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Remembering Sam Workman, caddie for Steven Alker, who died after battle with cancer

Sam Workman, caddie for PGA Tour Champions golfer Steven Alker, died Monday less than three weeks removed from caddying a second-place finish in Hawaii to open the 2023 season.

Workman passed away Monday at his home in Beeville, Texas, about 100 miles south of San Antonio, from cancer, a “sudden passing” according to Alker in a post on Instagram.

The following is a submission from John Rathouz, a fellow caddie and good friend of Workman:

Somewhere in heaven, Sam Workman is grilling barbeque pork tenderloin on the tailgate of his pickup truck. At least that’s what I like to think our friend is up to now.

It was one of his favorite things to do, something he’d done hundreds of times in his life, and I was fortunate enough to experience it, in all its glory, one spring evening in the parking lot of a Best Western in Greenville, South Carolina.

Sam Workman, far right, works the grill on the back of his truck.

It was truly one of the most fun, best-tasting meals I’ve had in all of my years caddying. It was simple. It was life on the road. As Sam and I reminisced on a podcast last October, he said he enjoyed it because it was a chance to “hang out with your friends… cook it slow and have a couple of dirty waters and raise hell with your partnas.”

He’ll always remain as “Sam BBQ Workman” in my phone contacts.

Perhaps Sam is grilling for fellow Texans, fellow caddies, fellow professionals Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan. Always humble, maybe he’ll sprinkle in a story here or there about the spectacular run he’d just been on over the last 18 months as the looper for Steven Alker on the PGA Tour Champions: five tournament wins and the 2022 Charles Schwab Cup Champion and Player of the Year.

It’s likely my favorite streak of “flag collecting” by a caddie friend ever. A little over two weeks ago, Steven and Sam picked right up where they left off, finishing second to start the season in Hawaii.

However, as I came to find out since then, Sam wasn’t feeling well in Hawaii and hadn’t been, on and off, since the holiday season, when caddies finally get out from under the strap. So it was that he returned home from paradise to find out that he had cancer. Devastating.

When I spoke with Sam that Friday, Jan. 27, he sounded weak, nearly out of breath, but his unique South Texas drawl was still punching through the phone. Our conversation was only five minutes, and I briefly tried to chip away at his disappointment that he wouldn’t be able to caddie again this year. I made a note to check on him again the next Friday, Feb. 3.

But as his friend and pro, Alker, so eloquently wrote to the golf world last Friday, Sam had received an even-worse “terminal” diagnosis in the meantime. Heartbreaking. This past Sunday, I walked to our neighborhood church and lit a few candles for Sam. Barely knowing what to do, I reached for a random prayer card nearby and proceeded to read the “Daily Prayer to St. Joseph, the Worker.” Damn, this is fitting I thought. Sam WORK-MAN.

It read, in part, “…to work with thankfulness and joy, deeming it an honor to employ and to develop, by my labor, the gifts I have received…” Religious or not, I think Sam’s friends and family would all agree, that passage described Sam the man, and the caddie.

An hour earlier, I had been added to a text chain from Sam’s sister, Michele. I recognized most of the names, some were “blasts from the past” and some of the numbers I didn’t have. I assumed they were mostly caddies, and the outpouring of support to Sam and Michele was palpable, full of love and respect.

At one point, Michele posted a picture of a Houston Astros jersey that Ken Duke, ever the gentleman, had sent to Sam’s house. “Workman”, with the number “1”, it read. Sam was a huge Astros fan and so it seems fitting that they won the World Series in the same year that Team Alker did, too. In fact, earlier last year, Sam also unscrewed the flag in Houston. That was Alker’s third victory on Tour and the middle of a five tournament stretch that went  win, second, win, third, win, culminating with the Senior PGA Championship. Of the PGA, Sam told me it was the best golf he’d ever seen Alker play, but the win in Houston was his favorite moment of the year.

There were only two hats I remember seeing Sam wear in all the years I knew him, going back to when he left his job as a club pro at some friends’ course in his hometown of Beeville after receiving a call from Brad Elder to caddie in a Monday qualifier in San Antonio. Sam was on Elder’s bag for many years after that and Elder recalled that those were some of his favorite years a professional, driving around the Tour in Sam’s truck. It’s likely Sam was wearing his Astros hat. Now, for more on his “other” hat.

Steven Alker and caddie Sam Workman on the ninth hole during the first round of the 2022 Charles Schwab Cup at Phoenix Country Club. (Photo: Rob Schumacher/The Arizona Republic)

On last Monday morning, just in case Sam was up for it, I texted Michele to let her know that the final round of the weather-delayed PGA Tour tournament would be on live from Pebble Beach. As I watched the coverage, I thought of him from time to time, mostly as the broadcast showcased the trademark powerful white waves crashing the jagged shoreline. It was a picturesque winter morning at one of the most spiritual golf courses Mother Nature has created. An hour before the final putt dropped, Michele texted back “I so wish he could,” but that Sam hadn’t been very responsive or even able to open his eyes. I sent back one more text of support and reminded her that I’d always picture Sam in his huge cowboy hat that was 49 percent Mexican sombrero.

She immediately texted back, “The dreaded hat is next to the bed!” That hat was so good. “Over 30 years old,” Sam proudly noted. When he and Steven first made it out on their new Tour, I had heard a story that Ernie Els took a liking to his hat. Sam recalled that Els told him, “That is the coolest thing I’ve ever seen out on the Tour. Man, I like it.” If the “Big Easy” says your hat is cool, it’s certain. Recently, Sam had mentioned that the middle of his hat was beginning to cave in and both he and Steven were thinking it might be time for a new one.

Later that evening, Michele relayed the message that we all knew was coming. Sam had peacefully passed away that afternoon. She said, “Mom and I were holding his hand to the end. He loved all of you.” On numerous occasions over the years, I recall Sam talking about how he was “going to visit my mom in Beeville.” And while a mother should never have to be in that position with her child, I took comfort in Michele’s message and was glad they were all together.

It all happened so fast. I’ve learned that there’s more to life than caddying, but the caddie in me is glad that Sam will always be partly remembered as Alker’s trusty sidekick as he motored his way to the top of the sport. When I had Steven on the podcast in October of 2021 after a hot start, and two weeks before his first win out there, he said, “Sammy’s been great. He’s been a trooper. … he’s a good guy. He’s so even-keeled on the golf course. He does good work.”

That’s the exact praise any caddie would hope to hear from their pro and I’m certain their trust in each other and confidence together only grew stronger in the following year.

The last time I saw Sam was in Omaha, Nebraska, my hometown, in August of 2021. We crossed paths at the end of that week, on a familiar road, heading in opposite directions like often happens on Tour. It was the final regular season tournament on the Korn Ferry Tour and Alker had just missed the cut, signifying the end of his season – of his career – out there. I asked Sam what his plans were, knowing full well that he had been looking forward to Alker turning 50 and being eligible for the PGA Tour Champions, after competing with Sam by his side, against younger competition for the previous three years. He told me that Steven was entered in the following week’s qualifier in Seattle. They were going to do some qualifiers that fall and get ready for Tour School at the end of the year. After practicing over the weekend, Alker told Sam not to bother flying out and that he’d let him know if he got in. Unbeknownst to Steven, and as Sam relayed to me on the podcast, he booked a ticket to Seattle for the following week ahead of time. On Tuesday, when Alker called to tell Sam that he got in, Sam said, “I’ve already got a ticket. I’ll see you tonight.” And off they went, finishing seventh together in his first event. It was the only time Alker ever had to qualify on the Champions tour.

Those of us who were lucky enough to know Sam were better for it. He was “salt of the earth”, as people like to say. I want to give a shoutout to my friend and fellow caddie, Kelly Miller, who does an admirable job of staying in touch with all his friends from the Tour from his home in San Diego. He and Sam stayed in close contact over the years, even before Alker started his spectacular run, so it was fun for us to all text back and forth as we witnessed their history and I became closer to Sam because of him. My heart goes out to his family and all of his friends, particular my caddie brethren. While his funeral is set for next Monday, February 13th, his life will be recognized and celebrated on Tours everywhere in the coming weeks and months.

At the end of our podcast, I asked Sam what was the best city to visit in Texas. He said New Braunfels, which I had never heard of before, but he described as a hidden gem of relaxed, hill-country nightlife. So next month, the PGA Tour will be in San Antonio, where Sam’s sister recently built a house in nearby… New Braunfels. And in late April, the PGA Tour Champions will roll into Houston where Alker will be the defending champion and I’m sure if will be a moment of pause for reflection, camaraderie, and toasts in his honor.

But rest assured, Sam will have the barbeque waiting for all of us one day.

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