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Golf: Carrying The Load

For PGA Tour Professionals, a Caddie is a Servant, a Mind Reader, a Partner and, With Any Luck, a Key to Victory
Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Gen. Tommy Franks, Nov/Dec 03

Steve Williams paced behind Tiger Woods's bag, with an eye out for interlopers. Woods had just won the 2000 AT&T pro-am tournament at Pebble Beach, his sixth consecutive victory. Now he was on the range at the Torrey Pines Golf Course in La Jolla, California, practicing for the Buick Invitational with coach Butch Harmon at the ready, analyzing and opining. Williams closely watched his man, too, and closely watched the movement of people who might come near him, might want to speak to him, might want to say hello.

A television reporter and his cameraman approached. Deadline was nearing for the evening news and Tiger was in town, which was the biggest news of the day. Steve Williams was having none of it.

"Not now, mate," Williams said in a voice that did not bespeak impending friendship. "Not today, get it?"

This was Steve Williams as security guard. There is also Steve Williams as workout partner. There is Steve Williams as battering ram. There is Steve Williams as motivational speaker. There is Steve Williams as crisis manager. There is Steve Williams as valet. There is Steve Williams as mathematician.

This, in sum, is Steve Williams, the caddie. It is, in sum, the job description of the modern professional tour caddie. In Williams's case, he is the most visible caddie who ever lugged 50 pounds around on his shoulder. He totes a bag for Woods, the world's No. 1 player, and he has had that privileged position since 1999. In that time, he is estimated to have made $3 million. That's not a misprint.

You won't find this out from the New Zealand looper himself. Once a Chatty Cathy of sorts when he carried bags for players like Greg Norman and Ray Floyd, Williams put a zipper on his lips when he became Woods's caddie in March of 1999. He also put on his best stay-away-from-us face, built up his I-can-put-a-hurtin'-on-you body and developed, like Woods, a Teflon personality. Nothing sticks. Williams sheds fans, officials, media types like so much dandruff. As a PGA Tour caddie, as Tiger Woods's caddie, it's his job.

The caddie's job, and more pointedly, his relationship with his player, was spotlighted last summer with the poignant story of Bruce Edwards, the longtime caddie for Tom Watson. Edwards is suffering from Lou Gehrig's disease, though he still was able to caddie for Watson in the U.S. Open. The United States Golf Association even went so far as to offer Edwards a cart, but he declined. He vowed to carry until he can't carry anymore, to walk the glorious miles beside one of the game's all-time greats, like the thousands of miles he's walked before. And Watson vowed that he would help Edwards in every way, including funding his medical treatment. "Bruce is a valued friend and a great person," says Watson. "He's much more than a bag carrier, that's for sure."

Once a caddie was little more than a manservant who followed a basic creed: show up, keep up and shut up. He was stereotyped as a whiskey-breathed, shabbily clad vagabond whose bank account rested in the deepest pocket of his best pair of pants. It was a stereotype that might have applied more to country club caddies than tour caddies, but they were all painted with the same brush, and there were a few tour caddies that fit the stereotype like a club cover.

But the stakes have changed. Now, in the era of $5 million purses, caddies stand to make as much from a single tournament as they once did in a year, even five years. As the PGA Tour has become big business, caddies are carrying more than 14 clubs, a dozen balls, a rain suit, sunscreen and a Rolex in a velvet bag. They are suddenly weighted down with respect, and their jobs have become, we daresay, desirable.

"When I first came out here, there were clubs that wouldn't let caddies in the main gate without their players," says Dale McElyea, a caddie on the PGA Tour since 1988 and Steve Lowery's caddie since 1993. He is also president of the Professional Tour Caddies Association, a group trying to improve the caddies' lot.

And it has improved, a lot, largely due to the increase in purses. The exact details of caddie compensation lie behind closed mouths. But there are guidelines. The average tour caddie makes $1,000 a week, but that doesn't do much beyond cover living expenses. The real money comes from his player's share of the purse. For a win, a caddie usually gets 10 percent of the prize. If Tiger Woods wins $1 million, then Steve Williams would, in theory, get $100,000. Caddies are paid about 7 percent for a top-10 finish, 5 percent for a finish out of the top 10. It's estimated that at least 50 caddies on the PGA Tour are making $100,000 a year, and those carrying bags for top-10 players are making at least $250,000. No wonder you find caddies these days favoring The Wall Street Journal over the Daily Racing Form and hitching rides on private planes from one tournament to the next.

These are modern phenomena, of course. For decades, caddies were selfless, almost invisible adjuncts to professional players. In those days, the pros were generally deemed good enough to give lessons and repair clubs, but not so gentlemanly as to be welcomed in the clubhouse. The pro shop was for the pro, the caddyshack for the caddies, the clubhouse for people of proper breeding, or at least a profitable business. Bobby Jones, the great amateur, did much to bring respectability to those who played the game at the highest levels. From Walter Hagen and Gene Sarazen to Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan, professional players increasingly found the front door of the club open. Then along came Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, adding genuine celebrity to the respectability mix.

It took caddies a long time to catch up. The garrulous and meticulous Ernest "Creamy" Caroline was Palmer's caddie for 10 years. Caroline may have been the first caddie to exactly measure and chart yardage on golf courses. He was so precise that in the early days of televised golf, producers came to Caroline to get their course information. Caroline dearly loved Palmer, but his inability to stop talking eventually caused him to talk himself out of a job. While Palmer never revealed a reason for their breakup and Caroline would never do so himself, Palmer always said that within his circle of helpers, there was room for only one prima donna: himself.

Angelo Argea caddied for Nicklaus for many years, and was as famous for his permed, gray hairdo as much as for any help he may have provided the Golden Bear, though he was a very good caddie. When they grew bored with each other and split up, Nicklaus helped Argea start a business selling course yardage books and maps, building on what Caroline had done more than a decade earlier.

Caroline and Argea, along with Gary Player's longtime caddie, "Rabbit" Dyer, and Lee Trevino's caddie, Herman Mitchell, were the first visible bag toters, the first caddies to cause a blip on the radar screen, the first caddies that were publicly part of a "team." Any player could play with any caddie who shows up, keeps up, shuts up and can do the basic math required to determine yardages. But a successful team requires a caddie who can penetrate a player's head without giving him a headache and can read his player's mind even better than he can read putts.

Trevino and Mitchell were successful together because Mitchell's street-smarts personality meshed perfectly with Trevino's stand-up quality wit. Mitchell was also a decent player, self-taught like Trevino. "Herman and I are just about like brothers," says Trevino. "He always knew what to say, and he wasn't afraid to say something even if I didn't want to hear it. We had our fights over things, our falling-outs. But you got to understand that we had confidence in each other. That comes from a closeness, you understand. You don't get that with just anyone. You look at Bruce [Edwards] and Tom [Watson]. That's more than caddie and player. They're close like brothers. That's Herman and me. We couldn't have stood each other for so long if we didn't have that closeness."

Pete Bender was Greg Norman's caddie in the early and mid '80s. He was an experienced hand, could do the math part and seemed pretty good at the mind reading portion, too. In 1986, Norman achieved the seemingly impossible, the Saturday Slam. He led all four major tournaments after the third round, but won only one of them, the British Open at Turnberry, Scotland. It was at Turnberry where Bender got into Norman's head, before it exploded. At the U.S. Open at Shinnecock in June, Norman had gone from leader to off the leaderboard by the start of the back nine. At Turnberry the next month, he was the leader with no significant player at his heels. Only Tommy Nakajima of Japan offered any resistance, and that dissipated quickly when he double-bogeyed the first hole.

Still, Norman was nervous. The expectations of others, not to mention his own grand ideals, were a burden. He was nervous, alternately silent and quick-tongued. He bogeyed the fifth hole and hit a poor drive into the rough on the seventh. Bender knew he had to say something, and asked Norman to slow down and enjoy the moment. Norman didn't seem to hear. Then Bender grabbed Norman's yellow cashmere sweater and said, "Whoa, slow down and walk my pace. Let's talk and have fun." After a private joke that brought a chuckle from Norman, the day turned free and easy, and at the end of it, Norman was holding the Claret Jug, laying claim to his first major championship. Bender, as part of the "team," had something to do with it. Norman commissioned an exact replica of the Claret Jug and gave it to Bender.

A year later, Norman fired Bender, by car phone from Australia, saying only that it was time for a change. Some thought it was Bender's ego getting a bit too large, and demanding to caddie for Norman around the world instead of just the United States and Europe. Some thought it was Norman's colossal ego, thinking that there was something better out there. He hired Bruce Edwards away from Watson for a short time and used other top caddies such as Andy Martinez, the regular looper for Tom Lehman. The tenuous nature of the player-caddie relationship means that at a whim, a player can end it all. As one player said many years ago, "It's easier and a helluva lot cheaper to divorce your caddie than to divorce your wife."

The most public of all caddie breakups came in March of 1999. That's when Tiger Woods decided he didn't need Fluff Cowan anymore. There is no question that Michael "Fluff" Cowan's two-plus years on Woods's bag enlarged the caddie profile exponentially. Here was this dog-eared, middle-aged, portly man with a white mustache dangling like frost from his lip carrying a bag for the best player on the planet. Cowan had caddied nearly 20 years for Peter Jacobsen and they had a close camaraderie. But when Woods turned pro after his 1996 U.S. Amateur victory, he, his father, Earl, and coach Butch Harmon wanted a caddie that had considerable tour experience, had seen all the courses and read all the greens. Jacobsen was at home in Oregon with a bad back. When Cowan got the call, Jacobsen knew he had to let him go.

So off goes Cowan on an improbable journey, at least for a caddie. Woods wins twice in his rookie season, then wins the 1997 Masters with Cowan reading the putts. Just like that, Woods had shot to the top of the golf world, and trailing just behind him, slightly out of breath and needing a smoke, was Fluff Cowan. Cowan had a gift for gab, when he saw fit to bestow it. He was also a good player, near scratch. He was the true veteran that the young phenom needed. And he had an ego.

Suddenly, Cowan started appearing in commercials for a hotel chain. He did promotional ads for the World Golf Village Renaissance Resort and World Golf Hall of Fame in Florida. He filmed a video on strategic ways to lower your scores. He developed his own Web site. Everybody wanted to talk to him, when he could catch his breath. And that, as much as anything, led to his breakup with Woods after the Los Angeles Open in 1999. They were seen exchanging words in a parking lot after a round, and there was something about Cowan giving his man a bad yardage. But the breakup was more likely akin to Creamy Caroline's severance from Arnold Palmer. There is only room for one prima donna in a player's camp. That would be the player.

"There's no question that Fluff carrying Tiger's bag gave us a lot of visibility," says Dale McElyea. "With Fluff, caddies really started being regarded as part of the team. A lot of the gains we've made are directly attributable to Fluff being Tiger's caddie. We've gotten things like special caddie tents and better food, better parking—a bunch of stuff. It's not like Fluff asked for it. It's just because he was so successful with Tiger it made us all seem better in other people's eyes."

A top player's bag is a coveted possession, not one to be given up or regarded lightly. Cowan went on to caddie for Jim Furyk, a top-10 player who won the 2003 U.S. Open at Olympia Fields with Cowan toting his 14 clubs and minding his state of mind. Cowan made sure that he was visible only to his player and stayed out of the broader spotlight. No talk, no mistakes, just business.

While a caddie's insight can play an important role in a golfer's success, the occasional oversight can sometimes have devastating consequences. Take what happened with Miles Byrne. In the summer of 2001, Byrne had a pretty good bag, caddying for Ian Woosnam. Woosnam's game was diminished from the early '90s when he won the Masters and was among the world's best five players. But he could still make himself known now and again, and in 2001 he found himself on the leaderboard for the British Open at Royal Lytham going into the final round.

Among the caddie's chores are timekeeping and bag security, both of which Byrne failed miserably at in his most important hour.

Woosnam had been practicing before his round with two drivers. Then he went to the putting green, thinking that his tee time was 2:25, and Byrne did nothing to suggest otherwise. Also practicing on the putting green was Bernhard Langer, who had a 2:25 pairing, but it wasn't with Woosnam. Langer's well-respected looper, Peter Coleman, noticed Woosnam practicing dangerously close to his tee time, which was nine minutes earlier than Langer's. Coleman told Woosnam that he had an earlier tee time and Woosnam hurriedly marched off to the first tee.

The first hole at Royal Lytham is a par 3, a unique starting hole in championship golf. It's an iron shot, no need for the driver. Woosnam dutifully made par on the hole and proceeded to the second hole, a par 4, time for the driver. Except there were two drivers in the bag. Byrne had neglected to discard one, meaning that he was carrying 15 clubs, one over the legal limit. And that meant that Woosnam would be penalized two shots for each hole the extra club was in the bag. Disaster. Woosnam's chances of winning the Open were diminished, and he never was able to recover his momentum. Oddly, he did not fire Byrne after the tournament, giving him another chance. Two weeks later, Byrne failed to show for the final round of a European Tour event. The story was that, after a long night in the pubs, he was in the bag. Sadly, he was also now without one.

Two years earlier, Jean Van de Velde finished second in the British Open at Carnoustie in the most bizarre fashion in the history of the championship. His young caddie took some of the blame, though Van de Velde took complete responsibility. But what happened goes directly to the "teaming" of caddie and player. In Van de Velde's case, there was no team, only himself, young Christophe (not giving his full name, for tax purposes,) and the 18th hole at Carnoustie.

Certainly the Frenchman Van de Velde was an unlikely player to be leading the British Open at such a difficult course, one that had brought Tiger Woods and the elite of the game to grief during the week. Standing on the 18th tee, Van de Velde had a three-shot lead, needing only a double bogey to win. He could have hit an iron off the tee, played short of the stream that cuts across the fairway 40 yards short of the green, pitched on and two-putted for an easy bogey five. Instead, he hit his driver. Young Christophe, on Van de Velde's bag for only six weeks and a complete stranger to golf at the highest levels, could say nothing.

Van de Velde drove into the right rough, though he came up with a good lie, which turned out to be unfortunate. If he had had a bad lie, he would have chopped the ball back onto the fairway. He decided to go for the green with a 2-iron. Young Christophe, not yet "teamed" with Van de Velde, was powerless to say anything. An experienced caddie might have suggested a layup. One with a rapport with his player might have simply handed him a wedge and walked away. Christophe could only stand by as Van de Velde knocked his 2-iron into the bleachers and watched the ball carom back across the stream into very heavy rough, a terrible lie. He could have played the next shot sideways, but he tried for the green and put it into the stream. Christophe was helpless and speechless. After a penalty drop from the stream, Van de Velde hit his next shot into a bunker before making a triple bogey to force a playoff with Justin Leonard and Paul Lawrie, won by Lawrie.

Later, in the locker room, young Christophe was trembling, barely able to light a cigarette and hold it to his lips. In his limited English he would say, "There was nothing I could say." If he had been Pete Bender with Greg Norman, if he had been Steve Williams with Tiger Woods, if he had been Fluff Cowan with Jim Furyk, then Van de Velde likely would not have found himself in a stream and ultimately out of luck.

The longest running player-caddie team on the PGA Tour is Joey Sindelar and John "Bucky" Buchna, who've been together since 1984. Sindelar has had modest success. Buchna may have been able to latch on to a bigger name and a bigger share of the prize money, but he and Sindelar are a team, for better or worse. Buchna has course notes going back years and a regular routine for checking Sindelar's bag. He makes sure it is stocked with the correct balls, gloves, pain pills, bandages, scissors, stomach medicine, autograph pen, ball markers, punch mark repair tools, the yardage book, extra towels, rain suit, umbrella, sunglasses and contact lens solution, and he counts the clubs, to 14 and no more. He knows that Sindelar likes to change balls after every par-5 hole and after every bogey. He knows when Sindelar is getting down, and how to keep him up. "It comes down to the fact that I work for a helluva nice guy, I know what to expect and he knows what to expect of me," says Buchna. "I guess that's what you would call a team."

All these teams will come to an end. Only a few will last longer than five years. But every year, more caddies are staying around longer. The money is a magnet and the competition for bags has never been greater. If your image of a caddie is a rapscallion who can do math, a vagabond with a knack for reading greens, you are way off the mark.

"There are very few vagabonds out here anymore, on any of the tours," says McElyea. "The money has changed things, no doubt about that. But for me, and for most caddies out here, we all love the game of golf. We love walking around in the sunshine and being close to great players. I think we have lost some of the colorful characters along the way, but that's the way the game has gone. Me, I never hate going to work."

 

Jeff Williams is a sportswriter for Newsday on Long Island.

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