There are many benefits to being a caddie, as Long Island teenagers Alex Cifuentes and Matt Sledjeski both can attest. There is the opportunity to spend most days on a beautiful course, to meet very interesting people, to make some spending money.
Then, for each of them, there was the extra plus of earning a full four-year ride to a major university.
Cifuentes, a Bellmore resident who will graduate Sunday from Mepham High, and Sledjeski, a Cutchogue resident who graduated last Saturday from Mattituck, both found that years of carrying bags will carry them. Each is a winner of the Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship.
Sledjeski will study business at Indiana University, Cifuentes will pursue engineering at Penn State thanks to a golf tradition that truly is like no other.
Both of the honor students (each with a 3.9 grade point average) and athletes (each played golf and one other varsity sport) received the telling thick envelope this spring.
“It was life-changing,” said Sledjeski, who caddies at the National Golf Links of America in Southampton. “It was amazing. Instantly, I knew it was going to be something special.”
Cifuentes was on a snowboarding vacation when the package arrived and he asked his parents not to open it. “I got it, I opened it and it was probably the greatest moment I’ve ever experienced,” said the caddie from Rockville Links in Rockville Centre. Vivian Martinez, his mother, said, “We’re grateful for everything the Links has given him and we’re super grateful to the foundation. If it wasn’t for this, he probably wouldn’t be able to go to Penn State.
Evans scholars get to live in well-appointed on-campus houses that are paid for by a foundation set up by the Western Golf Association. Recipients are chosen on the basis of their work habits at their clubs as well as academic performance, financial need, essays and a potentially terrifying interview with a panel of 70 to 80 people.
“I had never spoken to even 10 people, but they were cool about it. They just wanted to get to know me,” Cifuentes said. Sledjeski said that the interviewers knew that he was captain of the Mattituck basketball team so they started by asking him how to break down a 2-3 zone. “It was 15 minutes, but it was definitely the fastest 15 minutes of my life,” he said.
The result could very well last a lifetime. Many Evans scholars have become quite successful and have maintained a network, while supporting the effort begun by the late Evans, who in 1916 became the first to win the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open in the same year (Bobby Jones is the only one to have done it since then).
Evans was on the U.S. team that won the inaugural Walker Cup matches in 1922 at the National Golf Links. So, there is particular pride at the club to have its first Evans scholar.
“I’ve gotten a lot of congratulations around here, so it’s pretty cool,” said the 3 handicap who hopes to play for the National in the Geary Cup, a Walker Cup-style match against the caddies from neighboring Shinnecock Hills. A couple weeks ago, he carried for Eli Manning. “It’s amazing, the amount of famous people who come through here. It’s a great golf course, a great place, run by great people.”
Sledjeski became a golfer for life when his grandmother brought him to Cedars Golf Club, a par-3 course in his hometown. By the time he was 12, he was playing every day. He began caddying at Laurel Links, then was invited to work at National by his high school coach Paul Ellwood, who has caddied there for the past 35 summers.
Billy Muller, National’s caddie master, said, “When I hire caddies, I ask, 'What’s your handicap?’ Some of them say, 'I don’t play.’ There’s a red flag.” He added that Sledjeski can relate to golfers’ sense of course management. “Plus, he’s a good student. He’s a good kid.”
Ann and Tom Sledjeski’s son, one of four children, said he is not sure if his parents still can believe what was in the acceptance letter. “They know how much golf has meant to me in my life,” he said. “It’s like a perfect opportunity.”
Cifuentes carries an 8 handicap and might try to walk on at Penn State when he is an upperclassman. He fell in love with the game as a child and used to hitch rides to the Merrick Road Park, a public facility that can get crowded — lucky for him.
One day a few years ago, there was a backup on a par-3 hole. While two groups were waiting on the tee, Cifuentes got into a conversation with a golfer in another foursome. The man turned out to be the Rockville Links caddie master, who suggested he try out for a job.
“I’m always on the golf course and that alone is nice. I’m also a people person, I like getting to know different kinds of people,” Cifuentes said, in explaining why the role appeals to him. “It’s a good-paying job and I get to play golf sometimes for free.”
Now he, like Sledjeski, gets to go to college for free.
Lani Spiro, Woodmere Club, third hole, 100 yards, 8-iron
Greg Heinssen, Indian Hills CC, sixth hole, 151 yards, 9-iron
Glenn Strack, Glen Cove CC, eighth hole, 121 yards, 9-iron
Jamie Smith, Vineyards GC, seventh hole, 172 yards, 4-hybrid
Joseph Giambalvo, Bethpage Red, 12th hole, 178 yards, 5-hybrid
Eileen Jacinth, Sumpwams Creek GC, first hole, 85 yards, pitching wedge