Taneka Mackey, only Black woman to caddie full time in LPGA, on not being the last

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Taneka Mackey (née Sandiford), 26, is the first Bahamian woman caddie on the LPGA Tour. Since 2017, Mackey has caddied for LPGA Tour player Amy Olson. After suffering a seizure in November 2018, Mackey was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Despite her diagnosis, Mackey returned to Olson’s bag in 2019 and remains the only Black woman caddie on the tour full time. In her own words, Mackey details her journey to the LPGA Tour and explains why she might be the first but certainly won’t be the last.

Growing up in Nassau, Bahamas, I heard other kids, and even adults joke about how I was playing a white person’s sport or a rich person’s sport. That wasn’t my reality. My parents provided me what I needed to play a sport that I was good at. I shrugged it off and kept playing.

It didn’t even occur to me that maybe I wasn’t supposed to be playing this sport because of my skin color or my family’s economic status. All I knew was that I had a special power behind my swing. That was apparent whether or not I had the trendiest golf clothes on or advanced equipment in my bag.

When I started playing golf at the age of 10, I liked the idea of playing a new sport and trying something different. I rented a set of golf clubs for $25. The man that rented me the set told me, “You can keep them as long as you want, and whenever you return it, we will give you back $15.”

Until the age of 16, I played with those rental clubs. My parents, Juan and Kristine, paid approximately $100 each year to allow me access to a local course. The only thing that I bought for the first few years were some golf shorts, shoes and gloves. The first time I bought golf clubs, I was a senior in high school. The local driving range pro said I needed better clubs and offered me a set for $150.

I never took golf lessons. I didn’t even realize that I could take golf lessons, though golf pros taught lessons at the local course. The first few years of playing, my “instructor” was actually a soccer coach who had a passion and heart for the game. And beyond that, I got help from other junior golfers and volunteers with the Bahamas Golf Federation. I thought this was normal. I didn’t know any different.

When it came to sports, my parents gave my brothers, Terrell and Garrett, and me everything we needed to succeed. We didn’t have fancy clothes. We didn’t have new electronics. We didn’t have cool gadgets. But when it came to our athletics and education, we had everything we needed.

Throughout my childhood, my family struggled financially. My parents opened an early education school in Nassau and poured everything into making it successful. For the first six years of my life, we lived in a one-bedroom apartment. Then, we moved to the school, where we had two bedrooms that we lived in, two rooms for the five of us. It wasn’t until I became an adult that I realized that no matter how much we might have been struggling, my parents did everything they could to allow my brothers and me the opportunity to play sports. And not just play the sports but succeed in them.

When I was little, I loved swimming. But then, I started playing basketball. And it became my everything. I followed in my oldest brother Terrell’s footsteps. When he picked up a basketball, I picked up a basketball. I didn’t just try to keep up with him. I tried to be better than him. He’s two years older than me, but that didn’t stop me. I would dedicate countless hours every day after school to my game. I dreamed of maybe one day becoming a professional basketball player.

For years, basketball remained my everything. I never thought that another sport would trump basketball. Even when I first started playing golf, I still felt that basketball was my No. 1.

Initially, Terrell and I played golf because my mom read in the local Nassau newspaper that the Bahamas Golf Federation was trying to get more kids into the sport. We thought, “Sure, whatever. Why not?” It was mostly the boys and me, but I was OK with that. I liked trying something new and keeping up with my brother. After six months of learning how to play the game, when I was 11, I made the Bahamas national team. It didn’t take long before my attitude towards the sport started to change. I realized that this sport might provide me the opportunity to do more than I could have ever imagined.

Within the first few years of playing as a junior on the national team, I traveled to Puerto Rico, Dominican Republic, Antigua, Jamaica, and Trinidad and Tobago. Though I was still playing basketball, I started to take golf more seriously. By my senior year of high school, I needed to decide if I was going to pursue a career in basketball or golf.

It wasn’t easy. While on the Pensacola Christian College women’s basketball team in Florida, I continued to play golf and compete in local tournaments. It didn’t take long before the question was raised, “Why isn’t Taneka playing golf?” I was good at basketball, but I was even better at golf. After receiving a scholarship, I transferred to Redlands Community College. I competed on the golf team for two years before joining the Chicago State University’s women’s golf team on an athletic scholarship in 2014.

Even as my time as a collegiate golfer was coming to an end, I knew that my career in golf wasn’t over. I just wasn’t sure what it was going to look like. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to pursue a professional golf career, but I knew that I wanted to allow myself to play in one LPGA event. I wanted to represent my country, the Bahamas, on a big stage. I wanted to show the other little Black girls and boys in the Bahamas that they could make it, too. That was my dream, my goal.

In 2013, while I was still playing at Redlands, the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic debuted at the Ocean Club Golf Course on Paradise Island near my hometown of Nassau.

I thought, “This is my chance. This is my shot.” I wanted it to be my opportunity. They were offering a spot to a local Bahamian player, and I wanted to play. But then I found out that it would mean giving up my amateur status and college scholarship to compete in one tournament. I don’t know if I was selling myself short, but as much as I wanted to believe in myself, I knew that I didn’t have the resources at my disposal to even make a cut in an LPGA event. This was probably the first time that I fully realized just how different my golf upbringing had been compared to others.

But I didn’t let any of this deter me. I still wanted to represent my country. I would represent it differently. So, I signed up to volunteer at the tournament. The tournament officials asked if I would be interested in caddying at the tournament. I remember asking myself, “Why would they want a community college golfer’s advice? What could I offer?”

In the debut tournament, I caddied for Jill McGill. All I could think about was how I would tell my future kids about how I caddied in an LPGA Tour event for a professional golfer and how no one would ever be able to take that experience from me. I might not have been playing, but I was there on that stage. And I wanted to represent my country to the fullest. I wore the Bahamas flag on my hat and shirt. When I walked past the crowd holding McGill’s bag, I wanted the spectators to know that I’m a Bahamian. I wanted the kids in the stands to see that I’m representing their country. I’m there for them. For us.

Four years later, in 2017, one year after I graduated from college, while assistant coaching at Redlands on my former golf team, I returned home to volunteer at the tournament. And that’s when everything changed. LPGA Tour player Amy Olson (née Anderson) needed a local caddie. And I got the call that I would be on her bag.

The connection was instant. It felt like a friendship that you’ve fostered for years. But it also felt like a turning point for me. I finally felt like this is what I was meant to do. I wasn’t sure if I would compete in an LPGA Tour event as a player, but I felt confident in my abilities to be a caddie on tour.

A few months after caddying for Olson in the Bahamas, she called me and asked if I could meet her in Texas for another tournament. Then she asked if I was available to caddie a few more events. Without hesitation, I said, “Absolutely! Let’s do it.”

By the 2018 season, I was caddying for Olson almost full time. I knew that every chance I got on Olson’s bag was an opportunity to represent my country and be a role model for Black girls and Black people from the Caribbean.

After almost one year of caddying on tour, I felt an empowerment that I had never experienced before. At the age of 24, I could call myself a professional caddie. And that meant everything to me.

Then, on Nov. 1, 2018, everything paused.

While out jogging in my neighborhood in the Bahamas, I started to feel extremely fatigued after running about a mile and a half. I couldn’t believe that I was already tired after not even making it two miles. I told myself, “You can’t stop. You have to keep going. You’re almost there.” The next thing I remembered, I was lying on the street. I experienced my first seizure.

Shortly after, I was rushed to a Nassau hospital, where they found 20-plus lesions on my brain. I spent six days in the hospital, and the doctors still couldn’t conclude why I had a seizure while jogging.

For almost three months, I didn’t have a diagnosis. During those three months, I never cried. I never thought, “why me?” or “poor me.” Instead, I thought about how much I had accomplished in my 24 years. I thought about how I got to travel around the world, swim with sharks in Australia, a dream of mine since I was a little girl, and caddie on the LPGA Tour.

There were so many things that I had accomplished that I never even imagined I would have the opportunity to do in my life. I was completely satisfied with my life at that time. And I couldn’t credit myself for that. I could only credit God. Between the moment I picked up a golf club to the moment I started carrying a bag on the LPGA Tour, there were so many doors that had been opened up for me. And as I worried about why the doctors couldn’t figure out what was wrong with me, I believed that God had more in store for me. It wasn’t my time to go.

During this period of waiting, I wanted to continue to caddie for Olson. I wasn’t sure what that would look like or how it would happen, but I didn’t want to stop caddying. And Olson supported me. We prayed together. We talked about the different scenarios. We were a team.

On Feb. 7, 2019, I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. Olson’s first tournament of the season was in Australia the next week. I didn’t want to miss it. The first thing I asked my doctor, “Can I still travel? Can I still caddie?” When I got clearance from my doctor, and after I consulted with my parents, I was ready to go.

“Through all of our ups and downs over the last few years, both on and off the golf course, I always tell Taneka, ‘That’s part of what we do — we bear each other’s burdens. When you’re going through something hard, I want to be there for you just like you have been there when I’ve gone through hard stuff.'”

LPGA Tour player Amy Olson

When I told Olson, she said that I had to stay with her for the first tournament in Australia. Normally, we don’t stay together. But this time, it was different. She wanted to be by my side. At that point, we had a great friendship and professional relationship, but my diagnosis deepened our bond.

I remember repeating the bible verse, Luke 1:37, over and over in my head: “For with God nothing shall be impossible.” Although there were many uncertainties at that time with my new diagnosis — my family, Olson and God helped me. And I knew that caddying on the tour at the start of the season was something I needed to do. I wanted to show people that you can be down but you’re not out. And that’s exactly how I felt.

As much as I had no regrets until that point, I also knew that I had so much left to offer in all aspects of my life. I was dating my now-husband, Thomas, who had been my best friend and one of my biggest supporters for seven years. I knew that I wanted to marry him and start a life with him, which we did in December 2019.

My diagnosis just solidified that I wanted to leave a legacy. A legacy for the people of the Bahamas, for Black girls and boys, to look at me and realize that they can too if I could do it. No matter what obstacle you might be facing, you can accomplish your dreams and more.

My diagnosis also remains a reminder that you don’t know what will happen tomorrow, so you have to push yourself today. You have to seize every opportunity — even if it wasn’t part of your original plan.

When Olson asked me to regularly caddie for her three years ago, I knew that I would stand out on tour. At that time, there weren’t any Black women caddies and were very few women caddies on tour. There were only two Black players on tour, Cheyenne Woods and Mariah Stackhouse. But, I believed that I was there for a reason. Today, I’m the only Black woman caddie on the LPGA Tour.

I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have thoughts about if I deserved to be there throughout my time on tour as a caddie. The sentiments from my childhood of the other kids and adults telling me that golf was a white and rich sport can sometimes creep into my mind, but I don’t want to entertain that chatter for half a second.

I may not be white, and I may not be rich, but I am here.

God put me here for a reason. And sometimes, I am the only Black woman on the course. And that’s OK because I know that I’m not going to be the last. I might not be playing on tour. But that doesn’t mean I’m not making a difference.

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