Tom Coyne, author of Paper Tiger, made his way across Ireland on foot in 2007, playing every links golf course in the country. The book about his adventures, A Course Called Ireland, will be available February 19th. In the meantime, he recently took a break from writing to caddy at the ADT Skills Challenge.
My all-time, unforgettable, irrefutable, fight-you-for-the-bag, top-five loops:
5. Carrying for my assistant pro in U.S. Open qualifying, watching him three-putt the 18th to miss the cut by one stroke, then taking his keys and driving back to Philadelphia while he made a case of longnecks disappear in the backseat. The lip-out was heartbreaking, the backseat golf confessional was something off a 911 tape, but tearing down the turnpike six months shy of my license? Brilliant.
4. Fore-caddying Member-Guest for two over-tanned lawyers from Florida, carrying nothing but two putters for three sun-splashed days, growing my repertoire of filthy jokes threefold, and learning the ins-and-outs of an acrimonious divorce. The club sandwich-sized pile of twenty dollar bills handed to me at tournament’s end locked up its top-five standing.
3. Looping in an insurance adjuster outing where somebody told the cart girls that there was an “un-” in “dress code,” giving me and my caddy compatriots three summers’ worth of stories and a head start on puberty.
2. Member-Member on the bag for my dad.
1. The comeback loop. All the memories from my dozen summers spent weighing down the bag rail don’t quite compare to the unexpected offer that would bring this ex-jock out of a long retirement. And unlike all those erstwhile loops, this one didn’t start with a blast of coffee breath from my caddy master. Strangely, it started with a phone call.
The ADT Skills Challenge? Of course, I’ve heard of it. Would I like to caddy in it? For real? Word of my caddy prowess had finally gotten around, I thought — my improbable season of flawless reads in 1993, Dr. Malone’s hole-in-one per my club selection — talent finds a way. A stranger’s voice then explained exactly who was playing in the event — are you serious? Amazing. And they’re going to be partnered with who? And it was the answer to this question that stirred something deep in my caddy soul, down in that part of me that is still sunburned and blistered and capable of subsisting on nothing but hot dogs and grape soda. I’ll be there, I replied, save a bag for me.
The ADT Golf Skills Challenge, now in its 17th installment, has tested a number of different formats over the years. A mainstay of the off-season calendar, the Challenge has pitted the likes of Palmer, Nicklaus, Faldo and Mickelson against one another in a series of closest-to-the-pin skill tests — a long putt, a long-iron shot, a bunker shot, a trouble shot, etc. To keep the competition novel, the tournament has branched out and invited LPGA stars and celebrity athletes to compete (I recall cheering for Mark McGwire in 2003 to best the tour stars — he did — in a different sporting lifetime). It’s one of those silly-season events played for a gob of money that used to feel less silly. A $100,000 skin once had my dad calling for everyone to come quick, don’t miss this, but with the mushrooming of modern golf purses, it seemed to me that the Gulf Streams waiting across the street had eased some of the tension. Golf for giggles, if you will — is this putt really going to save Nick Price’s Christmas? And apparently I wasn’t the only viewer of such mind, because this year’s tournament organizers invited Greg Norman, Peter Jacobsen, Fred Couples, and Rocco Mediate to play for a purse of $820,000. And to play alongside them and split the money down the middle, they invited each player to partner with his caddy.
Loopers. Jocks. The bag-toters were going to slip around to the other side of the leather, pull a stick for themselves, and play for big money in front of the cameras. Finally,our turn. And to drive home the theme of the meek finally receiving their reward, four writers were invited to caddy for the caddies, offering the neediest end of the sport food chain its shot at a windfall. (10% of 820K? Sweet Moses. I could quit dancing!) I would learn that absolutely no prize moneys would be trickling down to us scribblers-turned-carriers, but Florida in November still played with me. And more importantly, there was a player out there who was wondering, Is it the six? Or the seven? And it turned out that his name was Matt Achatz.
Matt was having a good year. Just a few seasons removed from waiting tables and hustling loops in Florida, the five-ish handicapper somehow found himself attached to a bag with Rocco Mediate stitched on it. For his major championship debut, Achatz (pronounced Ack-itz) got an extreme close-up of the greatest playoff in golf history, Rocco v. Woods, walking nineteen holes with the supreme player in the universe, and going bag-to-bag with the caddy most likely to punch you in the ear for a club rattle. I’d like to call Achatz’s story a Cinderella or an Ugly Duckling, but the guy is no Pygmalion — thirty-three with a runner’s build, he’s good-looking and gregarious and far better dressed than the caddies I spent my summers trying to get upwind from. Sure, he had a bag full of glistening Rocco Mediate hand-me-downs, a PGA Tour money-printer for a partner, good hair, new shoes — but little did he know that recently flown-in from an undisclosed location was the caddy who won the 1989 Women’s Member-Guest B flight. The odds in Vegas were moving, and a precious few of us knew why.
Much had changed about caddying since I racked my last set of dirty golf clubs. Where I used to beg rides to the course from my sister, this loop came with an aisle seat and car service and a swanky cocktail party to get us all warmed up, wandering illusionist and all. I recall once stealing away my not-so-communal caddy bib in the nooks of the bag room for fear that it might be borrowed by one of my less hygienically inclined colleagues, but here at the Skills Challenge, I was handed a fresh bib of ultra-white nylon, PGA Tour on my front and a stranger’s name emblazoned on my back. Sitting around my former caddy yard, I used to shoot the breeze with a googly-eyed ex-cab driver named Hank who told taxi stick-up stories with a whiskey lilt to his voice. But as I waited around for my loop on that Florida morning, I shook hands with Vinny Testaverde, then made small talk about a mutual alma mater with Joe Theisman. I thought to grab a towel from the locker room, then I hustled out to the range and took my spot behind Achatz’s bag, standing there with a half-smile, nodding unwanted encouragement and trying to look busy. I slung my dampened towel over my shoulder, and I watched Norman clip seven-irons close enough for me to feel the breeze of clubhead speed. Over there was Couples, stretching out amid a small crowd of handlers, and there was Jacobsen a few spots to my left, holding court with fans and officials. And here came Mediate, his peace-sign belt buckle headed my way — a golfing hero walking straight for me with an outstretched arm. Years of caddying instinct kicked in, and I expertly whipped my towel off my shoulder and into the palm of his hand, dead center.
“Thanks,” he said. I think. He wiped his hands, looked at the size of the beach blanket I had procured (it was flag-sized, large enough to screen a movie on), and noted, “Could you have gotten a bigger towel?”
Now I was caddying. I had screwed up, and I had been made aware of that fact in a manner that was both jokey and spirit-crushing at the same time — it was a feeling well familiar to anyone who’s ever shouldered the strap. But this time, it didn’t come from Mrs. Havercamp — this quip came from the runner-up in the U.S. Open. I mumbled something to the effect of, “Yeah, big, sorry,” with a too-wide grin on my face. And when we left the practice tee in golf carts, I was still smiling, and not just because I was about to spend four hours shoulder-to-shoulder with golf gods as they showed off for me, but because my new caddy friend Matt with a pretty handy golf swing was about to go play golf for a big pile of money, and I was going to try to help him.
Those of us in the brotherhood of caddies share a number of things — the stories, the jokes, the over-tipping, and the understanding that from time to time there is a feeling better than that of striking a great golf shot, and that’s the feeling of rooting for one. Being so fully invested in someone else’s success is a unique thing, exciting, even liberating somehow. I spent my afternoon doing close to zero actual caddying (since the challenges all took place on the same hole, my caddy duties were limited to wiping clubs, straightening Rocco’s chair, and leaning over the players to score maximum camera time) and rooting damn hard for my team. I’d like to think my enthusiasm and my acumen were responsible for Matt’s results, but I can’t take all the credit. I won’t spoil the ending, but just know that I have played and watched enough golf for ten lifetimes, teed it up on four continents, yet I’ve never stood so close to golf that felt quite so improbable. You’ll think there were special effects or sneaky cuts, but it all really happened. All sorts of factors play in the discernment of the quality of a loop — money, time, ease, those cart girls — but in the final estimation, good golf trumps all, and what I witnessed that afternoon made the Skills Challenge number one with a bullet. Get-the-hell-out-of-here-Challenge would have been more fitting.
In our best rounds of golf, we bump into moments where we’re somebody else — a player, a champion, a boss of the moss — and that was what my day at the Skills Challenge was all about. That afternoon I was a PGA Tour caddy, Matt was the Tour player, and Rocco was his buddy lifting him up, pulling him along. As we walked off the course at the end of the day, giggly about what had just happened, some of the players grass-stained from the impromptu golf-mosh pit inspired by the final shot, it occurred to me exactly why this had all worked so well, why the shots had come on cue, and why the smiles remained fixed. You golfers out there who’d rather not take a cart, you know why. The game’s always better with a caddy.