Dermot Gilleece: Caddies are carrying new burden
Back in the 1970s, there was the suspicion that American sport’s obsession with the equality of the sexes had more to do with money than altruism. Either way, golf’s answer to the infamous challenge between Billy Jean King and Bobby Riggs was a 1975 match pitching Jane Blalock against reigning US Open champion Hale Irwin.
Years later, Blalock’s memory of the California encounter had to do with the identity of her caddie, rather than the anticlimactic result, which was a tie. “Not only was he familiar with the course, but this really adorable guy with those Irish eyes of his made me the envy of all the players,” she told me.
The caddie was 18-year-old Mark O’Meara, who joined her again for the Dinah Shore Classic. “I came in third and Mark got a nice cheque, which helped a lot in his college plans,” added Blalock, who was the first LPGA player to win more than $100,000 in four successive seasons.
This was fairly typical of caddying 40 years ago. A gifted young player would dabble at bag-carrying as a stepping stone to a more lucrative life competing on tour.
Things are very different these days. Rather than seasoned campaigners who learned the craft as teenagers, established caddies are now more likely to have been talented players in their own right, though not quite good enough to trade shots with the best.
“These are interesting times to be a caddie,” said Holywood’s John McClure, who is completing only his second year in the job, at the mature age of 42.
“Some of the older guys who’ve been doing it for many years are departing the scene for various reasons, perhaps having discovered that their perceived talents are no longer relevant.
“The quality of modern yardage books is so good that the notion of building your own one [as fellow Northerner Dave McNeilly famously did] has effectively gone out the window. Increasingly, the job has become more about the psychology of understanding golf. And to be brutally honest, a lot of the older caddies were never serious golfers; they had always been caddies.”
This year has been something of a watershed for the caddying craft. Tragically, there was the death last February of Dave Renwick, at 62. Then, three months later, came the shock of the Madeira Island Open in which Zimbabwe’s Ian MacGregor collapsed and died while caddying for Alastair Forsyth.
Then came the splitting of two celebrated partnerships. Jim ‘Bones’ Mackay achieved a reported net worth of $5m during 25 years as Phil Mickelson’s bagman, and after being by Rory McIlroy’s side for four Major triumphs and a tenure as world number one, one imagines that JP Fitzgerald was also tolerably comfortable when they, too, split last summer.
Alongside these events, Portrush native Ricky Elliott was Brooks Koepka’s caddie for a US Open triumph at Erin Hills, and Derry’s David Jones guided Sung Hyun Park to a $900,000 victory in the US Women’s Open at Trump National in New Jersey. Prompting us to question the special qualities of Northern bagmen.
“I think the Northern Irish negative mentality maybe helps,” was McClure’s sharp reply. “In this job you don’t want to be losing the run of yourself, which is something the Northern Irish, with the possible exception of George Best, can’t be accused of.”
He saw special appeal, however, in the outburst that Bray caddie Brian Byrne directed at the notoriously childish Dutchman Maarten Lafeber.
“Only someone with Brian’s experience on tour could have told him to shut the hell up and behave like a man,” said McClure. “You won’t get that from a 20-year-old. Caddying is a very complicated business.”
From my experience of the tournament scene, a healthy dollop of cynicism would not be considered a handicap. A far more productive asset for McClure, however, is likely to be the solid grounding in reality he gained from a severe disappointment in his own playing ambitions.
His belated arrival in the caddieshack has to do largely with an unfortunate accident back in Holywood in September 1999, after a season as a professional on South Africa’s Sunshine Tour. While changing the grip of a club, the knife slipped and severed a tendon in a finger of his right hand.
A year of fruitless surgery followed and he ended up working as an economist, having settled down in Oxford with his wife, Alison. He later found himself back in the golfing fold, however, largely through a chance meeting with a Scottish amateur, Michael Miller, in a New York bar in 2013. Gradually, the seductive appeal of caddying on tour, culminated in a tidy jackpot of €30,000 as his percentage of Julian Suri’s victory in the Made in Denmark tournament last August.
Explaining their split less than a month later, he said: “Nothing really went wrong. We got on OK on a personal level but it’s a relationship-based business and we tended to have problems regarding how I would express myself on the golf course.
“When my friends ask me who are the best caddies out there, my answer is ‘who are the best husbands you know?’ It’s not something you tend to think about but there are good partnerships and bad partnerships. Caddie and player get on or they don’t.
“If I’m honest, I had no more than an adequate week as caddie in Denmark. Suri was playing so well he could have won with a dog on the bag.”
McClure’s latest employer is 25-year-old Frenchman Clement Sordet, a recent Challenge Tour graduate. And the signs are decidedly positive given Sordet’s third round 64 yesterday in the Hong Kong Open at the end of “a make or break year” for the Northerner.
Looking towards 2018, you suspect that the greatest challenge for this graduate of Stirling University could be keeping a rein on his own intelligence. Clear forthright views include a firm belief that success in tournament golf is more a matter of managing your way around a course than superior ball striking.
“It’s extraordinary to me that there’s still a huge industry based on amateurs’ desires to strike the ball better,” he said. “By comparison, there seems to be very little focus on better decision-making in the crucial area of course management.”
He concluded: “That, after all, is essentially what made Jack Nicklaus the great champion he was.”
Through changed times, caddies are still confronted by a potentially disturbing fact. It is 19 years this month since a role-reversal last saw a leading player being given his marching orders. That was in 1998 when, after 10 lucrative years on Nick Faldo’s bag, Fanny Sunesson decided she had enough. So she fired him.
Because of her high profile in the game, Sergio Garcia felt obliged to employ her. Which he did, only for an ill-fated partnership to break up four months later. On which basis, the survival prospects of a husband and wife remain very much healthier.