Thursday 22 August 2019

Paul Kimmage: 'How much sh*t should a man have to endure for simply doing his job?'

Matt Wallace hits a shot on the second day of the Irish Open at Lahinch. Photo: Reuters/Peter Cziborra
Matt Wallace hits a shot on the second day of the Irish Open at Lahinch. Photo: Reuters/Peter Cziborra
Paul Kimmage

Paul Kimmage

More than two decades have passed since The Shawshank Redemption hit the silver screen, but it continued to resonate at the Irish Open in Lahinch. There was the smile from Graeme McDowell ­- "Shawshank" - on Friday when a man wearing a 'Get Busy Living' cap entered his orbit on the practice green.

"Yeah, right, that's the way it is - it's down there and I'm in here. I guess it comes down to a simple choice really . . . Get busy living or get busy dying."

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There was the moment during the pro-am on Wednesday when Darren Clarke - remember him? - marched onto the 10th tee and was greeted by Seamus McEnery who had stood at the same spot with his father as a six-year-old, when Clarke had won the 'South' in 1990.

"You know what the Mexicans say about the Pacific? It has no memory. That's where I want to live the rest of my life . . . a warm place with no memory."

And there was that moment on Tuesday, and the whispers on the range, when Dave McNeilly clocked-in for another week at the office, lugging his employer's golf bag.

"Andy crawled to freedom through five hundred yards of shit-smelling foulness I can't even imagine - or maybe I don't want to. Five hundred yards . . . that's the length of five football fields; just short of half-mile."

Yeah, let's start with that; let's start with the sewage pipe and the crawl and the whispers about McNeilly and the question that made people run this week about an unspeakable truth in golf: How much shit should a man have to endure for simply doing his job?

At 67, McNeilly is the oldest, most-loved and unluckiest bagman on Tour and often jokes about the ones that got away: the three years he spent with Nick Faldo before the Englishman's triumph at Muirfield; the six years he spent with Nick Price before the Zimbabwean's triumph at Turnberry; the five years he spent with Pádraig Harrington before the Dubliner's win at Carnoustie; the offer he declined from John Daly a week before the American's triumph at St Andrews.

"There's a book I'm planning to write," he laughs. "How I caddied for the winners of 14 Majors . . . none of the them with me!"

We were sitting in the caddies' lounge at Carnoustie last year on the eve of the Open. He had survived cancer and a succession of ordinary bags but had found a great player and was imbued with hope that his life-long ambition would finally be achieved.

This kid was going to win a Major.

Matt Wallace is 29 and hails from Hillingdon in London. His father, Steve, played rugby for Wasps. His mother, Niki, was an international hockey player. Wallace played cricket for Middlesex as a kid and enjoyed hockey and rugby but had a temperament more suited to individual sports.

In a just-published book, Mind Game: The Secrets of Golf's Winners, he told Michael Calvin it was his blessing, and his curse: "I love winning so much that it has lost me friends over the years, especially at school. We argued, because they didn't understand why I wanted to win so badly.

"Everyone was: 'Why are you so serious about it?' They didn't get it, because they didn't care really. They knew their path was different. I knew what I wanted and, to be honest, that was unhealthy for a time. I just hated losing."

He left school at 18, took a job in a clothing store, and accepted a golf scholarship to Jacksonville State University in Alabama. He returned home and made the England amateur team, then set his sights on the pros.

He was the 1,156th-ranked player in the world at the start of 2016 but secured a sponsor - Elite Metal Craft - for 10 grand that enabled him to play on the Alps Tour where he won five times in five consecutive starts. A year later, he won the Portuguese Open in his third start on the Challenge Tour in May and qualified to play with the big boys.

Two months later, in July 2017, he had missed four cuts and made just 30 grand when he hired McNeilly. They missed two cuts, finished sixth in Denmark and were up-and-running by the Alfred Dunhill Links Championship in October where their amateur partner was the journalist, David Walsh.

"This guy has incredible potential," McNeilly told Walsh. "He's going to be very good."

And over the next 12 months the kid delivered: three wins, €1.6m in prize money, 44th in the World rankings, and a just-missed selection for the Ryder Cup. But there was also some baggage: swearing, petulance, club-slamming. And this year it's got worse.

In May, he banged his putter on the 18th green at Hillside after a missed putt that could have given him the British Masters title. A month later, he was captured tossing his putter at the US Open: "I'm sorry, but I just don't enjoy watching that," the Sky Sports analyst, Rich Beem, observed. "I know you're intense but get over yourself."

Pros swearing and tossing clubs is as old as the sport itself but what has set Wallace apart is the abuse he's showered on McNeilly.

Here's a caddie who played with them two years ago: "It was the first time I'd played with Wallace. We had gone about six holes and I said to Dave: 'This guy's a dick'."

Here's a former pro who watched them in Vilamoura last year at the Portuguese Masters: "There was a big crowd gathered between the 13th and 14th. They were walking towards the tee and Wallace shouted - not for Dave's benefit but for the benefit of the crowd: 'You're the worst f****** caddie out here.'"

Here's another former player: "Fining him will do nothing. They need to ban him for three months but they won't because they're afraid he'll go to the US."

Here's another caddie: "I wouldn't last five minutes with him. I understand that (players) have to vent their anger, and I'm willing to take some stuff, but if they call me the 'C' word or start swearing they get one warning: 'Do that again and I'm gone.'"

And another caddie: "It's happened forever. And the reason it's happened forever is that caddies are afraid of losing their jobs. It shouldn't happen. It doesn't happen in any other profession but he's the number one player in Europe at the moment. Do you really think they're going to discipline him?"

And another caddie: "No comment. I said what I had to say to (Wallace) two weeks ago."

The European number one is not the first player to abuse a caddie.

In the old days, you could stub a fag on your bagman's hand, pinch him in the gut or throw him a dig and no one would ever hear of it.

But there's a camera everywhere these days and two weeks ago, when Wallace unloaded on McNeilly during the final round of the BMW International in Munich, he was raked by fans on social media.

Lee Cosgrove: "Matt Wallace wants a f****** good hiding. I don't care who they are, if he spoke to me like that he'd be carrying his own bag. If not tasting a 7 iron."

Robert Gardiner: "At what point do the European Tour take a look at Matt Wallace and his on-course behaviour? Disgusting treatment of his caddie."

Yesterday, we asked the European Tour about their stance on bullying in the workplace and they referred us to a paragraph from their Code of Conduct ("We will not tolerate etcetera, etcetera") but stressed that this concerned only European Tour Staff. "As our players and caddies are independent contractors and not European Tour staff, this does not relate to them directly."

We put the same question to the European Tour Caddies Association: "The ETCA believes that all its members are entitled to work in an environment free from discrimination or intimidation in any form. The ETCA has been in contact with the European Tour subsequent to the final round of the BMW International, and believes the matter has been dealt with effectively by them."

On Wednesday, Wallace gave an interview to the golf correspondent, Phil Casey, and sounded contrite: "I spoke to Dave straight after we finished on 18 . . . I said 'let's not let this affect us going forward' because he wasn't happy with how he performed as well, so I said 'let's move on from this, are we good'? And he was, like, 'absolutely'. So we hugged it out and moved on.

"The two times I've been in with a chance to win tournaments I've reverted back to how I used to win tournaments and that was to be intense, pretty much too much over the top. I used to do that on my own whereas now I've got a caddie and stupidly I've probably blamed him where I need to take full responsibility for what I did there - and I know that.

"It's something I am working on. I'm not proud of how I dealt with that situation and I have definitely addressed it and moved on."

McNeilly concurred: "People forget that three years ago he was playing on the Alps Tour! He's having to learn. He has to learn to face the pain and find a new way of doing it. I caddy to have fun, and I caddy to win Majors, and if we can push through this we're going to be stronger. I think what's happened, and the blowback he's got from this, will be a good thing."

It's Friday afternoon. They're standing on the 18th tee at Lahinch with Jon Rahm and Louis Oosthuizen. Wallace has the honour and is mulling over the club he intends to hit.

"Driver?"

"I don't mind a three (wood)," McNeilly, replies, "it's just personal preference."

He pulls a driver, rips it down the fairway, and steps to the back of the tee to watch Rahm.

A spectator is trying to take a picture with her phone from the crowd gathered behind the hoarding. Wallace reaches for the phone, takes the picture of Rahm and throws in a selfie before handing it back. He is charm personified, has behaved impeccably for two days and is playing brilliant golf.

Let's hope it lasts.

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