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Get Your Mouth off My Ball!
Having never caddied in my life, I needed a smallish place to start out, away from the spotlight, a podunk kind of tournament.
Naturally, I chose The Masters.
In front of thousands of people, in the greatest tournament in golf, I made my professional caddying debut, looping for 64-year-old Tommy Aaron, the 1973 champion. I think he'd tell you it went quite well, unless you count tiny, little nitpickings, such as my dropping the towel eleven times, the headcover four, the puttercover six, standing in the wrong place at the wrong time, standing in the right place at the wrong time, forgetting to give him his putter, his ball, his driver, being too close to him, being too far from him, letting the clubs clink too much as I walked, letting myself clink too much as I walked, the infamous "mouth" incident, and the awful, shameful thing that happened on No. 5 that none involved shall ever forget.
This was Friday. We were paired with "Sponge," who caddies for New Zealander Michael Campbell, and "Fanny" Sunneson, who won six majors with Nick Faldo and now is the bagwoman for Notah Begay, who hates me very much, despite the fact that I've never caddied for him.
Sponge and Fanny. Sounds like a British sex club.
I say, Nigel, didn't I see you last night at The Sponge and Fanny?
What happened was, Aaron hit a 3-iron at No. 5 into the left greenside bunker, then splashed out. I handed him his putter and then nervously set about my raking duties. The crowd was huge around that green, as they are around most Augusta greens, and nobody was ready to putt yet, so I could feel all the eyes on me. I had dropped my towel once already that day and had 500 people yell, "Caddy! Caddy! Towel!" as though I were President Bush's Secret Service agent and had dropped my gun. Caddy! Caddy! Uzi! So I knew they were watching. I raked as I have raked my own bunkers far too many times, climbed out, then placed the rake on the grass behind.
That's when I noticed Aaron staring at my rake job, then glancing at Fanny. Aaron nodded at her. She nodded back. Begay nodded. Sponge nodded back. For all I know, the huge crowd nodded. Only one of us had no idea what all the nodding was about. Suddenly, Fanny dashed over to the rake, picked it up, got back in the bunker, and did it again. Completely.
I was to suffer the ultimate caddy humiliation: Re-raked.
I was left with nothing to do but stand there and watch, humiliated. It was like a coach calling time-out in the middle of the Super Bowl and showing a quarterback how to put his hands under the center's butt.
And that's when I realized the horrible flaw in this book idea: Just because somebody "lets" you do something, doesn't mean you necessarily should go out and "do" it.
The fact that I, an absolute novice know-nothing, could get a bag and traipse my size 12s across the hallowed ground of Augusta National tells you how dangerously easy this whole idea was.
At the 2000 Masters, every past champion got a lifetime invitation, even if they were 111 years old. The rule has changed now, but then, it meant if Byron Nelson, then 89, felt like playing in next year's Masters, he could play. Naturally, since 1966, he has had the good sense not to.
Luckily, guys like 1957 champion Doug Ford (then 78) did not have good sense. He played every year until they made him stop in 2002. In the 2000 Masters, he went out there, threw a little 94 at them, and then withdrew. Meanwhile, a very good player sat home and bit his putter.
Naturally, figuring Ford was not exactly "counting" on winning and therefore might suffer an insufferable caddy and get in a book, I called him first.
"Mr. Ford," I began, "I'm doing a book on caddying and"
"Already got a caddy," Ford snapped. "Had him for 25 years."
"Sure," I said, "but I was thinking, just this once, you might allow"
May his bunions burst.
Finally, the agent for Aaron called back and said Aaron would let me caddy Wednesday only, as a tryout for the next year. Said we'd play nine holes and then the par-3 contest and that would give him an idea of exactly how horrible I was.
I started researching Aaron, who, it turns out, is famous for three things: 1) Saving the Masters from having to put up with J. C. Snead every year by beating him by one shot in 1973; 2) Writing down an incorrect par "4" instead of a birdie "3" on the 17th hole for Sunday playing partner Roberto De Vicenzo in 1968. De Vicenzo signed the card anyway, causing him to keep that one-stroke higher score, causing him to miss his rightful spot in what would've been a two-man playoff with Bob Goalby, who was then declared the winner. When told of it, De Vicenzo did not blame Aaron. Instead he said, "What a 'stupid' I am." 3) Not being Hank Aaron's brother, though people ask him all the time anyway, despite the fact that the baseball Aarons are black and this golfing Aaron is white. ("No," Tommy tells them, "I'm taller.")
He'd played in 37 Masters, won the par-3 tournament one year with a five-under 22, and had missed more cuts than a drunk surgeon. However, in 2000, Aaron became the oldest player ever to make the cut63 years, one monthwhen he shot 72-74-146, three under the cut, the first two days. Of course, he wound up dead last by five shots at 25-over, but still, on that Friday night, he was three shots better than Ollie, seven than Daly, and nine than Ben Crenshaw.
I reached him on his cellphone. "Meet me at the bag room at 7:30 sharp tomorrow morning," he said. "We'll play a practice round and then we'll play the par 3."
Having slept not at all, I was at the holy place by 7a.m., and by this I mean the Augusta caddyshack. It was a white brick building, with lockers, tables, a TV playing ESPN, and a little caddyshack grill where a huge black man cooks delicacies for the caddies, such as hamburger ($2), cheeseburger (also $2), soup (50 cents), and fries (50 cents). Of course, business was a little slow this week on account offor Masters week onlya giant cake-display case being brought in and filled with pimento-cheese sandwiches, fruit, Gatorade, pop, and candy. Now who is going to pay a whole 50 cents for soup when you can get free pimento-cheese sandwiches?
I saw Pete Bender, who carried Ian Baker-Finch at the 1993 British Openwhich tells you how good Bender isand he said that Augusta is good, but the best caddy room in the free world is the Players Championship. "Oh, man, hot breakfasts, hot lunch, big-screen TV, couches," Bender said wistfully. Here's a guy carrying Rocco Mediate and probably making $100,000 a year, and he's thrilled at the idea of being able to actually eat a meal during his 10-hour workday. The worst, he said, was Arnold Palmer's tournament, Bay Hill. "They got nothin'. Zero. Not even a room to change in."
Shame, Arnie, shame.
I put on the classic all-white painter overalls with the green Masters hat they give you (free!). It's the classiest uniform in golf, with the player's number Velcroed on the left breast (I got No. 411the defending champ's caddy always gets "1"), the Augusta logo on the right breast pocket, and the player's name on the back. Beautiful. Like a fool, I forgot to steal it when I was done.
I tried to ignore the sign that read, "Caddies are required to wear white flat-soled sneakers." All I had were black Softspiked golf shoes. This made me stand out like a bridesmaid in construction boots. Also, I found out later, on hot days, guys wear nothing but boxers underneath. There have been rumors of guys going "commando" under them, and I can only pray that: a) it isn't true and b) if it is true, I didn't get Fluff's old overalls.
They handed me a yardage book, which looked like Sanskrit. It made no sense, just numbers and swirls and acronyms. It must be how The New Yorker looks to an illiterate. I was standing there, looking like Rubik's twit brother, when Cubby, Davis Love's caddy, said, "Don't even bother, Rook, you'll never understand it."
Cubby is one of the great lads. When not caddying, he's always got the sports section in one hand and an unlit cigar in the mouth. His breakup with Brad Faxon was one of the most tragic in tour history13 years together. But that's how it is. No alimony, no keeping the china. Just like that, everybody notices you're not lugging the old bag with you everywhere you go.
Cubby and Faxon used to be quite a pair. They had a language all their own. For yardages, for instance, Cubby would say, "OK, you got 123 plus Elway, and a little Reagan." Which meant, "You have 123 yards to the front of the green, plus another seven yards (Elway's jersey number) to the flagstick, with the wind throwing your ball a little to the right (Reagan's politics)." Or Cubby would say, "You got 214 (yards to the front) plus Michael (Jordan, which is 23 yards), and a little Clinton (wind going left)." What, you don't speak fluent Cubby?
Cubby has a jersey number for every conceivable yardage, but I always thought there were more they didn't use. For instance, what about: "You got 134 plus Hal (four, for the number of Hal Sutton's wives)," or "You got 189 plus O. J. (Simpson's two murders)," or "It's 201 plus Anna (Kournikova, a perfect 10)."
The yardages in the book were from every conceivable place you could think ofsprinkler heads, bushes, benches. You half expected to see distances marked to Martha Burk's offices written in. But there were also strange numbers way to the sides of the hole drawings accompanied by strange letterslike ICYFU: 219. And ICYRFU: 174. Cubby explained it to me. "ICYFU means 'In Case You Fuck Up.' And ICYRFU means 'In Case You Really Fuck Up.' "
Then somebody came up to him and said, "Cubby, did you get those bad numbers on 11?"
"What bad numbers?" Cubby said.
And the guy said, "Where it says 64 and 56, it's really 60 and 51." I made a secretive note of it in my book, which Cubby slyly noticed. Then Cubby said to the guy, "And did you get the one on 16? It's 144 from the front tee there, not 164." And his buddy goes, "Yeah, I got it. But did you get the one on 18? That first bush isn't there anymore, so that 128 is really 182." And I'm flipping frantically through the pages, trying to find the stupid 16th hole when I hear them both suddenly break up into hysterics. Great fun to con The Rook.
As God is my witness, I will get them someday.
I jammed the yardage book in the overall pockets, plus some sandwiches and apples, plus I had my wallet in there, my notepad, four pens, and a cellphone, which I forgot to leave in the car and is strictly forbidden at Augusta. I walked out of there looking like a man shoplifting porcupines.
I checked my watch. It was 7:29. I started sprinting for the bag room. Then I was reminded of one of Augusta's big rules: No running. I sprint-walked. People suddenly started parting seas for me. People jabbed each other. I was wondering what was going on when I heard: "There's Aaron's caddy." The overalls were, it turns out, a big deal. I was Augusta royalty. I was wearing the white, the green, the logo. I was the real deal. You know, if a guy were single . . .
I made it by 7:30. Luckily, Aaron wasn't there yet.
And he wasn't there by 7:45 either. Or 8. Or 8:30, 9, or 9:30.
"Welcome to the Pro Gap," Joe LaCava, caddy for Fred Couples, told me.
"What's the Pro Gap?" I asked.
"The difference between when the pro says he'll meet you and when he actually shows up."
Of course, caddies accept the Pro Gap as part of caddy life. But, as they pointed out, let "you" be late and you're as fired as Anna Nicole Smith's dietician.
Still, it was sort of caddy Star Wars outside that bag room. Fluff was there (for Jim Furyk). LaCava was there. Jim Mackay, the world-renowned "Bones," my personal caddy hero who had hauled Phil Mickelson for 10 years by then. And, of course, the Joe Namath of caddies, Bruce Edwards, Tom Watson's longtime Sancho Panza. Edwards happened to be the person Tom Watson told, "I'm going to chip this in," on the 17th hole at Pebble Beach at the 1982 U.S. Open, which he did, to beat J. W. Nicklaus himself.
Finally, at 11:30, four hours late, Aaron showed up. He was much taller than I thought he'd be. Maybe 6-1, still slender, elegantly dressed, curly gray hair, glasses, and a visor.
"I'm just going to go into the Champion's Room (the locker room at Augusta reserved for past champions) and then we'll go. Meet me on the range in, what, 45 minutes?"
"Sure," I said, cheerfully. Sure! What's another 45 minutes!?! No problem! Perhaps I'll knit another sweater!
The bag was simple and blue, with no sponsor on it, and heavier than Meatloaf. What's this guy got in there, anvils? I remembered the time British golf writer Bill Elliott spent a day caddying for Faldo for a story. Elliott struggled under its weight all day, until he discovered, afterward, that Faldo had snuck a brick and three dozen extra balls into the bottom of the bag for a laugh. There is nobody that will crack you up like that madcap Nick Faldo.
I made my way past the ropes, into forbidden territorythe rangethe place where no writer is allowed to go at the Masters, nor fan, nor photographer. Self-conscious and thrilled, I tried to think of what to do so as not to appear self-conscious and thrilled. So, naturally, I decided to eat.
I sat on the bench and pulled a pimento-cheese sandwich out, and an apple and a Gatorade. I was about to take my first bite when I noticed, for the first time, approximately 1,000 people watching me. The bleachers behind the range were full of fans and, at that moment, nobody was actually hitting balls, so they were watching me. I tried not to spill.