Sport Golf

Wednesday 21 February 2018

Nothing to carry now but the memory of glorious yesterdays

Dermot Gilleece on an emotional reunion between caddie and champion at St Andrews last week

Legendary golfing partners looked out on the famous 17th hole which was becoming more sodden by the minute. Lee Trevino kept insisting he was prepared to brave the elements, but his one-time caddie, Willie Aitchison, was especially grateful the Champions Challenge had been cancelled.

It meant he could spend Wednesday afternoon at St Andrews mulling over old times with a man who was both employer and close friend during their 27 years together. And with the heavens chucking it down outside, the comfort of Trevino's suite in the Old Course Hotel was all the more appealing. Particularly over a pot of tea.

The celebrated venue, which would hail a new beginning with the victory of Louis Oosthuizen four days later, has been more accustomed to endings in recent times. As in the swansong of Arnold Palmer in 1995; of Jack Nicklaus in 2000 and the Bear's encore curtain-call in 2005. And of Tom Watson's goodbye on this occasion. Yet there was something deeply poignant about a caddie's farewell.

Now in his 80s, Aitchison had also hoped to meet Roberto De Vicenzo, for whom he caddied in 1967 at Hoylake, where the Argentinian became the oldest winner of the Open Championship. But he couldn't be too selfish. A few hours with Trevino was way beyond his expectations while being driven from his home in Glasgow that morning by his son, Willie Jnr.

This was their first meeting since 2000 and both men suspected it might be their last. And as respective eyes assessed the physical impact of the intervening years, there was a conscious effort not to allow emotions to take over. As the caddie reflected later, it would have been so easy to dissolve into tears.

Instead, they talked quietly about their yesterdays; about the triumphs, disappointments and, most of all, the fun they had. They recalled their first St Andrews Open in 1970, when Trevino led after 54 holes and then witnessed playing partner, Doug Sanders, ruinously push a championship winning putt of less than three feet past the hole on the 72nd.

Then there was the joy of Trevino's successive triumphs at Birkdale in 1971 and at Muirfield a year later. Glorious times when both men were at the peak of their formidable powers. Finally, their Open swansong came in 2000 when Trevino, with Aitchison by his side for the last time, bade a competitive farewell to the Auld Grey Toon with rounds of 80 and 77.

The Champions Challenge was actually inaugurated on that occasion when the caddie also renewed acquaintance with De Vicenzo. He had hoped to do so again when the Open returned to Hoylake in 2006, but the Argentinian declined the Royal and Ancient's invitation to make the trip because of failing health.

"When Lee and I settled down for a chat in his suite on Wednesday, his first concern was whether I was all right about him having his son, Daniel, caddie for him on this occasion," said Aitchison. "Of course I didn't mind. It would have been pure joy for me, simply walking the four holes with them."

With no attempt to hide an inner glow, he went on: "I'm now the oldest of the old-time caddies: the last survivor. I caddied for (Sam) Snead and (Gary) Player. And I caddied for (Tom) Watson in the Irish Open at Woodbrook in 1975, after he and his regular man, Alfie Fyles, had a bit of a falling-out over money.

"Since I started in the British Amateur at St Andrews in 1951, caddying has been my life. There was no accommodation locally for caddies at that time and I slept in a greenkeeper's hut behind the 15th tee, where the toilets are now.

"And even after all the years, there can still be great moments. Like what happened to me at Royal Portrush when I was there with some friends a few years ago. When the local caddies recognised me they did me the honour of doffing their caps, which was a very humbling experience.

"I feel very privileged that my friendship with Lee has lasted 40 years. I told him how my children used to be terrified of stepping out of line, for fear I'd report them to him. They looked on him as a sort of god.

"In the hotel last Wednesday, my son and two grandsons were present at the start, having photographs taken. But after a few minutes, they left the two of us together. I was wondering how I was going to handle it but once we started talking, I was fine. Mind you, I don't know if I could have contained myself if we had walked up the 18th together.

"That green has wonderful memories for me. Back in 2000, the R and A gave special permission for my wife and family to join me on the 18th with Lee. And the sight of them all prompted him to remark: 'Willie, I've all the money I'll ever need, but you're the luckiest man in the world to have your family around you like this. I envy you'."

Willie's wife died in 2002, leaving him on his own in a maisonette in Cumlodden Drive on the north side of Glasgow. "I've been in this street for 78 years and Aitchisons lived here for another 25 before that," he said with a directness which must have given him priceless clarity while among the top-flight of tour caddies. And he is immensely proud of his son and six daughters.

All too soon, three hours had slipped by and it was time for old friends to part. When they embraced, emotions remained in check. Then, as Aitchison headed for the lobby, his thoughts again drifted towards Roberto.

Suddenly, as if pre-ordained from on high, the 88-year-old Argentinian and his caddie of 1967 were walking towards each other. "He seemed as surprised as I was, but we instinctively gave each other a big hug," said Aitchison. "For years, I had imagined how our reunion might be, if we were to meet again. When it happened, we were so taken aback that we really didn't know how to react.

"We were together no more than a few minutes. In that time, however, I had a flashback to the scene on the 18th at Hoylake all those years ago. I remembered Roberto hitting a fine three-wood tee shot down the middle of the fairway and then turning to me with his face covered in tears. 'Willie,' he said, 'I can't see the green. Give me a club that will get me there for two putts'.

"Which I did; an eight iron. And we walked the rest of the way to the green while everybody in the stands rose to acclaim the new champion. 'Viva Roberto!' they cheered. 'Viva Roberto!' By that stage there wasn't a dry eye to be seen. And for Roberto and me, there would never be another moment quite like it."

Later on Wednesday evening, in the quiet of his Glasgow home, the emotion of an extraordinary day could be contained no longer. "I had a wee sob in private, thinking I'll probably never see them again," he said. "I suppose it's natural to have those thoughts when you get to my age."

Much has changed in golf since Aitchison was at the peak of his craft. Money was modest, yet there was the satisfaction of working with some of the top men of their day, players who expected a caddie to be an on-course psychologist as well as an astute decision-maker.

Great players like Trevino and De Vicenzo trusted Willie Aitchison to pull the club which could win a major championship. Job satisfaction can hardly come much better than that.

Sunday Independent

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