It’s a love story for the ages: the bromance between a golfer and a caddie. Some duos, like Phil and Bones, endure forever, while swingers like Els and Singh, with their on-again-off-again caddie partnerships, end up brokenhearted. That sinking feeling isn’t only about making putts.
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Richard Burton and Liz Taylor married and divorced each other twice. So did Don Johnson and wife/ex-wife/wife/ex-wife Melanie Griffith. But they were amateurs compared with Ernie Els and Ricci Roberts. Since the two first got together in 1992, four-time major champion Els, 45, and his longtime caddie and friend Roberts, 50, have split up and reunited…well, no one’s quite sure how many times, exactly.
“After the third time, we stopped counting,” Els says with a rueful smile. “Sometimes it was a pure frustration thing, and other times it was health- and injury-related. There were a couple of pure firings. But we’re like family. He was with me when his first child was born.”
“I’ve had more comebacks than Sinatra!” says Roberts, who guesses he’s won “about 58” events with Els, including the Big Easy’s majors.
Like a romantic comedy rife with bickering-but-besotted lovers, the PGA Tour is the setting for several on-again-off-again-back-on-again player-caddie pairings. Is there hope for a happily ever after for Ernie and Ricci? As with Pretty Woman, When Harry Met Sally. . . and every other charmingly lighthearted rom-com, the answer is ever-changing: Yes! No. Maybe? It was all hearts and flowers this summer at the U.S. Open at Chambers Bay, when Adam Scott reteamed with caddie Steve Williams, who’d retired in 2014 after three decades of high-profile caddying gigs with Greg Norman, Tiger Woods and Scott. Their course-management canoodling produced a surprise tie for fourth.
These breakups and makeups are “an old love story that never ends,” says longtime looper Colin Byrne, who splits time on Els’s bag with Roberts. (The would-be love triangle is a job-share agreement between Byrne and Roberts.)
After Williams’s exit in 2014, Scott failed to click with his new caddie Mike Kerr, and the Aussie came into the 2015 U.S. Open with just one top-10 finish (a T4 at Doral) for the year. With Williams, a New Zealander, back on his bag at Chambers Bay, Scott started solidly, with a first-round 70. Then they rekindled their flame in the final round; to the accompaniment of Fox Sports’ ProTracer fireworks, the Scott–Williams team rocketed up the leaderboard with a 64. You could imagine viewers in Australia and New Zealand sitting by their TV sets, blinking back tears of joy for the love affair that wouldn’t die.
Sure, Jordan Spieth and caddie Michael Greller are golf’s new “it” couple, but time can take a toll. What happens a year or two down the road if the wins dry up, and Spieth starts barking at his looper the way he does to his Titleist? The superstar’s affections might wander to a more seasoned bag man, like Mike “Fluff” Cowan, a veteran of great bromances with Woods and Jim Furyk. For his part, Greller would turn the head of many young guns seeking a sideman with multiple majors to his credit.
And we thought it was forever.
The Scott-Williams split of 2014 was amicable, but that kind of gentle good-bye kiss is as rare as an albatross.
Vijay Singh and his caddie Paul Tesori, a struggling pro who turned to looping to pay the bills, won six times in their first run together, from 2000 to ’03. It was a bountiful partnership, but they divided on one crucial issue: time off. Tesori was for it; Singh was against it. The caddie says that for the combined 730 calendar days of 2001 and ’02, he worked 706 of them.
That first go-round ended with a fight over how to spend Easter. Tesori, who now caddies for Webb Simpson and still calls Singh a friend, says it came down to “family, faith and church versus spending Easter Sunday on the driving range.” Easter eggs vs. Titleists. With no middle ground, the two divorced.
Finding the right match on the course is not unlike looking for love off it. Those first swoons are electric. Amid the applause and soaring divots you think you’ve found “the one.” Then the tedium and the T37s kick in.
“You always think every new job is going to be your last one,” Tesori says. “But it’s a lot like a marriage—it gets old. You’re with each other all the time in a pressure situation, and there’s nothing to relieve that stress. Sometimes it’s good for guys to split up.”
If that’s the case, Els and Roberts should be the healthiest player-caddie marriage on any tour, a love-hate relationship that has spanned eras from Norman to Woods to McIlroy. Els describes both himself and Roberts as hardheaded. Roberts calls them stubborn.
“With guys like Phil and Bones,” Els says of Mickelson and his caddie of nearly a quarter-century, Jim Mackay, “you’ve got two different personalities. The one [Mackay] is going to kind of take it [the guff and grief] and move on. Those relationships tend to last.”
Els pauses when asked which of his many breakups with Roberts was the most dramatic and, therefore, the hardest to come back from.
“It was at [the British Open at] Birkdale in ’98,” he says. “We were both fired up, and things were said. We had a frustrating week, and I didn’t behave that well. It’s a tough game. You’ve got to take your hat off to these guys. They put up with a lot.”
Mark O’Meara, who should have been past his prime, won that Open, while Els, at the peak of his career, finished 12 shots back.
“He wasn’t in a good place at that time,” Roberts says. “As I remember it, he was going through a management change. I guess we’re both stubborn bastards. We got on each other’s nerves.”
They agreed on one thing: It was time to see other people.
Caddie Tom Janus has felt that too—the first, second and third time he and Alex Cejka went their separate ways. “I’ve been hassled,” Janus says about the ribbing he’s taking from peers over his latest reconciliation with the 44-year-old Czech-German journeyman. ” “Huh? You guys? Again?” It’s just teasing. I’d do the same thing if I saw a caddie and a player back together for the fourth time.”
Still, recoupling can work wonders. In March, Cejka won the Puerto Rico Open with Janus on the bag.
Singh and Tesori’s 2003 breakup didn’t last long—about a year.
“He asked me to work for him at the end of 2004,” says Tesori, who was on Jerry Kelly’s bag at the time. “Vijay was playing the best golf of his career, and I went back to work for him, but we did it under some conditions. We said, “This is the way it’s going to go. It’s not going back to the way it was.””
The Scott–Williams reunion has been a blockbuster hit. Scott, a new father, looked lost early this year, particularly on the greens. But with Williams lugging his bag at roller-coaster Chambers Bay, Scott resembled the guy who won the 2013 Masters—where, at Williams’s insistence, he played two cups of break instead of one to birdie the 10th hole in sudden death.
Scott just can’t quit Williams. They’re an exemplary marriage of opposites: Adam, the genial pleaser and Steve, his winning-is-everything counterpart. Scott calls Williams “intense” and “focused.” The legendary Kiwi looper, Scott told Golf Magazine, is possessed of “very strong beliefs about how to play the game and how he’s seen the game played over 30 years of caddying.”
All of which is to say Scott trusts his man implicitly.
Roberts and Els’s easy familiarity (you might call it trust) came the hard way. They weathered more than two decades of ups and downs. In November 2014, they had been separated for more than two years. After all the breakups and makeups, it seemed they had at long last moved on.
“I thought it had finally run its course,” says Roberts, who spent much of last season working for Peter Uihlein on the European Tour. “But I still felt like—and feel like—I’ve got quite a lot left to give.”
And with good reason. The Big Easy and the lovably gruff Roberts, both from South Africa, share quite a history. Once, upon withdrawing from the Players Championship, Els lent Roberts his plane to fly back to England on his own. On another occasion, Els gave Roberts “an unbelievable present for my 40th birthday,” the caddie says, although he won’t reveal what it was. “I was very touched by it.”
Of course, communication can be a problem with any couple. There was the time Els and Roberts were at a tournament in Spain. “We were in Madrid, 1993, walking into the scorer’s hut,” Els recalls. “The scorer lady said, “Congratulations, Ricci!” I said, “Congratulations? On what?” And Ricci said, “Oh, I just had my first child.” I said, “Oh, thanks for telling me.” [Laughs] He never said anything.”
“I didn’t tell anybody,” Roberts says, laughing through his smoker’s cough. His daughter Gabby is now 22.
As the curtain fell on 2014, Els had notched just three top 10s, and Roberts had little to show for his work with a slumping Uihlein. Els says a typical reconciliation features “a bit of silence for a few weeks, and then we start texting each other and supporting each other.”
Their latest reunion was different. In addition to residences in South Africa, both Els and Roberts have homes in England, where last November South Africa’s national rugby team, the Springboks, were set to take on England’s team at Twickenham, southwest of London. Els phoned Roberts and asked if he wanted to go.
“I’d been to all of the major rugby stadiums in the world except that one,” Roberts says. “It was a hell of an experience. We sat in the royal box. Ernie presented the Springboks with their jerseys, and we went into their locker room. After, we had dinner with both teams.”
They also got back together—again. “He said to me that I should consider job-sharing with Colin,” Roberts says of Byrne. “I said I wasn’t sure that was the way to go, but Ernie had been working hard on his game and had looked at some footage of the past and seen what a good relationship we had.”
They paired up at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Golf Championship in January, and it was just like old times: Els fired a final-round 65.
MAYBE THIS WAS A BAD IDEA
If absence makes the heart grow fonder, so, too, does familiarity breed contempt. Ray Floyd once estimated that he fired his caddie, Dolphus “Golf Ball” Hull, six times, but joked that his wife, Maria, hired Hull back seven times. No one is immune from the madness, no matter the era. Before joining Els, Byrne did two stints with young Brit Tom Lewis.
“The most important thing as a caddie is to not burn bridges,” Byrne says.
Although Singh and Tesori promised each other that their second partnership wouldn’t revert to the way it was, old habits die hard. Having amassed six wins in their first collaboration, they raked in six more the second time around. The bad news? Singh, as driven as ever, was still dragging Tesori to the range on their off weeks.
“After another year and a half, I quit,” Tesori says. “[Going back] was a decision I never liked. I did it for the money, the notoriety and the respect, and none of those were the right reasons. Jerry Kelly was top 30 in the world at the time, we’d done the 2003 Presidents Cup, and he was treating me well. It was something I said I wouldn’t do again. When it’s time to split up, it’s time to split up.”
Except, of course, when it’s time to get back together.