When you play off 8 and you can’t chip, pitch (really), struggle horrifically from bunkers and racked by self-doubt and negativity then having a caddy can be a stressful experience.
It is strange enough in itself: for four hours you have very little to do other than talk and hit shots. You spend what seems like a small lifetime just walking, with no bag on your back or no trolley trundling behind you.
And while you will have over-thought the situation, because he (or she, but it’s probably a he so let’s go with that) does this every day, it still doesn’t feel right at any point in the round.
It should be a rare treat. You can rely on the brains of someone who knows the very innards of a course. Nevertheless, to have someone carry your bag, clean your ball, find your ball, polish your clubs, rake your bunker mess, call you ‘sir’ and spend a long period of time both buffering your ego and protecting your lack of self-confidence is not normal.
And so we came to the quite magnificent Kingsbarns Golf Links for the Women’s British Open media day. This Fife beauty would always make it into my Top 3 courses and, in an out-of-character bid to play well, I visited the practice ground to hit 20 balls, the same number of putts and not one chip.
I then made my way to the 1st tee to meet Mark (was this fate, I couldn’t help but wonder?). It would be Mark’s task to cajole me through the next few hours, most likely baulk at the regularity at which the putter came out of the bag when not on the green and proffer a strange-shaped Chipper on those regrettable occasions when putting is impossible.
But, for now, he knew none of those things and so we chatted normally.
Here’s my guide to making the most of your caddy.
1) Spend the opening hole making friends
There is plenty of time to tell your playing partners your three best stories so spend the first hole solely with your new best friend.
Make sure that by the time you have departed the 1st green that you are never referred to as ‘sir’ ever again. This will help you to feel slightly more grounded.
2) Establish his handicap
This can prove to be a risky business and you’ll need to be a bit more resilient mentally than normal if you do want the answer.
Anything five shots better than you and that might signal the end of your chances of playing well, with the next four hours filled with the prospect of consistently letting someone else down. You are more than happy to let yourself down, something you manage most weeks, but this person is trying very hard to help and you’re not even completing any hole.
Anything too high and you will immediately lose an element of trust despite the fact that he has watched people putt these greens for over 1000 rounds and knows every yardage and breath of wind. It’s just that he doesn’t play golf but you can’t get that simple notion into your head.
Anything three shots either way of your handicap is the ideal; now you can pretend that you think the same way, have the same expectations and, better still, this gives you an open goal to talk about your game far too much.
Mark plays off five. I spend too long thinking what sort of five he is (can he chip properly?) but content myself that he’s better than me. I am now putty in his hands, which is exactly where I want to be.
3) Adapt to an unfamiliar language
Having a caddy horribly exposes how poor your on-course thinking is. There will be strange talk of ‘landing areas’ for chips. He’ll advise that ‘20 feet is just fine’ when you’ve got a 6-iron in your hand when you are generally happy to lump it anywhere that won’t require a chip for your next shot. Occasionally, you’ll be handed a club that isn’t a driver on a par 4. He’ll believe in hitting the right club for the shot and will overlook the fact that you only really like four clubs in your entire bag. Nor will he be aware of your unspoken rule that you don’t use your driver if you can see a white stake.
4) Try not to act too erratically
There will be all manner of strange exhibitions in your behaviour so go easy on yourself. You have been thrust into an unfamiliar environment, your senses will be on high alert and, when things go your way, you will slip into delusions of grandeur.
Which is why, on the way from the 5th green to the 6th tee, I, out of sight from the other seven members of our party, low-fived a section of gorse bushes pretending that they were a collection of young and old fans who all wanted a piece of me.
5) Approach putting differently
This is almost the strangest part of the process. The rationale, from one half of the team at least, is that the putt might actually go in.
No more dribbling up two feet short from anywhere outside 12 feet, and then missing one in every five tap-ins to consistently tot up around 36 blows with the putter, whatever the weather or conditions.
On the 8th green we had a breakthrough moment when the pace of the putt was broken down into a percentage. So this particular downhill putt would be 60 per cent for pace and so on…
It was another layer in my comfort blanket and I liked it.
Two minutes later on the 9th tee, as our playing partners teed off, I sidled up to Mark’s shoulder and whispered “The percentage thing, I really like that. Can we keep doing that?”
6) Listen when advised to take a drop
While we were getting closer in our discussions and friendship as every hole was ticked off the simple truth was that I had now played the last six holes in a state of mild terror.
Part of my brain told me this was a day for the golfing soul, I was at Kingsbarns, the sun was out and life was great.
Part of my brain told me that I needed to press on for the sake of the team. I love team sports (and being able to shift the blame away from me) and, while taking care of that side of things, the individual score would be a by-product of this.
Another part of my brain, the Inner Chimp side of things, which probably dominated 90 per cent of my head space told me that I couldn’t keep a single thought in my head for more than a mini-second. I was playing the round of my life and I was scared stiff of the endless possibilities of how this was going to play out.
So, standing on the 15th tee, I fatted a 9-iron on to the rocks. The last two hours had been building up to this moment, I had felt the need to decompress a little since a par save at the 7th and now the self-fulfilling prophecy of how my mind and body had worked for the past 30 years was playing itself out.
Despite my caddy not getting one single club or read or wind direction or line wrong in the past three hours I ignored his advice to take a drop and clambered down on to the shoreline with my sand wedge in hand.
Given that I am unable to chip off a patch of grass this was optimistic in the extreme. I shanked it even further along the coastline before retreating sheepishly to the drop zone.
And got up and down. With the Chipper.
7) Express gratitude
You’ll never know how grateful I am for helping me play those last three holes properly.
“We can finish with three birdies, get us back to level.”
This was about as far removed as was humanly possible as to what I was actually thinking leaving that 15th green. The Chimp was telling me that I could probably blob in and still make the podium.
We did make a birdie at 16 (a thinned wedge to four feet which appeared very different to what I know actually happened), a par at 17 and then, having almost double-hit my chip out sideways at the last, I was thrown over the line.
The last time I had played this 18th hole it had culminated in my legs dangling in mid air as I attempted to retrieve not one but two Pro V1s from the stream in front of the green.
This time it happened. This time it found the green, stayed on the green and the putt went in.
I wanted to chairlift my new friend off that final green in the same way that Michael Caine had left the stadium in Escape To Victory. Instead I just kept saying thank you a tedious number of times.
You might remember Ben Crenshaw crumpling in half when he won the Masters in 1995 or Nick Faldo dissolving into great gulps of tears at Muirfield in 1992. That’s what was actually happening inside.
So thank you, again.