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Second Chance Palm Beach Gardens’ Eric Larson survived 10 years in prison on drug charges and is a top caddie on the PGA Tour

The life of a PGA Tour caddie is precarious at best. You are one mistake away from being fired. There are guys trying to take your job. And your success is based on the performance of the guy standing next to you.

None of this seems to bother Eric Larson. Not the pressure or the lack of job security and control.

Then again, when you spent more than a decade of your life in federal prison, you don’t sweat the small stuff. You enjoy every day of freedom.

Larson has had plenty to enjoy recently. The 60-year-old Palm Beach Gardens resident caddies for Harris English, who has had a sensational season. With a pair of wins and six other top-10 finishes, English has pocketed more than $7 million. (It would be $8.5 million if English hadn’t lost a late lead at the WGC-FedEx St. Jude Invitational.)

With Larson receiving 8 percent of his player’s earnings – 10 percent for a win – he has pocketed more than $600,000 this season. That sure beats the 12 cents an hour he earned while in prison.

Having been a PGA Tour caddie for more than 20 years, Larson knows it’s best to celebrate your successes quietly, and always with a smile. And when “E” – as everyone calls him on the PGA Tour – is around, you usually see a lot of teeth.

Eric Larson and Harris English

“In our job, our financial situation can change overnight,” Larson said. “I obviously have a very good young player who has worked hard and I’m glad to see the results from his hard work pay off. I’m in a great situation.”

Most caddies on the PGA Tour have an interesting back story, but few can come close to Larson’s. A recap:

Larson thought he was a good golfer when he moved from Wisconsin to West Palm Beach in 1979 at 18. Then he met Mark Calcavecchia and Ken Green at Bear Lakes Country Club and saw their games.

“Then I thought, ‘Well, maybe I can caddie for them,’” Larson said. And that’s what Larson did, caddying first for Green, then for Calcavecchia.

Larson was making a decent living, but like most, he could always use more money. That’s when he made the biggest mistake of his life: selling cocaine.

It started on a small scale. He had friends back home in the Midwest who wanted cocaine, and he had contacts in South Florida who could provide it. Larson would take a cut.

“I did it for monetary purposes only,” Larson said. “I didn’t use it, and I never brought it out on Tour. Was I a major drug dealer? No. Did I drive fancy cars?

No. That doesn’t make it any better.”

Larson was arrested in 1995. Because the cocaine had crossed state lines, he faced federal charges.

Larson’s sentence was harsh: 13 years in prison, five years of probation and a $25,000 fine.

“I obviously wasn’t happy with the sentence I got,” he said. “I violated the law and I deserved to be penalized. I just wish it could have been less time so I could have gotten on with my life.”

Larson put his prison time to good use. He earned a college degree in business administration. His friends were amazed at how well Larson handled prison.

“I can’t tell you how many times I walked out of there and said, ‘Man, I don’t know how he does it,’” Green said. “You looked at the other people who were in there, and you knew these weren’t nice people.”

Larson performed menial tasks such as washing dishes for literally pennies. He figured out he made an average of 12 cents an hour.

Most caddies can remember clubs and yardages from shots hit decades ago. Larson remembers dates and the four prisons where he served his time: In Butner, N.C.; at Coleman, Fl.; in Taft, Calif.; and in Miami.

Eric Larson and Tommy Chong

When Larson was at Taft, he was approached by a familiar-looking tall man with a graying beard and a receding hairline. It was Tommy Chong, who had been arrested for selling mail-order bongs.

“Tommy knew I had been there for a while, and he wanted to know how to best handle prison life,” Larson said.

The two became friends. When Chong appeared on the Tonight Show with Jay Leno after his release, Chong mentioned Larson as someone who helped him get through the ordeal.

Larson sees Chong every year when the PGA Tour goes to Los Angeles. They talk by phone all the time.

While in prison, Larson kept tabs on what was happening on the PGA Tour. Tiger Woods’ arrival in the late-1990s had sent purses soaring on the PGA Tour, which meant a lot more money for the caddies.

A lot more than 12 cents an hour.

“I would dream about it in prison and think it was possible,” Larson said. “Mark, who visited me at every prison, always told me, ‘Just do all the right things, when you get out, you’ll have a job. Hopefully, I can play well for you for a few years and then you can find a young player.’”

That’s exactly what happened.

Calcavecchia hired Larson after he was released in late 2005. Fifteen months later, Calcavecchia won the PODS Championship near Tampa for their second win as a team. Larson made $75,000 for the week.

“It worked out perfect,” Larson said. “Mark played well when he was 46. People took notice, thanks to Mark.”

With Calcavecchia about to join the PGA Tour Champions, Larson needed a younger player. He got that opportunity when Anthony Kim, a rising star, offered him a four-week tryout in 2008.

They won their second event together. Larson had his young player. They won another tournament before parting ways when Kim hired a friend.

Larson then hooked up with Jeff Overton, who finished second in their first tournament together. Overton added two more seconds and two thirds that year to earn a Ryder Cup spot.

Like all player-caddie relationships, this one eventually ran out of steam. Larson bounced around the next few years before he started working for English in 2017.

English was struggling and lost his card after the 2018-19 season. But he had several top-10 finishes in the fall of ’19 and that started a turnaround.

The 32-year-old English has steadily risen into the top 10 in the world rankings and is the third player to win a pair of PGA Tour titles with Larson on his bag. English gives Larson a lot of credit.

“It’s about the perspective he brings,” English told the New York Post about Larson. “There’s nowhere I can put him on a golf course that’s going to be in a worse spot than he was in 15 years ago.

“I know he has my back and he’ll do anything for me, and I’ll do anything for him, too. That’s the kind of relationship you build with your caddie out here. You’re with him almost more than you’re with your wife, so you better respect him and like him and enjoy being around him.”

“I know he has my back and he’ll do anything for me, and I’ll do anything for him, too. That’s the kind of relationship you build with your caddie out here. You’re with him almost more than you’re with your wife, so you better respect him and like him and enjoy being around him.”
Harris English on Eric Larson

How many people go to prison for a decade and get out a better person? Larson never became bitter. He owned his mistake and moved on.

Larson’s season of success is far from over. English was fourth in the FedExCup standings when the three-tournament playoffs started at press time for this story. If English maintains that position, he’d earn $3 million and add another $240,000 to Larson’s bank account.

But that shouldn’t even be the highlight of September for Larson. That will come when, barring the unexpected, English is added to the U.S. Ryder Cup team that plays Europe at Whistling Straits in Kohler, Wisc., Sept. 24-26.

English would become the third Ryder Cup rookie that has had Larson on their bag, joining Kim and Overton. That’s never happened.

“I can’t think of a caddie who has had two rookies make the Ryder Cup,” said of the game’s most famous loopers, Jim “Bones” Mackay, who worked alongside Phil Mickelson for 25 years. “That’s an incredible story. Then again, so is E’s story.”

And Larson’s story would become even better because he was born and raised in Wisconsin. Caddying in the Ryder Cup would represent a triumphant homecoming for Larson.

“That would be the ultimate dream for me to caddie at a Ryder Cup in Wisconsin not far from where I grew up,” Larson said. “You never know when you will caddie in the Ryder Cup for the last time.”

Like most good caddies, English never wants to become part of the story. But Larson won’t be able to stop his buddies from constantly yelling his name during the Ryder Cup.

“E already is already the mayor in most towns because he is so popular,” Mackay said. “If he caddies at the Ryder Cup, he’ll be the governor of Wisconsin.”

With a smile.

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