by Pete Willett
Caddies are weird. I’ve often thought this.
The role of a caddie isn’t replicated across other sports. It isn’t even replicated at all levels of golf. A glaring disparity between professionals and weekend hackers, other than ability, is the use of a caddie.
The caddie, from the French ‘le cadet’ or ‘the boy’ (thank you, Google), as the translation suggests, has had a history of being under-appreciated. Early Scottish influence ensured caddies gained a reputation as feckless drinkers. Strangers frequently introduce themselves to me with the same greeting: “Tell your brother I’ll caddie for him.” Like it’s a job that requires nothing more than the ability to carry stuff…
But, as the rules stipulate, they are the only person allowed to advise their player on the course. In a sport structured with nauseating lulls of inactivity, where you are given time to ponder the multiple ways in which your next shot could ruin your entire hole/day/tournament/livelihood, the ability to have your inner chimp tamed is a must.
Caddies endure the same hectic schedule as their employers, 40-plus weeks a year on the road, for a fraction of the reward. Some suffer a precarious existence representing golfers who frequently flirt on the brink of losing their card.
It is difficult to quantify the influence of a caddie. The player is responsible for how they hit the ball, but the way they decide to hit it, and what they are thinking before they do, can be altered by the caddie. Whether someone wins or loses a tournament could be precisely because of what their caddie does, or doesn’t, say.
I’m bad at golf. I’ve often thought this.
My youngest was born two years ago. Bless the beautiful, miraculous, delightful, screaming, psychotic, evil little bundle of joy-sapping flesh. In that time, I haven’t played golf. I have watched it religiously, consuming all the statistics and literature. But I haven’t hit a golf ball. I don’t even own a set of clubs.
Given my passing interest in caddies and the realisation that, for a golf columnist, I wasn’t playing enough golf, I discovered an opportunity to sink two birdies in one hole.
A man called Steve Brotherhood runs a company called Tour Caddie Experience. He has been a caddie on the European Tour for 12 years, the last six of which with David Howell. His venture gives anyone the opportunity to play a round accompanied by a tour caddie. I booked myself in for a session.
The game of golf became startlingly clear: if I could ignore every single natural urge, and learn how to putt, I could become mediocre.
Dressed in my wedding trousers and a child-sized polo shirt, armed with my brother-in-law’s Dunlop clubs, and feeling a sense of trepidation not experienced since my ‘Margery the mature student’ incident, I hopped on a train to Newark Golf Club to meet Bro. (I wasn’t sure if I was street enough to pull off the nickname at first, but I think I had it nailed by the end of the round.)
After the opening pleasantries, Bro took me to the range to warm me up and assess my abilities. I had already completed a pre-game questionnaire, but my tendency to overcompensate, particularly in matters of length, rendered the info I had provided fairly useless. To my great surprise, I hit it well. Bro was ready to take me out.
The first hole was a 440-yard par 4. A narrow fairway, lined both side by trees, and a waiting group of seasoned spectators. I wanted to grab the driver and smash it far away from prying eyes. Bro handed me a five iron and told me to knock it down the centre. I did. 150 yards.
For my second, he advised the same. I did the same, losing about 20 yards from a slightly fat contact. For my third he told me to do the same again. I did the same again. The ball was on the green in three.
I hadn’t swung a club for two years. And on my first hole I was facing a 20-foot putt for par, net eagle. I three-putted.
But the game of golf became startlingly clear: if I could ignore every single natural urge, and learn how to putt, I could become mediocre.
As we progressed through our nine holes together, it became apparent that the most damaging thing to my game during my two-year absence has not just been the complete lack of practice, but my consumption of the sport at a professional level.
Watching how effortlessly the pros manoeuvre around the course meant I had become infected with delusions of competency. Bro had to frequently stop me from attempting my Seve flop shot, or my 300-yard fade over the fairway bunker. Instead I had to concentrate on a pre-shot routine, an 8-iron bump-and-run around the greens, and a realisation that it is always better to be safe than sorry. On a number of occasions, he didn’t even let me aim at the flag.
But the beauty was, with his experience and intimate knowledge of his home course, he was always right.
The only time his shot selection didn’t yield the most advantageous position for me, was when my astounding lack of ball-striking consistency failed us both. Holes four to six were an unrelenting shank-a-thon. In the past, such a sustained period of truly hideous play would have ensured my mood ruined the remainder of my round.
But through Bro’s understanding of my limitations, and his management of my expectations, I was able to rally. I ended with a par putt – net birdie – on the final two holes. (I three putted both of them. I hate putting.)
I really should play more golf. I’ve often thought this.
Thanks to my nine holes with Bro, and the detailed post-round report he provided later that evening, I left knowing what I needed to change, how I was going to change it, and with a newfound determination to just do it. I will have some lessons and strive for a level of consistency that will let me unlock the next level of my game.
It is not difficult to quantify the influence Bro had on me. I have already ordered a new set of clubs.
I just hope I can remain committed enough to keep them from being consigned to the cupboard with my climbing shoes, underwater camera equipment, and home-made pasta kit.