Augusta, Ga., April 4 Don't let him win.
That, in a four-word nutshell, was the most common advice I heard each time I shared my exciting news: I was going to caddie at Wednesday's par-3 tournament for John Rollins, who is playing in his third Masters this week. Part of Augusta National's lore is the fact that no player has ever won the par-3 tournament and the Masters in the same week. I insisted to John right before we teed off that he ignore the ghosts and do his best to win the par-3, but one of his playing partners, Lucas Glover, wasn't having it.
"If I'm 6-under on the ninth tee," Glover promised, "I'm hittin' it in the soup."
The par-3 tournament and the lore that comes with it is a wonderful part of this tradition unlike any other. I had gotten to know Rollins pretty well while covering golf over the years. About a year ago, he promised me that if he qualified for the Masters he'd let me caddie at the par-3 tournament. I actually expected he'd change his mind, but once he qualified, he called me and said, "Get ready to get that white jumpsuit on." He also told me he'd make me read every putt, and he'd hit the ball where I told him. So you could tell he was set on tanking it.
After I met up with John at the driving range Wednesday afternoon, his regular caddie, Dave Rawls, took me to the caddie's locker room so I could get my jumpsuit. The attendants there took my press badge as collateral, then gave me a suit replete with name tag and uniform number (9). They promised me I didn't need my credential to get around the grounds. "That suit is the only credential you'll need," they said.
There are two things about those jumpsuits you'd never know unless you put one on. The first is that they're made of heavy material that must be scorching on a hot day. The second is that they have one pocket on each side, plus a second pocket with no bottom to it. Why no bottom? So you can reach into the pockets of your real pants underneath. That, my friends, is genius.
John and I met by the chipping green so he could practice a little. Then we went to the first tee. It just so happened that the group in front of us included three golfers you may have heard of Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. You want to feel invisible? Walk an autograph gauntlet at Augusta National with Jack Nicklaus in front of you and Arnold Palmer behind. I could have been buck naked with an American flag painted on my chest, and nobody would have noticed.
About 15 minutes later, right after I posed for a picture with Palmer that will no doubt grace my office wall for the next 50 years, I stood right next to the tee box and watched the legendary threesome tee off. After Arnie fanned his tee shot well right, Nicklaus said, "Take a mulligan." He turned to the officials behind the tee box and said, "He can have one, can't he?" Palmer laughed, teed up a second ball and said, "This one's official." He popped it onto the front fringe.
As our group was about to tee off, I pulled Glover's caddie aside (like me, he was only a buddy filling in for Lucas's fulltime looper) and, unbeknownst to the players, we made a friendly wager: $20, straight match play, your man versus my man. So I watched with especially keen interest as Rollins fired his opening tee shot straight and true, landing five feet below the hole and then spinning down the slope. John two-putted for a three, but his tee shot on the 2nd landed on the back of the green and bounced over. Walking down the fairway he said loud enough for the gallery to hear, "What's up with that, caddie? You misclubbed me." The fans chuckled at my expense.
When we got to the 3rd green, John said, "Let's go. This is your first read. Time to get serious." I checked the line and told him that I thought it was about a ball-and-a-half on the right. After he missed it on the right side, I asked him how the line was. "Not bad," Rollins replied. "I shoved it. If you had a better player, it would've been all right."
That was a generous answer, but there aren't too many better players on Tour right now than John Rollins, who was the runner-up at the Bob Hope and the FBR Open and is currently fifth on the money list. His talent, especially with an iron in his hands, has always been apparent, but he is approaching the game with much more seriousness and commitment. I remember when I first met Rollins six years ago (he's 31 now). I asked him if he ever worked with a personal trainer. He scoffed and said no. I also remember his laissez-faire attitude during practice rounds. It was not uncommon for him to walk fairways on those days while talking on his cell phone. Now, he's working with a trainer and a sports psychologist, and he is taking a much more professional approach for his practice rounds.
"I've just learned how to prepare better," he said. "I'm getting more work done on Tuesday and Wednesday. Before, I was just going through the motions." Not for nothing is Rollins a popular press-room sleeper pick to win this week.
But first, he had to lose the par-3 tournament, and with me on his bag that wasn't hard to do. I was only carrying a small bag with a few clubs, but I enjoyed the small duties I needed to perform. I loved pulling the pin, cleaning his grooves and catching his ball as he flipped it to me so I could clean it with a wet towel. "I've always dreamed of washing your balls," I told him.
And I must say, I wasn't too bad at reading the greens. On the fourth, I read one putt from behind the hole while he lined it up from behind the ball. We both pointed in different directions on the break, and it turned out I was right. On the next green, I looked at his 8-foot birdie putt from one side and told him it was a slight right-to-left break. Then I looked from behind the ball and saw slight left to right. I laughed and said I had no idea so he might as well split the difference. After he drained the putt, I asked John how it broke. "Dead straight," he said. "I split the difference."
Mostly, I savored every shot, every hole, every spectacular view. The vista from the seventh tee was my favorite straight down the hill over the pond, with the National's cabins sitting majestically behind the tee box. (I'd never seen those cabins from behind. They're a lot bigger than they look from the front and have huge decks overlooking the par-3 course.) Even John sounded awed as he turned to me while we were walking off the fifth green and said, "How great is this place?"
The round was indeed a pleasure, but as we stood on the 9th tee there was a very serious piece of business at hand. Rollins and Glover were all square. Glover's caddie and I had been chirping all round about our little bet, so you can imagine the drama and tension that unfolded as our players each faced par putts on the final green and handed us their putters. Allowing the caddies to putt out is another part of the par-3 tradition. This was my one and only chance to grab a piece of that lore.
John's par putt was about eight feet uphill. "Hit it straight and firm," he said. My only thought was to hit it quickly. The last thing I wanted to do was think about this thing for a while. So I took one practice stroke and stepped up to the ball, whereupon I lost all feeling in my arms and legs. Then I hit it. At first, I thought I didn't hit it hard enough, but I did feel like it was on line. I looked up and, just as the ball was dropping into the jar, I pumped my right fist in Tiger fashion. John looked almost as shocked as I was. When the other caddie's turn came, he barely missed on the right edge. Best 20 bucks I ever made.
Rollins's final score of 1 under par was not enough to win the par-3 tournament, so his status as everyone's sleeper remains secure. We put his clubs back in his regular bag and I thanked him for the experience, but I wasn't quite ready to return my white jumpsuit just yet. So I hung out for about an hour next to the old oak tree, hoping that every single person I knew would see me and ask why I was wearing a white jumpsuit, which would enable me to regale them with tales of my putt on No. 9. (By next week, I'll be describing it as a double breaker from 40 feet for birdie.)
The last thing I did before returning the jumpsuit was buy a lemonade at the stand next to the clubhouse, plop down in a chair and sip my icy, sweet drink under the hot Georgia sun. Masters week always correlates with the beginning of spring. I decided my spring had gotten off to a good start.