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A Week Inside The Ropes

April 18, 2005
April 18, 2005

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April 18, 2005

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A Week Inside The Ropes

Working as a caddie, the author has a unique vantage point from which to observe the traditions of Augusta, and to discover the true meaning of the Masters

Early Monday morning of Masters week I reported to the Augusta National caddie shack--a substantial cinder-block structure painted Masters green--where I was issued a caddie jumpsuit. The overalls, made in Honduras, are bright white, heavy and 65% polyester, with zipper fronts, little side pockets for scorecard pencils and large back ones for yardage books and headcovers. The last time I was so eager to suit up was 35 years ago, when I was a backup catcher for Rocky's Main Street Luncheonette. ¶ I went to the back porch of the clubhouse, where there were 20 or 25 real caddies, most of them working for players you know, and Butch Harmon, hanging easily with the loopers. The promise of a new week and the year's first major filled the warm spring Georgia air. I waited for my man.

This is an article from the April 18, 2005 issue

My player was Stuart Wilson, a young Scot who earned a place in the Masters field by winning the British Amateur at St. Andrews last year. I met him briefly in July at the British Open at Royal Troon, which I covered for this magazine. Stuart was the low amateur there. In the dead of winter I wrote and asked him if I could carry his bag at Augusta. I had one outstanding qualification: My price was right. (Free.)

At the practice tee on Monday he warmed up briefly and without any fuss next to Mark O'Meara, with whom he had played his first two rounds at Troon last summer. It was sunny and hot, and Stuart's parents sat in the stands behind the range. His mother wore a stopgap hat that she had made from a newspaper to protect her fair skin from the sun. Stuart gave his mother a tiny under-the-shoulder wave and said, "That's a wee bit embarrassing." But Jill Wilson was having the time of her life.

He got to the driver quickly, and some of his shots were sailing far right. He said that happened when his left shoulder got too high and stiff at address.

"Do you have a thought that helps with that?" I asked. A caddie has to insinuate himself somehow. Otherwise he's simply carrying the bag.

His answer came out of the Scottish golfer's handbook: "It's not a thought, it's a feeling."

He watched O'Meara make a swing or two more before we left the practice tee. "I wanted to say hi, but I never caught his eye," Stuart said. Stuart wore a Scottish pin on his shirt, but he didn't need to. You knew he was a Scotsman on manners alone. He didn't think interrupting O'Meara was his place.

I led the way through the crowd to the 1st tee for a practice round. The course was clogged with people, but a Masters caddie with his white jumpsuit and a bag on his shoulder has an odd sort of authority. Gallery marshals and Pinkerton guards call out, "Caddie coming through," and magically a path clears. Stuart played the 1st hole by himself, hitting a solid drive that brought polite applause. He caught up with Tim Clark, the South African golfer, and Adam Scott of Australia, and they were happy to have Stuart join them. Stuart is 27, quiet and exudes modesty. He set up no practice games for himself and simply by bumping around found himself playing with Paul Casey, Chris DiMarco, Jay Haas, Jerry Kelly and Fuzzy Zoeller over the course of the three practice days. Fuzzy, profane and funny, graciously had Stuart hit before him on nearly every tee. Fuzzy, a former Masters winner, was the host, and Stuart was the guest.

I was traveling last week only on my caddie badge, not my press pass, so I couldn't get in the clubhouse for the peach cobbler or in the pressroom for the player quote sheets. ("You can only be one thing," a club official had told me at credential time.) But I was at home in the caddie shack. I had been under the impression that an MBA mentality had corrupted the caddie culture as the PGA Tour has become more about science and money and less about artistry and survival. A week in the caddie shack taught me otherwise. The looping game is still fueled by adrenaline and hope. There was no decaf in the caddie shack, and an outside bucket for spent cigarettes was loaded with butts at the end of each day. During the rain delays the shack was filled with cribbage and backgammon players, newspaper readers, bench sleepers and a small group, led by Billy Harmon (Jay Haas's caddie and Butch's kid brother), solving the problems of the world and wondering how often Charles Howell says "How are you?" over the course of a day.

The champions' dinner is held each year on Tuesday night in the Augusta National clubhouse. I sat quietly on a bench near the main entrance in my white jumpsuit as the past winners arrived at irregular intervals, driving down Magnolia Lane, leaving their courtesy-car Cadillacs with the club valet and disappearing inside. (Had I been in my civilian clothes, I'm sure I would have been chased away.) Vijay Singh went in, tying his necktie as he stepped toward the manned door. Byron Nelson, age 93, made the car-to-door walk on two canes but under his own power. The dinner's host, Phil Mickelson, arrived in glasses and his club coat--only the reigning champion may wear his coat off-property--wearing his charisma as if it were cologne. Best parade I ever saw.

Stuart drew two big-time partners for the first two rounds: Tom Watson, with his two green coats, and Jim Furyk. Watson's caddie, Neil (Ox) Oxman, is a fellow Philadelphian and a friend. Furyk's man, Mike (Fluff) Cowan, is a legendary caddie and a relaxed soul whom I've known for 20 years. It was a lucky draw for me too.

Right from the opening handshakes Thursday's mood was different. Furyk was there to win the thing, Watson to see if he could catch lightning and get in the mix, and Stuart to try to make the cut. We started on the back nine. I talked Stuart into a Heavenwood for his second shot at 15, the short par-5 with the little pond in front of the green. With the ball in the air I was praying hard. It landed just short of the green and started rolling down the hill toward the water and stopped only because the grass was soft and wet.

"Roobbish swing," Stuart said. At least, I think that's what he said. There were times when I had no idea what he was saying because of his accent. It wasn't only me. At one point Watson asked Wilson where he was from.

"Ffrrffrr," Stuart said.

"Where?"

"Ffrrffrr," the Scot repeated.

"How do you spell that?"

"F-O-R-F-A-R," Stuart said.

"O.K.," Watson said.

When he had the honor, Watson nearly always went to the other side of the tee box after he played, away from the caddies and the other players. You could see him taking the whole thing in: the perfect grass, the caddies dead quiet and still, the mechanical Augusta National leader boards and their long strings of precise numbers. This is only a guess--does watching a player for parts of three days give a caddie that right?--but Watson seems to want the world at a certain moral attention, everything in its place, and beyond the gates of the club that's becoming ever harder to find. Within the club he expects to find everything just so. On Thursday, when Dow Finsterwald, the 1958 PGA Championship winner who was working the tournament as a glorified marshal, was unable to tell Watson how many groups were waiting to play on the 1st tee, Watson said curtly, "You should know that."

"O.K., Tommy," Finsterwald said in a belittling voice of his own.

It was too much golf course for Stuart Wilson, the way he was playing. I had seen him play beautifully at Troon, which was hard and fast and breezy. Augusta National was long and wet, and the greens, which look so big, are actually tiny because there are so few places to land the ball. It was too much everything. Unless you have a certain innate golfing genius, as Fuzzy Zoeller does, you're not going to figure it out your first week there. Because of the rain delays, the days were long and slow.

"It seems like a long time ago you played in the Par-3 Contest," I said while we waited in a fairway on Saturday.

"It seems like a long time since I was home," Stuart said wistfully.

He shot rounds of 82 and 82, and when it was finally over, he huddled with his parents and relatives and friends and cried in the arms of his wife, Lesley.

I returned my jumpsuit to Gray Moore, the Augusta National caddie master with the rich Southern accent. Augusta National was once an indigo plantation, and the jumpsuit was once the uniform of plantation workers throughout the South. Caddies at Augusta National and elsewhere started wearing them years ago because the members didn't want to look at their raggedy mismatched clothes. I asked Andy Martinez, Tom Lehman's veteran caddie, if he'd eliminate the jumpsuits if he could. "I wouldn't," he said. "I like the tradition."

As I write this, far from Augusta, I have a clear image of the six members of our group--three players, three caddies--standing on the 18th tee late on Saturday morning waiting to play our 36th hole. The sound of a train whistle swept over the tee.

"That's such a quaint sound," Watson's man, Oxman, said quietly.

"Very Scottish," I said. In Scotland, as Ox would well know, there are often train tracks and passenger trains running alongside courses.

"Very Southern," he said.

He was correct. It was the long, mournful whistle of a freight train.

On Tuesday morning of Masters week, I had driven to the course along Broad Street through downtown Augusta, past an old black neighborhood with small houses and tin roofs. Red lights flashed, and the long, thin, wooden crossing barriers came down as a freight train chugged through, whistle blowing. I put the car in park and kept hitting the scan button, skipping past the many evangelical stations looking for music. In the exact moment I sat there, with the train rolling past my gray rent-a-car, an Augusta country station was playing the old Marshall Tucker anthem, Can't You See?

Take me Southbound,

All the way to Georgia now,

Till the train run out of track.

Last week at Augusta National, Stuart Wilson didn't make the cut, Tom Watson didn't catch lightning and get in the mix, and Jim Furyk didn't win the tournament. Only a very few people cared.

I thought I had come to Augusta to help Wilson play two rounds of golf within 10 shots of the 36-hole leader. I left realizing that this trip to the Masters was like every trip to the Masters. You come to Augusta to mark the arrival of spring, where it comes early and boldly, and when you get there, you remember the Deep South as it was. You wear a white jumpsuit or a green club coat or press-tent khakis or a Scottish pin or some other damn emblem that tells everyone the one thing you are. That world, where everybody knows their place, is just about dead. (Hallelujah!) For a week in Augusta in April, the old order rules.

A small group of caddies were solving the problems of the world and wondering how often Charles Howell says, "HOW ARE YOU?" every day.
Phil Mickelson arrived in his club coat--only the reigning champ can wear his coat off-property--wearing his charisma AS IF IT WERE COLOGNE.
TWO COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Fred VuichCADDIE MASTER Wilson (left), the British Amateur champion, shot 82 and 82 with the author (right and opposite) on the bag.THREE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Fred VuichFAMILIAR FACES Zoeller (with the author, top right) allowed Wilson (right) to hit first on every tee in practice, while Furyk's caddie, the laid-back Fluff, kept things loose in the opening rounds.THREE COLOR PHOTOSPhotographs by Fred VuichDUE DILIGENCE During Masters week a caddie's workday begins at dawn and ends at dusk. The chores include fishing balls out of the water, raking bunkers and computing yardages.