It's role reversal for caddie at Masters

Part-time job on hold, Puga savoring event

April 03, 2001|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

Greg Puga was 15 at the time, a newcomer to a game not many played in his East Los Angeles neighborhood. Tiger Woods was 10, and already his legend was starting to grow around Southern California. Yet they were members of the same Industry Hills Golf Club junior team.

"He was just a little guy, but he had one of the purest putting strokes I had ever seen," Puga said recently. "Usually kids that age are pretty awkward, but you could tell he was something special."

This week, the two might bump into each other on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National as participants, if not quite competitors, in the 65th Masters. Puga, 30, earned his invitation with last summer's Mid-Amateur championship. Woods, having won the sport's past three majors, is hoping to make the Masters his fourth in a row.

Since their days on California's junior golf circuit, Puga and Woods have played together only once, at the 1994 U.S. Amateur. Puga, by then a college graduate with a mathematics degree, failed to make the cut. Woods, by then the country's most celebrated junior player at 18, won the tournament.

Even in those days, their lives were headed in different directions.

Puga already had become a caddie, a job he now works about three days a week at the tony Bel Air Country Club in Los Angeles. It is a job that gives him enough time and freedom to practice and play, and that could ultimately help him fulfill his dream of making the PGA Tour.

Woods, who had won three straight U.S. Junior titles, spent two years at Stanford before turning pro after the last of his record three straight Amateur championships. That was late in the summer of 1996, or 26 PGA Tour victories ago. Woods since has accumulated more than $23 million in earnings, an all-time record.

What Woods accomplished last summer by winning the U.S. Open, British Open and PGA Championship -- two in runaways and each by shattering previous scoring records -- obscured what everyone else in golf did, Puga included. Puga became the youngest Mid-Amateur champion in the USGA event for players 25 and older.

Asked if he thinks Woods will remember him, Puga said, "I don't know. It's been a long time. But I remember when we were at the Amateur and I saw his mother and she was really nice. She knew who I was."

Puga is Mexican-American, and will become only the fourth to play in the Masters following Hall of Famer Lee Trevino, Homero Blancas and David Berganio. He is perhaps the most notable working caddie to play in a major since the legendary Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open. Puga is proud of each distinction.

"To play golf where I came from is unheard of," said Puga, whose neighborhood was more noted for producing football stars such as Heisman Trophy winner Mike Garrett and world champion boxers such as Oscar De La Hoya. "It's a very poor community. Golf is not in their psyche."

Puga's parents were better off than many in his community-- his father was a supervisor-manager for five Sears stores and his mother was a teacher's assistant -- but golf wasn't part of his psyche, either. He first went to a driving range with a friend whose parents played.

"It was just another sport to try," he said.

His interest grew when he started playing with a former brother-in-law. Puga became competitive with the help of a coach at a rival high school whose daughter was married to PGA Tour pro Steve Pate. They hooked up Puga with Jim Petralia, a teaching pro in Irvine, Calif.

Puga's ambition is to make the PGA Tour, as a player not a caddie. For now he will find competition wherever he can, either on public courses around Los Angeles or on Mondays at Bel Air, the day the regular caddies are allowed to play the exclusive club.

"I just love to compete," Puga said. "I would love to stay an amateur all my life, but I'll need to make some money at some point."

For now, he gets some financial support from his girlfriend, Jackie Gongora, a legal secretary. His lifestyle is not quite straight out of the movie, "Tin Cup," though the 1988 T-Bird he bought used a few years back has more than 120,000 miles on its odometer.

But he's getting closer to his dream.

Two summers ago, Puga was seemingly on his way to his first major state amateur title. Taking a one-shot lead into the final hole of the Inland Empire Amateur, Puga was penalized two strokes for giving an elderly man a ride in a golf cart up a hill on a blistering hot day. Puga lost by one shot.

Puga came back to win the tournament last summer, and then went to the Mid-Amateur at The Homestead in Hot Springs, Va. He had never made it to match play in the 1997 Mid-Amateur, but had won two matches in the 1999 U.S. Publinx before losing to eventual U.S. Amateur champion Hunter Haas.

"People asked me all the time if I thought about the fact that the winner [of the Mid-Amateur] gets an invitation to the Masters," Puga said. "I thought there was no sense of thinking about it because it would put more pressure on me. The more matches I won, the less I thought about it."

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