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65TH MASTERS | BILL PLASCHKE

Carrying On

Greg Puga, a Caddie From Bel-Air by Way of East L.A., Is Playing at Augusta

April 05, 2001|BILL PLASCHKE

A caddie from East Los Angeles will play in the Masters.

Is there any other way to start this kind of story?

Greg Puga, a 30-year-old Boyle Heights guy who humps bags at the Bel-Air Country Club, will tee off today at Augusta National.

Something this nuts, you know a better way to begin?

We could try a narrative lead, open with a boy who discovered cobwebbed clubs in a classroom closet and started a golf team at Roosevelt High so he could play on it . . . then switch to him walking wide-eyed into Amen Corner.

Nah. There are far too many spike marks in Greg Puga's 16-year journey to fit neatly into four paragraphs.

We could use a little humor, maybe, begin with the caddie who discovers the most difficult thing about playing the Masters is learning to use another caddie.

But, indeed, this will be the first time Puga will use another looper. It will be a stranger. He already wonders. What if he tips too much? What if he listens too closely? It's not all that funny.

We could, of course, strive for pathos, introducing the vision of the green jacket through the eyes of a guy who doesn't wear a golf glove because he preferred to spend his money on range balls.

But it's not about the jacket. Greg Puga has already won a jacket.

A red jacket.

That was his prize for winning a Mexican American Golfers Assn. tournament in Palm Springs. Friends draped the coat around his shoulders with a plea.

"Wear this to Augusta, stand up for East L.A., show those fellas a real jacket."

Real jacket. Real golfer. Smack in the middle of the fairway of the most prestigious tournament in the world.

Maybe we'll start here.

*

The story appeared in the Times sports section last year, on Sept. 15, although it wasn't really a story.

It was a note. The 14th note in a 16-note roundup on Page 16. Under the heading of "Miscellany."

It read: "Greg Puga, 29, became the youngest winner in the 20-year history of the U.S. Mid-Amateur golf tournament with a 3-and-1 victory over Wayne Raath at Hot Springs, Va. Puga is a caddie at the Bel-Air Country Club."

Miscellany to us, the break of a lifetime for Puga.

In honor of its amateur founder Bobby Jones, the Masters invites five amateur champions to compete each year. The Mid-Amateur tournament is open to amateurs 25 and over.

Some people stick these sorts of invitations in drawers. Puga stuck his in a drugstore frame.

"This is like an out-of-body experience," he says.

His real body had never before won a national tournament. He has been little more than an agate-type golfer, his name found in tiny letters on back pages and pro-shop bulletin boards.

You probably know a golfer like Puga.

If you have scuffed balls rolling around your trunk, and tees stuck between the cushions of the front seat, and fall out of bed on a Saturday morning to drive the heap to a chunked-out public track to compete in a kegger scramble, you are a golfer like Puga.

Seven years ago, he became a caddie, not only because he needed the money after leaving college, but because it allowed him the flexible hours to improve his game.

Yet because he must carry bags three or four days a week to pay bills, that improvement comes slowly.

This Masters invitation would appear to be his first clean shot from the rough. Then again, maybe not.

Buoyed by the Mid-Am victory, Puga sent a letter to Nissan Open tournament officials, requesting an amateur slot at Riviera.

More than a month after the completion of the event, he is still waiting for a reply.

"Maybe the letter got lost in the mail," he says with a grin.

Puga is sitting at the bar at Brookside in Pasadena, one of his public-course haunts. It is growing late on the night before he is scheduled to leave town, but he talks slowly and smiles often, sipping beer from a long-necked bottle and playing with the bill of his tan Bel-Air Country Club cap.

"Got all the time in the world," he says, shrugging. "Enjoying this while I can."

He will wear that Bel-Air cap at the Masters, and why not? The bosses there gave him free golf.

The conversation turns to his get-acquainted trip to Augusta in February. He and buddy Danny Garcia, a teaching pro at Montebello Country Club, flew down.

For four rounds, Puga played, Garcia walked, and a caddie gave them directions. At times, they were the only ones on the course.

"It was amazing," he says. "It was like, I know I was there, but my mind was like, 'Wow!' "

Puga pulls out a money clip adorned with the Masters insignia. He bought it in the Augusta pro shop, along with a variety of caps and jackets.

"Isn't this cool?" he says.

Yeah, you say. Very.

*

His brother-in-law promised he would watch the silly teenager. He didn't promise where.

So it happened that, at 14, Greg Puga was dragged off to his introduction to golf.

He had never seen a golf course. Never touched a club. Did not understand a scorecard. And how can anyone hold those little pencils?

"My brother-in-law wanted to play with friends, but he had to baby-sit me, so I just came along," Puga recalls.

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