Mackay had just gotten a life-altering break, and now all these years later Lefty feels the same way. "You never know how that's going to turn out," Mickelson says. "I got very lucky to meet him."
Working for Mickelson may not be as easy as Mackay lets on. In the beginning, Bones took advice from more seasoned caddies like Joe LaCava, who works for Fred Couples, but Bones ultimately would develop his own style.
"Different players need different things," says Wood, Mahan's caddie. "Phil can process a lot of information, and Jim understands that. Phil wants all that and needs all that, and Jim is able to communicate it to him in a concise way.
"People make jokes about the [complex] conversations they have that end up on the air," Wood continues. "But Phil is able to process it in a way that doesn't handcuff him mentally. There's wind, and conditions on the greens, and Phil probably has more shots than most guys out here. Bones is able to categorize the shot and figure out which one is going to be the absolute best one to play."
Mickelson goes further: "It's the little things that Bones does. Take the International in Colorado. Because it was so difficult to pull clubs at that altitude, he used to document not only every shot I hit, but also the distance it went, the temperature, what time of day it was, and what the wind was doing, until we got it figured out." Mickelson would win the tournament twice.
"A lot of holes on Tour don't play to the number," he adds. "Like No. 16 at Augusta plays eight yards shorter than what you think from the book, and that always threw us off. But with Bones charting everything, we've adjusted. Again, he looks at so many variables, and seemingly little things can make a difference with three holes to go in a major."
Mackay says he goes into the huddle with Mickelson with a good idea how things will turn out. Phil will not always go with his first instinct — Mackay gets one veto per year — but he is one of the most aggressive players on Tour, requiring Mackay to know when to assert himself and when to back away and hope for the best. The most famous of these conversations took place on the par-5 13th hole at Augusta during the Masters last April, before Lefty rifled a risky 6-iron between two pines.
It was vintage Mickelson, the kind of all-or-nothing gamble that he finds irresistable, but that can also backfire. On the verge of winning the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, Mickelson blasted a driver into the trees on the 72nd hole, tried to escape with a daring second shot, and wound up with a double-bogey 6. "I am such an idiot," he said afterward. Bones has no regrets about the episode. If given a do-over, he says, he would not counsel his boss any differently.
Mackay says he would, however, like to replay the closing moments of the 1999 U.S. Open at Pinehurst. On the 17th green, Bones thought Phil's birdie putt was straight. It broke right. Mickelson missed, and lost to Payne Stewart by one.
If finally winning the U.S. Open is atop Mickelson's to-do list, it's hard to imagine what's No. 2. He has little to prove, and he revealed last summer that he has been diagnosed with a form of arthritis that could limit his production. The news came just more than a year after Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer. "Jim's been almost more of a friend the last year and a half," Phil says. "I'll never forget how good he and Jen have been to us."
Says Mackay: "I'm going to work for Phil as long as he wants to have me around. I love to caddie and I plan on caddying a while longer. It's what I do. It's how you pay the bills, right?"
For now, yeah — but can he see Mickelson playing the senior circuit? Mackay pauses for several beats before answering.
"I can see him sitting in the owner's box at a Chargers game," he says. "You know what I mean? I'm not sure I can see him playing the senior tour, no. I see him doing other things. He's a very curious person. As his kids get toward college I can see him doing a lot of traveling with Amy and seeing the sights."
Maybe then Mackay will allow himself to do the same.