Bagger Dean carries for a once-in-a-lifetime foursome of Hall of Fame members
by Guy Generaux
After 60 years of looping, Dean Tonkin recently celebrated the pinnacle of his part-time career as a caddie.
Not that the 72-year old golf instructor, coach, inventor, businessman and author is planning to retire soon, but this was an experience “I would have bought a ticket to,” he would later say.
It was a blustery late spring afternoon, as Tonkin, who is known as “Bagger Dean,” found himself in the presence of four Hall of Famers teeing off for a friendly round at Seattle Golf Club.
He was on the bag of long-time acquaintance Bruce Richards, who had been inducted into the PNGA Hall of Fame the prior evening. Seizing an impromptu moment at the banquet, Richards had invited fellow inductee Bill Wright, acclaimed Seattle professional Don Bies and NBA Hall of Famer Elgin Baylor, a close friend of Wright’s who was in town to attend Wright’s induction ceremony, to join him for the following day’s round. With arrangements in place, Bagger Dean was summoned to accompany the group.
Tonkin began his adventures as a caddie at the callow age of 12, working primarily at West Seattle Golf Club, Seattle Golf Club and bygone Olympic Hills Golf Club that once graced the west slope of north Seattle’s Crown Hill neighborhood. He loved the game, soon emerging as a top junior player. Following high school and a stint with the University of Oregon football team, he transferred to the University of Washington and became a reserve on the Husky golf squad.
Known in Seattle golf circles as a highly regarded instructor, Bagger Dean has carried for several golf greats from Seattle to New York. Early on he looped for PGA Tour players Doug Sanders and Kermit Zarley and more recently he shouldered clubs for Husky golfer Chris Williams, ranked the world’s top amateur player before turning pro.
Up until this spring day, however, Bagger Dean had never attended to a foursome of such legendary renown.
Richards was a PNGA Junior Amateur Champion, two-time college All-American, low American Amateur at the 1965 British Open, and member of the Hudson and Senior Hudson Cup teams. He is a 2013 PNGA Hall of Fame inductee.
With victories in numerous Northwest events, Bies also was a PGA Tour winner and seven-time champion on the Champions Tour including a major (1989 Tradition). He was elected to the Pacific Northwest Section PGA Hall of Fame in 1994.
Wright’s resume includes the 1959 U.S. Amateur Public Links Championship, NAIA Individual Championship (when he played for the Western Washington University golf team), U.S. Open and Senior Open competitor, and Hudson Cup team member. Enshrined in the USGA Museum’s Hall of Champions, he is also a 2013 PNGA Hall of Fame inductee.
Recognized as one of the world’s all-time 50 Greatest Basketball Players, Baylor received All-American honors at Seattle University then transitioned to an illustrious professional career. He is an NBA and Naismith Memorial Hall of Fame member.
“I was thrilled to get the call,” said Tonkin. “Bruce and I have known each other since we competed as juniors, and I’ve caddied for him often.” Baylor and Wright had traveled up from Los Angeles to attend the Hall of Fame festivities. “Those guys were legends,” recalled Tonkin. “Everybody followed Elgin Baylor’s basketball exploits, and Wright, who played out of Jefferson Park (golf course in Seattle), was idolized by our group of juniors back in the day.” Although a few years older than the other members of the foursome, Bies was a revered figure in the 1950s Seattle golf culture and participated in some of the same tournaments as had Richards, Wright and Tonkin.
The round at Seattle Golf Club commenced with a modest wager as each player partnered with one another for six holes. Bagger Dean was impressed with the camaraderie he witnessed. “The display of friendship was remarkable,” he said of the ease that comes only from a lifetime of achievement. “Their management of the course was superb and they all demonstrated incredible balance and tempo in their swings,” observed Tonkin.
A low handicapper himself, Bagger Dean calculated the collective age of their fivesome at 366 years and a combined handicap barely into double-digits. “I’d bet on this group against Mr. Par on any layout,” said Tonkin. “When caddying, it’s wonderful to be treated as a peer and when a player solicits advice on either the technical or the tactical, it’s a reward,” he added. “But, I always maintain caddie protocol during a round,” added Tonkin. “Players refer to me as ‘Bagger’ and I address them as ‘Mister.'”
There were many memorable moments during the day for Tonkin, including when he gave putting tips to Baylor, but the highlight came at the end of the round when he produced a USGA rule book and had each player autograph the title page. “That’s an item I will always cherish and expect to will to my grandchildren someday – at least the one who shows the most interest in golf,” he chuckled.
Yes, it was a rare day among friends in Northwest golf.
(This article is also featured in the current November issue of Pacific Northwest Golfer magazine.)
A local newspaper writer and editor, Guy Generaux is the immediate past president of the Northwest Golf Media Association.