“Billy was actually an assistant greenskeeper at a muni course by our house, now it’s called Canal Shores, but he actually mowed and did stuff.” — Joel Murray, Bill Murray’s brother and actor
Carl Spackler needs no introduction.
He is, of course, the most famous fictional turf professional, a character so iconic and so perfectly imperfect that even now, almost four full decades after he first popped in and out of “Caddyshack,” no other director or writer or screen star has tried to improve upon his agronomic absurdity. It is fair to say that his words are quoted on golf courses every day, by golfers and grounds crew members alike, and when regular folks ask superintendents what they do, more than a few admit that they reference Spackler in their response.
As “Caddyshack” approaches its 40th anniversary in July and Bill Murray nears his 70th birthday in September, Carl Spackler only seems to be picking up pop culture steam. If you are so disposed, you can purchase Carl Spackler shirts and caps, prints and posters, cups and towels and vinyl figures and, this is true, prayer candles. William Murray Golf, the burgeoning apparel company that promotes not only Spackler’s portrayer but also his five golfing brothers, sells a Carl Spackler bucket hat. He is as familiar to older Baby Boomers as he is to older Gen Z’ers.
So he’s got all that goin’ for him, which is nice, but what do real superintendents think about the character? Is Carl Spackler good for the golf course maintenance industry? Was he all that good at his job? And, serious question, could he land a spot on a crew today?
Good or bad for the profession?
“To us in the industry, from the inside looking out, we get all the jokes and they’re spot on, they’re right on the money,” says Ryan McClannon, superintendent at Reynolds Park Golf Course in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
McClannon respects Spackler and appreciates Murray at least as much as Murray appreciates superintendents. He was born three months before “Caddyshack” arrived in theaters and was 8 when he watched the movie for the first time — sneaking a peek from the stairs while his dad watched a rental copy on the family’s new VCR. At the Carolinas GCSA Conference and Show last fall, he attended some more casual evening functions wearing a shirt with Murray’s visage.
He also has a rather nuanced opinion about Spackler.
“The pros look at Carl Spackler and they go, ‘Well, that’s all it is.’ And it’s not,” McClannon says. “That’s why the image campaign is such a big deal. Because no disrespect to Bill Murray, the man’s a legend, we’re still fighting the stigma of Carl Spackler. He raises awareness, not always in a good way. He is our greatest blessing and our biggest curse.”Jeff Jones is a little more blunt.
“I love Bill Murray, but I feel personally he may have set our industry back a little bit,” says Jones, superintendent at Frenchman’s Reserve in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida. “We manage water and fertility, we do all these other things, and there is a science behind what we do.” And still, during probably 75 percent of conversations with folks who work in another industry, Jones is told “‘Oh, I thought you just put the flag in the ground and cut the grass.’
“I have a hard time wrapping my head around why he’s so revered,” Jones says of Spackler. “I’m sure there are a lot of people like me out there who just don’t want to put anything against the grain.”
“I love Bill Murray, but I feel personally he may have set our industry back a little bit. We manage water and fertility, we do all these other things, and there is a science behind what we do.” — Jeff Jones, Frenchman’s Reserve
The concern is warranted. No one wants to see their profession portrayed by … well, Spackler is not necessarily a moron — a term coined by the psychologist and eugenicist Henry Goddard more than a century ago to describe an adult with the mental acuity of a 7- to 10-year old — but he is most definitely not all there. He destroyed a large chunk of the Bushwood Country Club course, after all, turning to plastic explosives in an effort to kill his targeted gopher when wire traps would have probably sufficed. He also teed off on mums and looped for the Bishop in a lightning storm, leaving the clergyman for dead after the Good Lord disrupted the best game of his life.
“I remember early on — I’ve been doing this now for about 20 years — the debate seemed to be more about respect and a lot of back and forth about it’s really disrespectful and we need to be seen as the professionals that we are, a lot of chest thumping,” says Jared Stanek, director of agronomy at Toscana Country Club in Indian Wells, California. “I had a mentor, Mike Pigg. At the time he was the superintendent of Riverton Country Club in Riverton, Wyoming, and he and I were talking about this. He was like, ‘Sometimes, these guys just take themselves too seriously. We are blue-collar guys.’ That stuck with me, so when I look at Carl Spackler’s portrayal, it’s obviously hilarious and a little over the top — or a lot over the top — but it has a cord of truth. It seems genuine.”
And it probably is. Murray grew up in Wilmette, Illinois, a north side suburb of Chicago, and regularly hit balls around a 400-acre convent across the street from his family home. Like all of his brothers, he caddied at Indian Hill Club — his oldest brother, Ed, received the Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship in 1963 to attend Northwestern University — and later worked at a few other courses.
“Billy was actually an assistant greenskeeper at a muni course by our house, now it’s called Canal Shores, but he actually mowed and did stuff,” says Joel Murray, the youngest of the nine Murray siblings and a talented actor himself. “He also ran the snack shack for a year, maybe more than a year, and he liked to show up when it was a little warmer out, maybe 11 or 12 o’clock. The early golfers, they got nothing to eat. I used to ride my bike over and see if Billy was there yet. Nope.”
By the time his brother Brian Doyle-Murray co-wrote “Caddyshack” with Harold Ramis and Doug Kenney, Murray was near his first comedic peak, able to create Spackler from literally nothing after the character was mentioned exactly zero times in the original 200-page script.
“I was wired into what I was talking about,” Murray told Chris Nashawaty in a 2010 interview for a Sports Illustrated story later expanded into a 2018 book about the movie. “Improvising about golf was easy for me. And it was fun. It wasn’t difficult to come up with stuff.”
“I think why I’m not offended is that Bill Murray actually understands how hard our job is every day and the effort we put into it,” says Michelle Maltais, the superintendent at a private golf course in Massachusetts who once received thanks from Murray for her work when she was an assistant at Vineyard Golf Club. “He can poke fun at it because he understands it.”
“Think about what Bill has done over the years to promote golf, being almost that character — and people love it,” says Thad Thompson, superintendent at Terry Hills Golf Course in Batavia, New York, who, like Spackler, lived on property in an apartment during his years at Turkey Run Golf Course in Arcade, New York, moving out only after getting married. “This is life, this isn’t rocket science. You’ve got to laugh at yourself once in a while. So he made fun of what we do. Big deal. I grow grass for a living!”
“The pros look at Carl Spackler and they go, ‘Well, that’s all it is.’ And it’s not. That’s why the image campaign is such a big deal. Because no disrespect to Bill Murray, the man’s a legend, we’re still fighting the stigma of Carl Spackler. He raises awareness, not always in a good way. He is our greatest blessing and our biggest curse.” — Ryan McClannon, Reynolds Park Golf Course
Would you hire him?
“Would you hire Carl Spackler?” asks Brandon Barrett. Barrett is the president and co-founder of William Murray Golf, consulting regularly with the Murray brothers on what golfers might like to wear on the course. He is a movie buff, but still, this is not the kind of question he normally fields. “You kind of have to think how he was hired in the movie, right? What kind of interview process did he go through? What did he bring to the table? Did he become like that when he was on the job? Or was he like that when he came?”
For all his faults, Spackler was an incredibly hard worker. He jabbed back at his boss, Bushwood greenskeeper Sandy McFiddish, but handled most assignments well, even diving into the pool to retrieve what turned out to be a Baby Ruth. He developed a new strain of turfgrass — an incredible “cross of Kentucky bluegrass, featherbed bench and Northern California sinsemilla.” He was passionate and dedicated, if nothing else.
“If you give me an assistant who’s passionate and dedicated,” McClannon says, “I can show you a turf professional with a future.”
Though not unanimous, far more turf pros than not say they would hire Spackler, fried neurons and all, largely because of those traits.
“I would give him a shot on the crew,” says Ryan Boudreau, assistant superintendent at Framingham Country Club in Framingham, Massachusetts, who watched “Caddyshack” every day during an inspired six-week stretch in college. “I think anybody deserves an opportunity. But if he starts throwing dynamite in the ground, it would probably be a short-lived tenure because, obviously, we’re not trying to not blow up gophers.”
“I probably would,” says Kurtis Wolford, superintendent at Woodbridge Golf & Country Club in Woodbridge, California, who has encountered Spackleresque characters at every course he has worked at — and can still rattle off their names. “I can teach you how to do anything on the golf course, but when I bring somebody in, his personality has to meld with the personalities on the crew. He has to be a team player. A stick in the mud who doesn’t see the humor in life probably isn’t going to be a good fit.”
“I still think there are a lot of people like that, that have a strong desire to learn, may not have that full ability, but they’re there, they’re dedicated,” says Alex Stuedemann, director of golf course maintenance at TPC Deere Run in Moline, Illinois. “I look at that wall of Milorganite that he was building those bombs behind. We still use Milorganite! It’s a great product!”
Even Jones says he would probably hire Spackler if he applied for a position. “Just as a crew man, sure,” he says. “He’d probably keep things light — if he could pass a drug test.”
So, 40 years on, is Spackler a net positive or negative for the industry? Stuedemann says the movie “shows how far we’ve come” from the “dirt floors and junk shops” that were still prevalent when he was starting out. Maltais says that “in a hilarious way, it helped shed some light on the things we do.” Stanek says that decades of support from so many corners — industry publications and partners, The PGA of America, the GCSAA — have all helped superintendents receive deserved respect and ease the old proverbial shoulder chip.
“The golf industry is better for having it, but from a turf standpoint, we’re always going to fight that battle,” says McClannon, who has twice received a handshake from Murray for his work on the course. “And the best thing to do, sometimes, is to just run with it, just embrace it, because in a lot of aspects, that stigma has given us a free pass on things, if you think about it. When there are club functions you really don’t want to attend, you say, ‘I don’t have a suit pressed or anything like that.’ We have a built-in excuse because they all go, ‘Oh, well, yeah, he’s a superintendent.’
“There’s so much truth to that movie, but sometimes you just shake your fist at the clouds: Bill Murray!”