HARTFORD, Wisc.—Late on Tuesday afternoon, Jim (Bones) MacKay was strolling around the grounds of Erin Hills. Judging by the fans' reaction, he is more popular than many of the players in the field. Bones was repeatedly asked for autographs, but he demurred, saying, "I’m sorry, I don’t sign—I’m just a caddie." He did graciously pose for numerous selfies. The soundtrack to Bones's journey around Erin Hills was a question: "Where's Phil?" It was whispered among friends and shouted from the ropeline.
"He’s back in California," Bones said on one occasion.
"You lie," responded a middle-aged gent with white hair and pink cheeks.
Walking away, Bones said quietly to himself, "That was kind of aggressive."
His lifelong boss is in fact in California, working on his game and looking forward to his daughter’s high school graduation on Thursday. It will take a series of small miracles and large weather delays for Phil Mickelson to somehow make his 2:20 p.m. tee time. (Thought exercise: If thunderstorms shut down the tournament, how exactly will Air Phil be able to land in the area?) On the tiny chance that it actually works out, Bones is at Erin Hills, scouting a quirky new venue his boss has never seen. It is, he admits, a slightly awkward arrangement, not unlike the times Phil has his caddie tend the flag when he’s playing a wedge shot from 100 yards. Bones’s colleagues have enjoyed poking a little fun at him. When he wandered past the practice putting green on Tuesday, Brandt Snedker’s caddie Scott Vial shouted, "What are you doing here?" Bones forced a laugh, but Vail kept going: "Are you Fluff’s backup?" Erin Hill is indeed a beastly walk, especially with a 40-pound bag on your shoulder, but Bones won’t be pinch-hitting for Mike Cowen or anyone else.
"The only guy I’m here to help is Phil," he says.
On Tuesday he "mapped" all 18 holes, figuring out sightlines off the tee, assessing options from the heaving fairways, meticulously studying the massive greens. On Wednesday, Bones says, "I’ll go find somebody who works really hard like a Jordan Spieth, who hits a bunch of shots from different places and see what I can learn from that—how the ball reacts on the greens, what the wind is doing, all the little details. I have an obligation to learn as much as I can. But it’s an odd feeling, knowing that it’s highly likely Phil won’t be playing come Thursday."
What makes this all the more painful is that Erin Hills suits Mickelson’s game so well. Last week, in Memphis, he was told as much by a half dozen players who had already scouted the course. Poor Phil. Rickie Fowler and Brooks Koepka and the others were just trying to be nice, but it was torturous to hear. What makes Erin Hills a good course for Mickelson? "The fairways are generous, the greens take a lot of creativity, and the wind is going to blow," says Bones. "All of that plays to Phil’s advantage. He’s had to work his way into becoming a player who can handle a lot of wind. Now he’s become as good as anybody. To be honest, if he somehow winds up playing here on Thursday I pray it blows 30 miles an hour."
Bones's phone buzzed. It was Phil checking in, to see what he thought of the course. Mickelson’s heart is in California with his family but his mind is on Wisconsin. He’s been glued to the weather app on his phone, running the different scenarios. Phil has said he needs about a four-hour weather delay to have a chance. Forecasts show the potential for thunderstorms on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday but, alas, Thursday is supposed to be clear. If that changes, and Phil blow out of Southern California in his Gulfstream, it will be a journey like no other. Paul Azinger, who will be commentating for Fox, referenced the popular "Santa trackers" from Christmas Eve and joked that the network would have a Phil tracker to monitor the flight. "Can you imagine that?" says Bones with a laugh.
Indeed we can. The possibility is so tantalizing that for maybe the first time ever the golf world is hoping for bad weather. Phil’s fate is in the lap of the golf gods. Until it is decided, his dutiful caddie will be at Erin Hills, somehow both the center of attention and on the outside looking in.