Golf Caddies: A Tradition Nearly Forgotten

FRIDAY, NOV. 28, 1997

In the middle of your next 6-hour round, try thinking about this: The game was never meant to be played on manicured courses by people riding in electric carts, swinging woods made from titanium and gauging distances with the help of lasers.

That’s why it’s worth remembering that the soul of golf still resides in Scotland. And now, thanks to the caddie manager at St. Andrews, we’re reminded that more than a few of its skeletons reside there, too.

“Some people worried my telling these stories would embarrass the entire profession. Others worried I’d clothe what was.

“Neither,” author Richard Mackenzie explained, “was my intention. I set out to profile the craftiest and most notorious caddies in St. Andrews history. But without the humor it wouldn’t have been complete. The humor, I hope, makes the book as much a celebration as a history.”

Indeed it does.

“A Wee Nip at the 19th Hole” ($18.95; from Sleeping Bear Press), is an evocative look at the role that caddies - in all their fullness - played in shaping the centuries-old game. From their ranks at St. Andrews, sprung golf’s first professionals, its earliest greenskeepers and its original ball and club manufacturers.

The book derives its title from a late 19th Century newspaper clipping Mackenzie stumbled upon during his research. It described the caddies congregating each morning on a street corner in St. Andrews hoping to pick up a bag: “… blue with the cold of bleak midwinter or bronze-like with the very strong heat of midsummer .. and if business was slow, a wee nip at the 19th hole would always warm the inner man.”

If polled today, the only caddie most Americans could identify is Mike “Fluff” Cowan, the chain-smoking, shaggy-haired, aging hippie who totes Tiger Woods’ bag. Cowan’s quirky personality, his considerable reputation and especially his hostility to change - “I believe in the ‘60s,” he says, “not the ‘90s.” - places him squarely in the tradition of the St. Andrews caddie, although none of his predecessors would dare dream of having his six-figure income.

They were men from hard scrabble backgrounds whose nicknames occasionally suggested just how tough or inventive they had to be to survive.

Willie Johnson, for instance, became known as “Trap Door,” because he pretended one leg was shorter than the other and had a special boot made with a hollow sole. In it, he hid “lost” golf balls, which he later sold back to his clients.

“Most of these men lived hand-to-mouth and yet, they still had a remarkable sense of decency about them,” Mackenzie said. “They also had a sense of craft that was handed down from father to son.

“That’s what separates them from someone who just carries clubs. They employ knowledge of wind, ground, of how conditions affect what route to take, of how you hit the ball … and they take you around St. Andrews like a guide instead of some beast of burden.

“And the best of them, we like to say around here, not only give you the club for every shot, but the name of the pub to drink in afterward.”

For all his love of the lore of golf, Mackenzie, a Scot, grew up as a soccer player on the opposite coast from St. Andrews. He got his start in Australia, when he and a brother were watching a tournament in Sydney. At the seventh hole, one of the golfers fired his caddie on the spot and turned to the gallery for a volunteer. Mackenzie’s friends pushed him forward. He spent the next 20 years toting bags in Asia and Europe, gradually making his way to St. Andrews.

“I love the democracy of the game here,” Mackenzie said.

So should we all.

Over there, players get around a course in three hours. And they don’t rely on carts, rangefinders or clubs and balls made from space-age materials to do it. Mostly, they rely on a good caddie.

Americans used to. Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson and Sam Snead, three of the finest golfers America has produced, all learned to play the game in caddie yards, with whatever balls and clubs they could find.

But the caddie ranks in this country are thinned every year as gas-powered or electric carts replace bag carriers at more and more courses. As Mackenzie’s book reminds us, it may be progress, but it’s not a development we should necessarily cheer.

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