Being Bones: Phil Mickelson’s caddie, Jim Mackay, is a celebrity in his own right

December 9, 2011

[This story originally appeared in the January 2011 edition of GOLF Magazine.]

To begin to understand Jim Mackay, a progenitor of the 21st-century caddie — young, college-educated, hyper-professional — you must start with the earthquake story. Mackay was on the 15th floor of the Golden Nugget in Las Vegas when his hotel room began to sway. John Wood, Hunter Mahan’s caddie and Mackay’s roommate, woke up, shrugged it off and rolled over. Wood is from Sacramento, so he knows tremors. Not so Mackay, who grew up in Florida. He shot out of bed and darted across the room to Phil Mickelson’s golf clubs, which were standing in the corner.

Mackay gently set them on the floor. Visibly shaken, he turned to his roomie and said, “Woody, what do we do now?” l “So in an earthquake,” Wood says today, laughing, “Jim’s first thought is to secure Phil’s clubs.”

Think of a Tour star and in almost every case you can think of at least two caddies who have toted his sticks. Mickelson has had one: “Bones” Mackay (sounds like Mc-Eye), who after 18-plus years of looping for Lefty has become the most identifiable club-carrier since the caveman. Fred Couples gave the knobby-kneed, 6′ 4″ bagman his handle years ago. Bones, Jelly, Fluff — caddies get nicknames. What they don’t do is survive slumps and stay employed long enough to become more famous than many players.

How has Bones endured? Could be his work ethic. (“He doesn’t drink, he doesn’t smoke, and he’s never been late as long as I’ve known him,” Mickelson says.) Could be his voracious appetite for the game; when his boss is idle, Mackay treks all over the country to test his 2-handicap on classic tracks like Baltusrol and Pine Valley. Could be his unrelenting appreciation for all that the job has given him. “I am very, very lucky,” says Mackay, 45. “I know that.”

Most likely, though, Bones has stuck around because he cares deeply not only for the craft but also for his employer, and Lefty feels likewise about Bones. They’re not business partners, they’re best friends, a long-standing kinship that has inspired dedication that is, well, off the Richter scale.

Consider the tale of Jim Mackay, wedding-crasher. In 2008, Tom Mackay, Jim’s younger brother by seven years, planned to get married in Vermont. The ceremony would fall on the Saturday of the Deutsche Bank Championship near Boston, an event Mickelson would play, and this presented a logistical challenge.

Bones does not do vacations. If you see anyone but him on Mickelson’s bag, you’ve seen the equivalent of a moon landing. But the wedding was not an event Bones wanted to miss. He helped bring the bride and groom together. He and Tom had grown up together, played golf together, caddied together.

Mickelson told Mackay to take the week off and enjoy himself. Mackay vetoed that idea. Instead, he caddied for Mickelson in a morning round before he and his wife, Jen, rented a plane, arrived at the ceremony with minutes to spare, and returned to TPC Boston in time for Sunday’s play. “I didn’t want to miss it,” Jim says with a sheepish smile.

Adds Mickelson, “That’s just Bones being Bones.”

It has been quite a partnership, and not just because Mackay has caddied in eight Presidents Cups and eight Ryder Cups, and has been at Mickelson’s side for all four major victories, 37 of 38 Tour wins, and two more Euro Tour triumphs.

Presidents Cups? Heck, Mackay has met four presidents. The job has provided other perks, too. Tagging along on an early date between Mickelson and his now-wife, Amy, then a Phoenix Suns dancer, Mackay wound up dining with Phil, Amy and the entire Suns dance team, which wasn’t terrible. “I was way over my head there,” he says, laughing.

At the ’03 Presidents Cup in South Africa, Tiger Woods introduced Mackay to Nelson Mandela. “It was just a real quick ‘Nice to meet you,’ ” Mackay says. “They were obviously having a conversation and I wasn’t going to include myself in it. So, who do you like in the rugby this year?”

Bones likely would have fit right in. Tom Mackay says one of his brother’s strengths is that “he can talk to anyone in any situation,” but that he also knows when to step out of the way. Told he had been voted the No. 1 caddie on Tour in a Golf Magazine player poll earlier this year, Mackay was thrilled. He was also too modest to give a quote. A couple of months later, he forfeited his business-class seat on the U.S. Ryder Cup team’s charter flight to Wales so Rickie Fowler’s young caddie, Joe Skovron, could experience riding with the players in his first Cup.

Indeed these are fat, if frenetic, times for Bones, who is away from his Scottsdale, Ariz., home so much that he calls his mother-in-law, Carol Woodbury, the “family MVP” for taking such good care of Jen and the couple’s two children, Oliver, 6, and Emma, 4. Mickelson has earned about $60 million on Tour, and it’s safe to assume Mackay has banked at least 5-10 percent of that sum.

More difficult to put a price on is their rare camaraderie. The first time Mickelson and Mackay went out to play golf together, Mackay tried to grab Mickelson’s sticks but came up empty. “He wouldn’t let me carry them from the parking lot to the clubhouse because it was my day off,” Mackay says. “I thought, ‘Wow, that’s pretty cool.’ It gets back to how inclusive he is.”

Inclusive? Phil and Amy introduced Mackay to his wife, Jen Olsen, Amy’s BFF from Arizona State. When Mickelson plays overseas, Mackay flies with him on Air Phil, the pro’s Gulfstream V. The duo even speak in their own pop-culture shorthand based on their common taste in movies, among them “The Hangover.”

Thanks to their deep-rooted bromance, Mackay is often recognized and greeted in public as if he were Lefty himself. Sitting down for a large Coke and a couple of bagels at a breakfast spot in Sheboygan, Wis., during the PGA last August, Mackay was approached by fans and told to have a great Saturday.

Jason Dufner, who had shot a 66 to climb within three of the lead, was sitting at a table by the door, playing a game on his iPad. Nobody seemed to know or care who he was.

Long before the world of golf or anyone else knew who Mackay was, he was an English schoolboy, if only briefly. When he was 7, his British parents packed up the family — Jim, Tom and sister Lesley — and alighted for New Smyrna Beach, Fla. (They liked vacationing there, they reasoned, so why not live there?) The town had a Donald Ross municipal course where Mackay could play for free after three o’clock.

He wasn’t an exceptional golfer, but good enough to play for Division II Columbus College in Georgia, which led to a job in the pro shop and bag room at Green Island Country Club in Columbus. It was there that he met Larry Mize, the first player to take Mackay out on Tour.

From Mize, Mackay moved on to Scott Simpson in 1992, and soon after Bones earned his shot with a four-time All-American at Arizona State with a jauntily upturned collar. Steve Loy, who coached Mickelson at ASU and who would become his agent, attended the ’92 Tucson Open to interview caddies. Mackay, who was then looping for Curtis Strange, chatted casually with Loy, but Bones wouldn’t meet Mickelson until that year’s Players Championship at TPC Sawgrass.

Mickelson, Simpson (another San Diego golf product) and Gary McCord played a practice round. Mackay carried Simpson’s bag, while Phil Sr., carried his son’s sticks. “Phil was signing autographs after the round,” Mackay recalls, “and he said, ‘Are you interested?’ I mean, of course! Everybody was. He was long, a very exciting player to watch. My goal was to caddie in one Ryder Cup. I thought, ‘This is a guy who’s going to play in a Ryder Cup.'”

Their first assignment together was to advance through the Memphis sectional qualifier for the ’92 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. On the heels of an easy victory at the NCAAs, Mickelson broke the course record and qualified by a mile. Pebble would mark his pro debut. “I couldn’t have told you for a thousand dollars how far he hit his 7-iron,” Mackay says. “We were just winging it.”

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.