This Masters caddie is not raking traps

Wednesday, April 4th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

AUGUSTA, Ga. (AP) - The suggestion that his life story could be made into a movie brings a slight smile of disbelief to Greg Puga's face.

What's so remarkable, after all, about a guy from the inner city who totes the bags of Hollywood stars for $40 a loop teeing it up Thursday on the hallowed grounds of Augusta National in the first round of the Masters?

Not much, at least the way Puga sees it.

``I really didn't think it was that big of a story,'' he said. ``I didn't think it would be talked about, how I grew up and stuff.''

It will be talked about more and more, especially if he somehow plays his way into contention at a tournament he never expected to be in, like the fictional centerpiece of the film ``Tin Cup.'' Even Puga agrees that would be material worthy of the silver screen.

``I have to win the Masters, that's the thing,'' Puga said with a laugh. ``Shouldn't take much at all to do that.''

Puga actually has his sights set a little lower, as befits a player who might rank as the most unlikely to be among golf's greats in Augusta. A 30-year-old amateur of little repute, he beat a string of better-known players last year to win the U.S. Mid-Amateur and secure his invite to Augusta.

Forgive him if he finds it hard to resist the temptation to rake Augusta National's pristine white sand traps. Before his amateur win, he might have figured his best chance of walking the fairways here would be carrying someone else's bag.

Old habits still die hard, even though he has a veteran Augusta National caddie, Joe Collins, doing his dirty work this week.

``After I hit out of the bunker I look for a rake,'' Puga said. ``Then I say, `Oops, that's his job.'''

Puga, who carries bags of Bel-Air Country Club members in Los Angeles when he's not playing, has indeed found it more comfortable hanging around the bag room at Augusta National than the player's lounge.

On Saturday he was on the driving range when Fluff Cowan, who was Tiger Woods' caddie and now works for Jim Furyk, came up to congratulate him.

``I'm just glad somebody who does this for a living is on the other side of the ropes,'' Cowan told Puga.

So is Puga, though he has few illusions about his chances against the likes of Tiger Woods and others in golf's most revered tournament.

He's not going to win the Masters, but he'd at least like to make the cut and perhaps even finish as low amateur.

``I just don't want to embarrass myself,'' he said.

That wasn't even on his mind as a kid in Los Angeles when he took up a game he found intriguing because it was so frustrating and difficult to master.

The lore of the game was lost on him then. He just knew he wanted to play.

``I didn't even know what the Masters was back then,'' Puga said.

He certainly does now, which isn't bad for a guy who thinks 25 to 50 other players in Southern California are probably better than him.

Those golfers weren't playing Wednesday with Arnold Palmer, though. Puga was, thanks to a Bel-Air member who is a longtime friend of Palmer's and arranged the practice pairing.

``Playing with the King. Wow,'' was all Puga could say.

Standing with his father, Salvador, under the eve of the clubhouse just off the 18th green, Puga tried to take it all in. He had come to Augusta a few months earlier to play some practice rounds, but this was different indeed.

``I'm not used to the galleries,'' he said. ``Playing with people standing around the greens and fairways is different for me.''

Puga, who is of Hispanic heritage, is quick to point out that he didn't exactly come out of the barrio to make it to Augusta. It was close, though, growing up in the lower-middle income area of Boyle Heights just outside of downtown Los Angeles.

This isn't a Tiger story, although Puga remembers winning $5 from Woods in a putting contest when the two played together in an amateur event.

Woods' father, Earl, groomed him for stardom since he was a toddler. Salvador Puga knew nothing about golf and had to be begged by his son to take him to the course.

``He pushed us to take him to the course, which is the opposite of most parents,'' Salvador Puga said. ``He's very self-motivated. I'm just so proud of him.''

Puga began working at area courses to get playing privileges to hone his game, and continued to play while attending Cal-State Los Angeles, where he is two semesters short of a degree.

About six years ago, he got on at Bel Air, where he caddies for actors such as James Garner and Joe Pesci and various Hollywood types. If there's a movie in his life, the members at Bel-Air will be the first to sniff it out.

``The members treat all of us caddies nice,'' Puga said. ``But they might treat me a tad better.''

Not only is Puga a celebrity of sorts at his club, he also is for a few days at Augusta. Though few fans know who he is, he's still signed some autographs.

One was a little more personal than the others. He signed it on the bill of his father's white souvenir Masters cap, which he was proudly wearing Wednesday.

``To Pops,'' it says. ``Love, Greg.''