Open Daily Caddie Dreams

Marc Kourie is caddying this week for Irene Coe.

All caddies have golf dreams. Marc Kourie, who is caddying this week for veteran tour player Irene Coe, has especially big golf dreams.

Kourie is 28 years old and hails from South Africa – the place he hopes soon to help create a developmental tour for up-and-coming players wanting to qualify for the popular Sunshine Tour.

“It would serve the function over there that the tour does here in the States,” he explains, “giving young players a chance to refine their games, mature a bit and prepare for the challenges of Q-school and maybe a professional life.”

Kourie knows about such challenges. Nine years ago, on the heels of an outstanding high school playing career in his native Johannesburg, he was on the fast track to a promising collegiate golf career in America. But a torn ACL suffered in a game of touch rugby derailed his dream of coming to America.

“My husband Keith and I have four children but Marc is something special. He’s just so kind and considerate of people, especially younger kids. That’s why nearly losing the chance to come to America was so hard for him.”

In retrospect, she quickly added, there was a silver lining to the crisis. Being home an extra year while he rehabbed his knee at a well-known sports institute meant he was around when his Uncle Garth was seriously injured in a car crash. Marc took his uncle’s young son Nicholas, 5, under his wing and helped him deal with his father’s vegetative state.

Marc was told by his doctors not to expect to hit balls for nine months or play a full round in less than a year. In six months, though, he was back with a knee that was 200-percent stronger than before.

His dream of coming to America was back, too – in slightly reduced form. A buddy – also named Mark -- who was headed on scholarship to play for tiny Pfeiffer University in the village of Misenheimer, N.C., mentioned Marc Kourie to his coach, who recruited Marc as well at the last minute.

In January 2007 they got off the plane from South Africa wearing shorts and T-shirts, rented a car and drove straight past their destination. “We didn’t know what to expect,” Marc remembers with a laugh. “We were looking for the big football stadium.”

What they eventually found was a fine private university with an excellent academic reputation but no football team. On their first night in the dorm, their car was stolen with all their belongings and golf clubs in the boot.

“The town was so small it made the local newspaper. I think it was the first stolen car ever reported there. The police later found the car down in South Carolina. It had been taken by a couple of 15-year-old boys on a joy ride. Everything was still in it: our clubs, our clothes, even our wallets. This incident and our South African accidents made us a natural curiosity on the campus. Everyone wanted to meet us after that – and quickly made us feel welcome.”

Marc Kourie’s playing career at Pfeiffer had some outstanding moments. He placed fourth in his first collegiate tournament at Mid Pines in Southern Pines, for instance, and began dating the captain of Pfeiffer’s girls golf team. Her name is Elizabeth Johnson. Golf and romance bloomed. Marc began thinking about creating a life in America, possibly taking a shot at the professional tours.

Then at a party he and friends hosted during his senior year, he and others got busted for having under-age students present.  A new golf coach suspended Marc for much of the playing season. Marc kept his scholarship and finished his economics degree. Despite friends who lobbied in his behalf, he was kept out of his last Conference Carolina’s tournament, though allowed to play in a big West Virginia collegiate, where he finished in 18th place. The coach was eventually replaced.

By then he’d begun caddying at Congressional Country Club in Washington, D.C. and chasing his dream of making a life on the tour. His parents bought him a Nissan Sentra for graduation and he just missed qualifying for the U.S. Amateur and the Public Links and the Nationwide Tour.

Typically, he would drive eight or nine hours to try and qualify for an event, sometimes sleeping in his car, then head home to be the first in line for a bag at Congressional on weekends.

Through these connections he was introduced Haeji Kang, who joined the tour in 2009. She invited him to carry her bag and the two of them circled the globe as a team for two and one half years.

“It was a wonderful experience. During our time together she helped me learn so much and we formed a real friendship.” For his part, Marc was able to use his considerable people skills to help his client relax and enjoy the game. “The Korean culture she comes from was so focused and rigid.  All she did was practice. If I helped her in any way, it was perhaps to relax and enjoy the journey more. I think I succeeded, too. She now takes things much easier and enjoys herself being out there.”

When Marc began carrying for her, Kang was the 120th ranked player in the world. Today she’s a Top 30 player. “There’s no question in my mind she’ll finish in the Top Ten this week at Pinehurst,” notes Marc.

At last season’s close, Marc advised Kang that he planned to give up caddying, saying he needed time to reevaluate his life. He was at a classic crossroads  – his relationship with Elizabeth put on hold and stalled in his quest to gain a green card for permanent residency in the States. He was also being drawn home to South Africa by friends who wanted his help starting  the developmental golf tour. Marc’s sizable people skills and economic chops make him a natural for someone in the golf world to snap him up sooner than later.

In the meantime, after a few months off, he decided to give the LPGA Tour one final long walk to buy some “thinking time” and fulfill another dream to carry a bag at America’s National golf championship, on a fabled golf course he played once in college, shooting two over par. He joined newly married Irene Coe at Hawaii’s Lotte Championship in March and has been with her ever since.

“We have a great relationship. She’s 30 and possibly nearing the end of her tour career – and, really, so am I. So we’re a perfect match.  We have a lot of fun out there. She could really surprise some people this week, I think. Her short game is still amazing.”

“It’s an emotional week for us,” allows Caryl Kourie, Marc’s mom. “Our family is so close and Marc’s father and I are so proud of how he’s come to America and done everything on his own.  It was his dream. Naturally we’d love for him to return home and build a life there. But he loves being in America and North Carolina in particular so much, it’s impossible to say where the road will take him from here.”

Wherever that road leads, one senses, Marc Kourie will be a real winner from his time well spent chasing the game he loves.

New York Times best-selling author Jim Dodson is the Sunday essayist for The Pilot and editor of the monthly PineStraw, O.Henry and Salt magazines. His latest book on golf is due in stores next summer.

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