When Tom Wildenhaus was a sixth-grader growing up in Jackson, Mich., his mother helped shape his future more than she ever could have imagined.
"My mom said to me ‘I don’t know what a caddy is, but you’re going to be one,’" recalls Wildenhaus, now the director of golf at Olde Florida Golf Club in Naples.
"No one in my family really played golf except my grandfather, and the joke was that he only took the game up so he could swear whenever he wanted to," he says. "One summer my mom dropped me off at the Jackson Country Club, and that pretty much was the beginning of my life in golf. I’d never played the game, but it didn’t take very long for me to fall in love with it."
Fast forward more than three decades later, and his passion for the sport hasn’t changed. Wildenhaus, was recently honored as the 2007 Golf Professional of the Year by the PGA of America’s South Florida section made up of more than 1,600 club professionals and their apprentices. His career has always been a labor of love, even in those dark days as a young assistant pro. Back then, it took him countless tries over a span of four years to pass what is known as the Playing Ability Test (PAT) required for a Class A license as a fully credentialed PGA pro.
Wildenhaus, now 43, didn’t have the talent to ever think about playing on the professional tour. In middle school, he liked to hack the ball around with his pals at a local nine-hole municipal course, but he never got serious about the sport until his freshman year in high school. Even then, he couldn’t hit well enough to make the golf team in his junior and senior years.
But golf had always been a way to pay his bills, first toting bags around the course for $7 a loop at the Jackson Country Club, then more summers working in the bag room cleaning golf clubs and riding an electric cart to pick up range balls several times a day. After his freshman year in college, an assistant pro at his Michigan club told him about an opening for an assistant pro at the Cape Coral Golf and Tennis Resort. Wildenhaus applied and got the job.
He was the low man in the golf shop, but at that point he enrolled in the PGA of America’s apprentice program, with the long-term goal to earn an all-important license that would open employment doors around the country. For three years, he worked winters in Florida and summers as a teaching pro near his hometown in Michigan, all the while trying to get his game good enough to pass that dreaded PAT, a prerequisite to earning his teaching card.
Wildenhaus had to shoot a target score of 156—about 12 over par for 36 holes. When he finally passed the test, he says it was one of the greatest days of his life, not only because he beat the target score by seven shots, but also posted the two best career rounds—a 73 and 76 at Quail Creek in Naples in 1989.
Ironically, the current head professional at Olde Florida, Mike Arthur, was actually officiating at many of those PAT events in Naples. A few years ago, Wildenhaus, as the club’s director of golf, hired Arthur as the club’s main teaching professional.
"I kid him about it a lot, because it took him a while to pass," Arthur says. "But really, that’s a very nerve-racking experience for anyone who doesn’t have a lot of experience in tournament golf. Any time they put up a number they want you to shoot, for guys not playing on a professional tour, it gets you a little scared."
With his new license in hand, Wildenhaus spent several years teaching at Quail Creek, then was hired as head professional at Olde Florida in 1993. At the time, the course was rather unique in a Naples area dominated by country club style facilities packed with homes in gated communities.
At Olde Florida, with 275 individual members, it’s always been all golf, all the time. No pesky houses to ruin the scenery. No swimming pools, no tennis courts, no dinner served every night in the clubhouse.
Wildenhaus helped set up a caddy program at Olde Florida so members could walk the course, or take a forecaddie out with them if they chose to ride carts. He also taught the game somewhat nontraditionally, trying to help his students learn how to improve their scores as opposed to fretting about developing the perfect swing. He also served in a wide variety of offices at the local and sectional PGA levels and became one of the most respected golf pros in the state over the last dozen years.
"I think his best trait is that he won’t ask you to do anything he wouldn’t do himself," Arthur says. "He’s a very good leader, and he tells it like it is. He’s enthusiastic and eager to get things done, and he works well with everyone, whether it’s the dishwasher in the kitchen or the course superintendent. He knows what he wants, and people respond to him because they know he’s got the best interests of everyone in mind."
That would also include his own father, Tom, a manager in a manufacturing plant back in Michigan who retired about 10 years ago and took up golf. The son helped teach his father the game, and loves playing with his dad. His wife, Tracy, and his mother, Claudia, don’t play, but at least now, his mom knows exactly what a caddy does.