By Bill Nichols
Dallas Morning News
In the 1920s, Byron Nelson and Ben Hogan were lured to Fort Worth’s Glen Garden Country Club by the prospect of earning $1 per round as caddies. From the same caddie barn, they crafted homemade swings that became legendary.
Lee Trevino was 8 when he started toting bags at Dallas’ Glen Lakes Country Club. He learned to play on three makeshift holes behind the caddie shack, developing a swing that carved out six major titles.
Players who didn’t get started as caddies relied heavily on them. Golf’s history books are filled with dynamic player-caddie duos.
Francis Ouimet won the 1913 U.S. Open with 10-year-old Eddie Lowery lugging a bag almost as big as he was. Jack Nicklaus walked the fairways with Angelo Argea for 20 years. Tom Watson had Bruce Edwards. Nick Faldo had Fanny Sunesson. Ben Crenshaw recently played his 25th Masters with caddie Carl Jackson, whose two tips led to their magical victory in 1995. Tiger Woods has Stevie Williams. Phil Mickelson has Jim “Bones” Mackay. And the list goes on.
These days, the classic looper is an endangered species. The average hacker’s caddie fits in his pocket, measures yardage by laser and can spit out tidal readings of the Amazon. But time has not eroded the player-caddie bond. Teamwork remains an integral part of the pro game, probably more than ever.
“It’s definitely a partnership,” said PGA Tour player Hunter Mahan of Colleyville, who has John Wood on the bag. “It’s not me being the boss as much as it is us trying to figure out how I’m going to shoot the best score today.
“Caddying, it’s kind of a lost art. You hear a lot of older players learned the game through caddying and being able to talk to the great players, and that just doesn’t happen anymore. Most of the caddies are former players.”
Many of the guys carrying bags over the next two weeks at the Crowne Plaza Invitational at Colonial and the HP Byron Nelson Championship — tournaments associated with Hogan and Nelson — were once players. They fell back on caddying after college or brief stints on the Nationwide Tour, realizing they could forge a more lucrative career tracking somebody else’s golf ball.
Jimmy Johnson of Dallas caddied at Preston Trail and played golf at North Texas. He played on the South African Tour for 17 years before embarking on a caddying career with Nick Price . Johnson also worked with Charles Howell III for 3 1/2 years and is in his third season with Steve Stricker.
“It used to be that caddies didn’t have permanent jobs,” Johnson said. “They’d just grab a bag one week and go. Now it’s more of a business and you’re part of a team with coaches and psychologists and trainers. I played on tour for a long time, so I knew what I didn’t want caddies to do. My main job is to keep him loose and positive.”
With prize money rising drastically in the Tiger Woods era and a deeper talent pool, Tour players constantly search for an edge. Some players want a caddie who can read greens and ensure proper alignment. Some want help in club selection or a second set of eyes to spot subtle swing flaws.
Bottom line: Most players want somebody they can talk to — a soothing voice to keep them focused in pressure situations or to settle them down or pump them up.
“It’s about personalities,” said Mackay, the only caddie Mickelson has had since turning pro in 1992. “It’s been pretty easy for us to get along because we’re pretty similar. What makes me laugh makes him laugh. Our wives are friends, and the same things tend to interest us.”
Gary Woodland said the technical aspects are secondary in caddie selection.
“Communication, that’s the main deal,” Woodland said. “Just somebody you can relate to. I know how to play golf, so I just need somebody I can enjoy being around for five hours.”
The player-caddie relationship sometimes goes much deeper. Fort Worth’s Jason Day, the defending Nelson champion, attended boarding school in Australia after his father died of stomach cancer when he was 11.Colin Swatton, who ran the golf program, became a father figure and now serves as Day’s coach and caddie.
“He’s meant a lot to me,” Day said. “On the course, we never really talk about, ‘OK, man, let’s settle down.’ It’s more about sticking to the plan, doing what we can to get the ball from here to there. He gets the yardage, I end up pulling the club, and then we talk about where we need to place our ball.”
During the 2004 season, Padraig Harrington ended a five-year relationship with Dave McNeilly because they were “not on the same wavelength.” He asked friend Ronan Flood, an assistant bank manager, to fill in temporarily.
Eight wins, including three majors, later, Flood is still on board. He became his boss’s brother-in-law in 2007, when he married Susie Gregan, the sister of Harrington’s wife, Caroline.
“I was working at a bank in Ireland; I lent money to corporations,” Flood said. “This is much better. I get to wear shorts to work. It’s just making sure you say the right thing at the right time.”
Wood was managing a Tower Books in Sacramento , Calif., when his friend, , asked if he’d like to give caddying a try.
“It sounded exciting,” said Wood, who also looped for Chris Riley and Mark Calcavecchia before hooking up with Mahan. “I thought I’d maybe give it a year or two and have a little fun and then get back to the real world. But it is a real job. You can make a career out of it if you get a good player.”
Most players aren’t looking for yes men. They want an active assistant, someone keenly aware of what’s going on and what’s to come. A good caddie is thinking about the best places to attack greens.
Saying the right thing at the right time can be difficult for the caddie when his player is struggling. And saying nothing can be worse; see Jean Van de Velde’s infamous triple-bogey implosion on the final hole of the 1999 British Open.
Mickelson loves a challenge, so he’s often more focused on reward than risk. He and Mackay have had some classic give-and-take.
At the 2005 PGA Championship at Baltusrol, Mickelson drove into deep rough on the par-5 18th. A stream cut across the fairway about 100 yards away. Mickelson was intent on an aggressive 4-wood to the green. Mackay wanted him to lay up.
“We went back and forth a couple of times, and then he said to me, ‘Have you heard a word I’ve said to you?’ ” Mackay said.
“He proceeded to hit the shot over the green. And we had this friend name David, God bless him, who is in a wheelchair in the handicapped area. We damn near picked off David in the handicapped area, but fortunately it came up just shy of him.”