Commentary

For Larson, road to Ryder Cup has been a long, complicated trip

Originally Published: September 10, 2008
By Bob Harig | ESPN.com

To be working on the bag of a man many regard as the best young talent on the PGA Tour is the stuff caddies dream about while charting yardage books, cleaning clubs and hustling from one PGA Tour town to the next.

[+] EnlargeEric Larson
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesEric Larson, left, and Anthony Kim, right, started working together this year on a four-week trial basis. Kim earn his first PGA Tour victory in Week 3 of the deal and the two have been together since.
In the case of Eric Larson, he did it while sitting in a prison cell as the world of golf passed him by for a decade. And thanks to his good friend Mark Calcavecchia -- who stayed true to the promise of a job upon his release -- Larson today is the envy of many in his field.

Larson, 47, could not be happier working for Anthony Kim, 23. Toting a golf bag between the ropes of the game's richest fairways for a guy half his age will take Larson to Valhalla Golf Club, where Kim will play on his first U.S. Ryder Cup team starting Sept. 19.

Coincidence or not, Larson was on the bag for both of Kim's first two PGA Tour victories after hooking up with him on a trial basis this spring.

So far, things are working out quite nicely for both.

"He's going to have a great career, and I'm fortunate to be in this position," Larson said after a recent round. "I'm going to do everything in my power to stay with him."

If he were so inclined, Larson could give Kim more than advice about club selection and the way a green breaks. He could tell him about persimmon woods and balata balls, instruments of the trade that were common back when Larson first caddied on the PGA Tour for the likes of Ken Green and Calcavecchia.

Larson worked for both players in the 1980s and 1990s, but also had a side income that got him into big trouble and eventually led to an 11-year stay in federal prison for selling cocaine.

Although it is a topic he would prefer to keep in the past, Larson has been open and honest about his mistakes and what led to them.

He said he began buying and selling cocaine simply for "monetary purposes. I didn't use it and I never brought it on tour. … That doesn't make it any better. That's just the way it was."

As part owner of a health club, Larson ran into financial difficulty. After Larson was late on some payments after taking out a loan at a high interest rate, his cocaine supplier gave Larson's name to federal authorities, leading to an arrest and conviction on a single felony count of conspiracy to sell, distribute or dispense a controlled substance.

Larson received a sentence of 13½ years in prison, but served 11 with good behavior. Due to federal guidelines, he got the surprisingly long sentence and served his times in four separate federal prisons in three different states.

Calcavecchia visited him at each one.

"He never lost his attitude, even though there were some down times," said the 13-time PGA Tour winner and 26-year veteran. "He had appeals getting denied, and there were some tough months. He's always kept a sense of humor and good attitude. Considering what he's been through, I don't know if there has ever been a prisoner who didn't change. But he stayed the same person, didn't act bitter."

Larson earned a college degree while in prison, and for a time was making about $13 a month doing various tasks. He kept positive, however, knowing that a job awaited him when he got out.

"He gave me hope," Larson said. "As I was doing my time, I was able to do all the right things knowing I was going to come back on the PGA Tour. If it wasn't for him, I probably wouldn't be out here and I definitely wouldn't be in the position I'm in right now."

[+] EnlargeEric Larson
Andrew Redington/Getty ImagesEric Larson, left, credits PGA Tour pro and his former boss Mark Calcavecchia for giving him hope while he was in prison. Calc promised Larson a job upon his release.

Larson was released to a halfway house in West Palm Beach, Fla., in February 2006, which allowed him to caddie for Calcavecchia that year at the Honda Classic. Due to a ban on travel, Larson didn't go to another tournament until the Western Open that year. He then caddied for Calcavecchia at the PGA Championship and throughout the following spring.

It was when Calcavecchia won the PODS Championship last year -- earning Larson a hefty commission from the $954,000 first prize -- that Larson was able to take big steps in putting his life back together. Caddies typically earn a weekly travel allowance plus 5 percent of a player's earnings, with some players paying a higher percentage for top-10 finishes and victories. Larson owed a $25,000 fine to the federal government, not to mention the expenses associated with starting anew.

"He did very well for me," Larson said. "It was a great year. I also caddied for Steve Marino for seven tournaments and for A.K. for one. I was out here 32 or 33 weeks, and I just wanted to get out, show my face so people would know me again. It worked out for me to be able to branch out a little bit."

That was always part of Calcavecchia's plan. Never one to use a caddie exclusively and for any extended period of time, his hope was to get Larson back on his feet financially and in the presence of other players.

And nearing age 50 with the Champions Tour in sight, Calcavecchia figured it would be best for Larson to hook up with somebody younger.

"He always said, 'Look, I'm going to help you get back on your feet and if an opportunity comes up, you need to take a shot with it.' I think in the back of his mind, he was always hoping he could play well for me and get me back on my feet and then try to hook up with some young guy," Larson said. "And if I ever wanted to work for him occasionally, I could. He told me as long as he was playing golf, if I didn't have another job, I could work for him. Because he wouldn't hire a guy full time."

With Kim, Larson has hit the lottery. Depending on the deal they negotiated, it is no stretch to think that Larson was paid in the $100,000 range for each of Kim's victories at the Wachovia Championship and AT&T National. Both tournament wins earned Kim in excess of $1 million.

"He's been tremendous in my growing as a player and a person," Kim said. "He just brings a new perspective, a great attitude every morning, and I feel if there was something lacking before a round, it was [me] being positive and happy to be there. I feel like with everything Eric has gone through, he feels happy to be out here."

"It's incredible how things have turned out for E," Calcavecchia said. "Three years ago, he was in the slammer and he probably didn't know the difference between Tiger Woods and Anthony Kim. If you ask Eric every day, no matter what happens, life is good."

Or, put another way, Woods had yet to turn pro and Kim was 10 years old when Larson went away to prison.

"Eric is the first person to recognize, 'I broke the law, I deserved to be punished,'" said Kevin Richardson, a friend and attorney who let Larson live with his family for six months in West Palm Beach after his release and helped him get a job at Bear Lakes Country Club in the same town. "I just questioned the [length of] the sentence for what he did. It certainly punished him and had a great role in rehabilitation and hopefully it will serve as a deterrent for others."

Larson worked the bag room for six months at Bear Lakes while having to stay close to home. He then slowly but surely worked his way back to the tour, with the help of Calcavecchia.

Last year, Larson got to know Kim simply by being out on tour. The opportunity to caddie for him came at the Texas Open.

That led to another chance this spring when Kim decided to make a change in caddies. With Calcavecchia's blessing, Larson went on a four-week trial run with Kim -- who won the third week, at Wachovia.

"He's definitely matured," said Larson of Kim, who was known for being on the cocky side during his rookie season. "He's grown up a lot, saying and doing all the right things. I think he expected to come out here and win quick without putting in the hard work. During the offseason, he put in the hard work. It took a little while for it to kick. Now it's kicked in and the confidence is there and everything else has fallen into place.

"I just happened to be there at the right time."

Bob Harig covers golf for ESPN.com. He can be reached at BobHarig@gmail.com.

Bob Harig | email

Golf Writer, ESPN.com