bobby Jones; watching Masters videotapes; talking to Ken Venturi,
an honorary member at Bel-Air, about his experiences at Augusta.
Lately, he's been noticing the similarities between Augusta and
Bel-Air: beds of pine needles off the fairways; bunker sand as
soft as confectioners' sugar; tee markers made of wood boughs;
caddies wearing white jumpsuits.

For the Masters he wants to find a full-time Augusta National
caddie who knows the greens the way he knows his mother's
cooking. "When I was there for my practice rounds, I had a caddie
who was telling me what he thought I wanted to hear," says Puga.
"I'm thinking, Hey, you can't fool me--I'm a caddie. I want a
caddie who will tell me what he sees."

Puga works as a caddie, says Eddie Merrins, the Bel-Air pro
emeritus, "to support his golf habit." Merrins tutors Puga, as
does Jim Petralia, who also teaches Steve Pate. Puga, who was a
safety and backup quarterback on his high school football team,
has the unforced swing of a natural athlete. Like many golfers
out of the caddie yard, he doesn't wear a glove. "Why would I pay
$15 for a glove when I could buy more range balls with that
money?" he asks.

At Bel-Air he is surrounded by money. "Sometimes, I'm numbed by
it," he says. "It's like, 'Oh, another rich guy.'" After
finishing a recent round in the gloaming, he was invited into the
grillroom by some of the members for a refreshment. The talk at
his table was about fabulous courses in remote places and the
luxurious private jets a very few people use to reach them. The
talk was about a fantasy world. Puga seemed fascinated, not
numbed at all. Later, the valet came in to distribute car keys to
the members. Puga said to him, "Could you get my Porsche to
Augusta?"

Minutes later he's driving the Pugamobile--an '88 Thunderbird of
indeterminate color, not really gray but not black either, with
115,000 miles on it--down the Hollywood hills and onto the
freeway. During dinner, at a good Italian restaurant in Pasadena,
where his girlfriend lives, Puga talks about growing up in East
L.A. About not learning Spanish from his Spanish-speaking parents
because in his youth, in his house, speaking Spanish was viewed
as an impediment to success. About seeing the Rolling Stones play
an unannounced gig at the Viper Room, the ill-famed L.A. hangout.
About putting for dollars against Tiger Woods on the practice
green in Industry Hills when Woods was 11 and Puga 16, and, 3 up
on Tiger, hearing him cry, "Let's play something else." All
through dinner Puga is wearing his Bel-Air hat. It's a fixture on
his head.

The next morning, back in the Pugamobile, he's still wearing the
cap. Puga is going to visit his old high school, Theodore
Roosevelt, in the Boyle Heights section of East Los Angeles. The
main street in the area is named for Cesar Chavez. As Puga enters
the school, he mentions that scenes from Stand and Deliver were
filmed at Roosevelt. It looks like a nice school, not scary in
any way. The overwhelming majority of the students speak Spanish.
In a hallway he runs into JoAnn Tambara, a veteran English
teacher. She tells the story of how Puga started the Roosevelt
High golf team. "He went to the athletic director and bugged her
and bugged her until she said yes," the teacher says. "Then he
went up to his friends and said, 'It's O.K. if you can't play.
Just be on the team.'" Roosevelt High has no golf team today. The
school might have a few golfers, but it has no Puga, class of
'88, to organize them.

He leaves the high school for El Tepeyac, a legendary Boyle
Heights lunch spot known to locals as Manuel's, then points the
Pugamobile in the direction of a public course called Whittier
Narrows, where the Roosevelt High team played some of its matches
and where Puga often hits balls. He likes to go there because the
Whittier Narrows range is one of the few near his parents' house,
where he lives, that allows golfers to hit off real grass. But on
this day the grass is soggy, and the balls are being whacked off
plastic mats. Puga is undeterred. He puts his discount range card
into the giant green machine that noisily dispenses the homeliest
selection of balls you've ever seen and heads off to a mat with a
rubber tee, surrounded by unabashed duffers. "Sometimes, when I'm
on the range, I'm just trying to hit it far," he says. He's
bombing these cruddy range balls well past the 250-yard marker.

Back home, on a narrow street in Boyle Heights, Frances Moreno
Puga, the golfer's mother, is working in her backyard, half the
size of an Augusta green but far more productive. She and her
husband, Salvador Puga, grow apples, nectarines, limes, avocados,
oranges, squash, cucumbers, tomatoes and jalapeno peppers out
back. The Pugas have lived in their small century-old one-story
redwood house for their entire married lives, nearly 50 years,
and they raised their four children, Greg being the youngest, in
it. All four still live in L.A.

Mrs. Puga worked for decades in the supply room of Malabar
Elementary, the neighborhood school that her children attended,
though in recent years she needed the money chiefly to help pay
for her son's golf. Mr. Puga worked for decades at Sears. Both
have retired. The house is heated by a single Franklin stove,
which Mr. Puga bought at Sears 25 years ago, using his 10%
employees' discount. They bought the house for $5,000, and it's
worth more than $150,000 today. A gang house is across the
street, Mrs. Puga says, but she keeps the occupants in line.
"Sometimes they stand on my side of the street," she says, "and I
tell them, 'Get over to your side. Somebody's going to come by to
shoot you, and they'll shoot me instead!' They shoo."

In Puga's tiny bedroom there are pictures of supermodels on the
walls and Masters tapes scattered on a shelf. He picks up the
tape of the '95 Masters, the year Ben Crenshaw won days after he
had buried his ancient teacher, Harvey Penick. "I wonder why
nobody has ever made a movie about that," Puga says. "I should
pitch that to Chris O'Donnell."

On a wall in the living room, amid the paintings and the family
photographs, is a wood-framed invitation. It reads:

The Board of Governors
of the
Augusta National Golf Club
cordially invites you
to participate in the
Two Thousand One
Masters Tournament

Puga examines the invitation and says, "It just arrived in the
mail one day." The casual arrival of this most elusive of
invitations continues to amaze him.

His focus now is all on the Masters. Beyond that, he doesn't
pretend to know his future. He might turn pro someday, try to
earn a living from the game he loves, but he would rather remain
an amateur for life, in the tradition of his new hero, Bobby
Jones. He has lived enough and seen enough to know that happiness
cannot be bought. "My parents don't have a $31 million house, but
they're happy," Puga says.

They have much to be happy about. Their house is paid for. Their
son is in the Masters. In a few days they're flying to Augusta.
They'll see their boy walking along Augusta's glistening
fairways, a caddie by his side, playing in the Masters,
fulfilling a dream.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Keeping perspective Puga is proud not only of his profession but also of his heritage, family and East L.A. roots.TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Labors of love By day Puga can usually be found reading putts at Bel-Air, but he still squeezes in time to work on his game.COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY PETER READ MILLER Family affair Proud parents Frances and Salvador will make the trip to Augusta with Greg, who still calls the couple's house in Boyle Heights home.
"Why would I pay $15 for a glove," says the 30-year-old Puga,
"when I could buy more range balls with that money?"
Puga has been carrying for the famous and the faintly famous for
years. Now he's ready to join them.