From golf caddy to big shot: No accidental path

July 17, 2013, 3:22 PM UTC

FORTUNE — Way back in the late 1950s, at the tender age of 11, Peter Lynch started caddying at Brae Burn Country Club in Newton, Mass. “It was better than a paper route, and much more lucrative,” the Fidelity vice chairman recalls. He kept it up during the summers for almost a decade. “You get to know the course and can give the players advice about how to approach various holes,” he says. “Where else, at age 15 or 16, can you serve as a trusted adviser to high-powered people?”

One of those people was George Sullivan, then president of Fidelity’s funds, who was so impressed with Lynch’s smarts that he hired him in 1966. “There were about 75 applicants for 3 job openings,” Lynch says now. “But I was the only one who had caddied for the president for 10 years.” He later went on to build Fidelity’s Magellan Fund (FMAGX) from $18 million to more than $14 billion in assets, with a record-smashing 29.2% return from 1977 to 1990.

In between caddying and managing money, Lynch went to Boston College on a scholarship from a program called the Francis Ouimet Fund (“the main reason I could go on to Wharton with no student debt,” he says). Named after the 1913 winner of the U.S. Open, the fund launched in 1949, giving out about $4,600 in college scholarships to 13 caddies, greens keepers, pro shop clerks, and other teenaged golf course workers. By last year, that had grown to $1.5 million in financial aid to 325 students.

MORE: In defense of the lemonade stand

The Ouimet Fund is open to Massachusetts kids only, but similar programs are flourishing across the U.S., from the suburbs of New York City to central Oregon. These funds are far less familiar to most people than the traditional athletic scholarships that reward players. But, says Ouimet executive director Robert Donovan, help with college is a logical extension of the rapport between golfers and their favorite caddies: “There is a whole mentoring bond that happens between the players and the kids who carry their clubs. And for the teens, caddying is all about being around successful role models.”

Apparently so. Erstwhile caddies include all kinds of luminaries, from actor Bill Murray, to New York Times op-ed columnist Thomas Friedman, to former GE (GE) chairman and CEO Jack Welch. Roger Altman, co-founder of investment bank Evercore Partners (EVR) and a former deputy Treasury secretary, was a Ouimet Fund scholar, as was Ray Dalio, founder of money-management powerhouse Bridgewater Associates.

Of course, the number of financial whizzes who caddied in their youth might be sheer coincidence, but Dick Connolly thinks not. “Caddying teaches you a tremendous amount about business, and about life,” he says. “You learn to show up early and look people in the eye when you shake their hand, and you learn how to read people — including who’s inclined to cheat and who isn’t.” Connolly is a longtime investment advisor at Morgan Stanley’s (MS) Boston office, a former Ouimet scholarship student and, along with Peter Lynch and Roger Altman, one of the program’s biggest supporters.

The most important lesson he learned on the links, he says: “One golfer I caddied for told me that if you want to succeed in any field — golf or business — you have to spend a lot of lonely hours, either practicing or working, when you’d rather be partying with your friends. That’s true, and it stuck with me. It’s served me well.”