What does Karl Bollnow, the golf professional at Riverside Golf Club, have in common with former Major League Baseball Commissioner Peter Ueberroth, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, actor Bill Murray, finance executive Charles Schwab?
Well, along with golfing legends Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Chick Evans and about 110 others, Bollnow has been named a member of the Western Golf Association’s Caddie Hall of Fame, founded in 1999 to recognize the contributions of those who have supported golf caddies or used their experiences as caddies as a pathway to success.
Bollnow, who marks his 50th year with Riverside Golf Club and his 25th as the club’s golf professional, was informed of the honor in June. He’ll be feted by the golf club at a special event Sept. 17.
“It floored me,” said Bollnow of the honor. “The first thought that came to mind was that it was kind of unbelievable, and after it sunk in a little bit, very overwhelming. When you take a look at the names that are associated with that hall of fame, I never really thought I was that kind of guy.”
To be eligible for the Caddie Hall of Fame, the nominee has to have been someone who caddied as a young person and used those experience to help them achieve success as an adult, someone who serves as a caddie advocate and helped improve the lives of caddies or someone who is a professional caddie who has used that role to help others.
Bollnow’s connection to caddying squarely falls into the first two categories. He parlayed a chance job application to become a caddy into a half-century career that’s been intertwined with mentoring hundreds of young people who have come through Riverside Golf Club’s gates seeking opportunities.
“I guess it’s recognition of a lot of dedication to something that I love,” Bollnow said during an interview at the club last week. “Being able to be here as long as I have, I feel very blessed and very, very privileged.”
Bollnow talks a lot about the golf club in familial terms, which is probably not surprising since he’s been part of the golf operation since he was 13 years old. An Oak Park native and graduate of Oak Park and River Forest High School, Bollnow in 1971 tagged along with some friends looking for a summer job and ended up launching a career.
“When we were graduating in eighth grade, some of my friends said, ‘We’re going to go look for a caddie job, we’re going to Riverside Golf Club,’” Bollnow said. “So, we rode our bikes out here and applied. The rest, I guess we could say, is history.”
Until he became a caddie, Bollnow hadn’t picked up a golf club. But, in order to become better as a caddie, he felt he needed to know everything he could about the game of golf and the course where he worked.
He ended up playing golf on the high school team and later attended DePaul University, but golf was in his veins and after five years of caddying, Riverside Golf Club was becoming a second home.
He landed a job in the club’s golf shop in 1976, where he was mentored by longtime club pro Bill Heald, himself a legendary figure for whom a PGA career achievement award is named.
Bollnow was named caddiemaster in 1977 and became Riverside’s assistant golf pro a year later. He was elected to PGA membership in 1983 and would work alongside Heald until his mentor’s retirement after 33 years as the club’s pro in 1996.
“I served as Bill’s assistant for 18 years, and we developed almost like a father-son relationship, we were that close,” Bollnow said. “I would say we became best friends.”
Upon Heald’s retirement, Bollnow was named the club’s golf professional. His first responsibility, Bollnow said, is to the members and their guests – who have included the likes of Ronald Reagan, Ernie Banks, Julius Irving, Evel Knievel, Denis Savard and countless others.
He heads a golf staff of about 15, runs more than two dozen member tournaments a year – including the annual Riverside Golf Club Invitational in July, an event started by Heald and which draws more than 150 players — manages the golf shop and provides golf instruction to members.
Throughout that time Bollnow also has continued to oversee the caddie program, which includes between 80 and 100 caddies, conducted the caddie training and assisted the caddiemaster who succeeded him in that role.
According to a press release issued by the club in the wake of his election to the Caddie Hall of Fame, Bollnow has helped almost 300 caddies obtain college scholarship through the Evans Scholarship program or the club’s own Riverside Golf Club memorial Scholarship program.
“The greatest success stories of Riverside [Golf Club] is the caddie program, and that all has to do with the support of the entire membership,” Bollnow said. “I hope in some way I’ve been able to help caddies along as they grow up, just as I was helped and supported.”