He Caddied for 'The Babe' Before Her Record Win at Salem June 27, 2017 | PEABODY, Mass. By Ron Driscoll, USGA

Ed Collins said his excitement to caddie for Babe Didrikson Zaharias had nothing to do with her golf game. (USGA/Chris Keane)

When Babe Didrikson Zaharias came to Salem Country Club to compete in the 1954 U.S. Women’s Open, Ed Collins was impressed – but not because of her golf game.

Collins knew Zaharias for her legendary track and field prowess. Born Mildred Didrikson in Port Arthur, Texas, the Babe became the most well-known female athlete in the world when she captured two gold medals and one silver medal in the 1932 Summer Olympics. She went on to excel in every sport she tried, from basketball to baseball to tennis.

“I knew she had been in the Olympics, but I wasn’t so aware of her golf ability,” said Collins, then 19, who had been tabbed to caddie for Zaharias in a practice round ahead of the Women’s Open. He didn’t know that Zaharias had reeled off more than a dozen victories in a row as an amateur several years earlier and was one of the 13 founders of the Ladies Professional Golf Association.

Then he saw her swing a club.

“She hit the ball as far as the very best male players at our club, so that made it easy for me to advise her on what to hit,” said Collins, 82, who began caddieing at Salem at age 9 so that he could pay for a window he had broken playing baseball. “She loved every aspect of the course, and she had the distance that made a difference against the other women in the field.”

Zaharias went on to lap the competition, completing 72 holes at 3-over-par 291, 12 strokes better than her nearest pursuer, Betty Hicks. Mickey Wright, who would go on to win the championship four times, was still an amateur and played with Zaharias the final day, finishing in a tie for fourth with Betsy Rawls, 17 shots back. It was Zaharias’ third victory in the championship after wins in 1948 and 1950, and she still holds the record as the oldest Women’s Open champion: 43 years, 6 days old.

What Collins didn’t know then was that doctors had told Zaharias a little more than a year earlier that her golf career was over. She had undergone surgery for colon cancer just one month before the championship, and she was playing while wearing a colostomy bag. The disease would claim her life a little over two years later.  

“She was a wonderful lady – she was upbeat, smiling and pleasant,” said Collins. “There was no discussion of her illness, although her husband, George [Zaharias] closely followed us around. I remember she gave me 15 cents and asked me to buy three packs of Life Savers, one for me and two for her.”

Collins recalled that his father, who worked in a leather factory his entire life, came out and followed along when his son caddied for Zaharias. It was his first time on a golf course, “and the Babe introduced herself and made him feel special,” Collins said.

Upon completing her victory on the traditional 36-hole final day, Zaharias threw her cap into the air. “Thank goodness it’s over; I couldn’t have gone another hole,” she said tearfully. “I just told the Lord to let me play again, and I’d take care of the winning. Today, we sealed the bargain.”

As a member of Salem’s greenkeeping staff, Collins also worked during the championship with the USGA’s executive director, Joe Dey, cutting the holes on every green each morning at Dey’s direction.

“It was just the two of us, walking the course,” said Collins. “He was a real professional.”

Collins had opportunities to caddie for a few other famous players. He looped for two-time U.S. Open champion Julius Boros before Boros captured the Massachusetts Open in 1951, and he caddied for PGA Tour star Jack Burke Jr. when Burke played in an exhibition at Salem with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret. He proudly recalled one highlight of his caddie career.

“I was caddieing for Boros, and we were on the 11th hole,” Collins recalled. “He asked me what club I should hit into the green. I told him 4-iron, and one of the members overheard us. The member said, loudly enough so I could hear him, that it wasn’t enough club. I didn’t care if he got a hernia doing it, I wanted Boros to hit that green, and he did.”

A native of Peabody, Collins graduated from St. Mary’s High School in neighboring Lynn, and he went on to earn a degree in civil engineering at Merrimack College. Though he would have been a strong candidate, Collins did not apply for a scholarship through the Francis Ouimet caddie fund.

“The members encouraged me to apply, and they gave me a financial statement for my parents to fill out,” said Collins. “My proud Irish mother would not fill it out. She said, ‘We have nothing, but it’s none of their business.’ She told me we would just do what we have to do.”

Collins moved away from the North Shore after college, but he returned two decades later and became a member at Salem in 1980.

“It was a childhood dream come true,” said Collins. “The club has kept its character. About 15 guys I caddied with also became members, and it’s wonderful to have grown up with this cadre of guys.”

Collins went on to become president and chief operating officer of Morse Diesel International, one of the world’s largest construction firms. The company built the Sears (now Willis) Tower, the World Golf Hall of Fame, and various arenas, stadiums and other public buildings.

“Life is good,” said Collins, whose wife, Rita, is volunteering at the championship. “I had a friend ask me recently about having his son start caddieing. I told him, he might start swearing, he might start playing cards, he might even get into a fight, but he’ll also get to know his peers. In other words, he’ll grow up.”

Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at rdriscoll@usga.org.

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