As Lanny Wadkins approached the first hole of a playoff that would determine the winner of the 1977 PGA Championship, tensions were running high. He was about to go head-to-head with Gene Littler, a past US Open winner, at California's famed Pebble Beach course for the chance to win one of golf's most prestigious events. Wadkins needed to calm some frayed nerves.
Except it wasn't his nerves that needed calming. It was his caddie's. "This guy got to stuttering so bad he couldn't get the yardage out of his mouth," recalls Wadkins, now an analyst with CBS. "We're out there on the first playoff hole and my caddie can't speak. He was choking worse than I've ever choked. You like to think your caddie can at least handle the pressure as well as you can."
Wadkins went on to win the tournament, the only Major victory of his career, but the memory of his less-than-steady bag man has stayed with him. That's because the relationship between a golfer and the man who carries his clubs, tees, balls, and towels is like a marriage – usually rosy, sometimes rocky. Players and caddies spend as much time together as some husbands and wives, logging hours at tournaments, during practice rounds, and on the driving range. They travel the globe together, including this weekend to Hoylake, England, for the British Open. As with any spouse, caddies can play the role of friend, confidant, psychiatrist, and whipping boy, making the relationship one of the most unusual in all of professional sports.
"It's so different from and so much like a marriage," says Bobby Clampett, a retired 15-year PGA Tour player. "That's the only thing I can compare it to. A player has to focus to be on peak performance day to day and week to week, and a caddie can really help in getting that. You have to know what to say and when."
Players and caddies weren't always joined at the hip. Years ago, pro golfers would show up at tournaments and be assigned a caddie, sometimes even a kid who looped at the course. These days, caddies lead peripatetic but increasingly well-compensated lives. In many cases, a caddie will earn a base salary of $1,200 or so a week, plus 5 to 10 percent of a player's winnings. With most tournament purses worth $5 million and up, it's easy to see why caddies no longer have reputations as itinerant club mules living out of their cars.
"I started out here in 1988 – I thought it would be a fun change for the summer," says Dale McElyea, who now carries for PGA Tour pro Len Mattiace after serving as Steve Lowery's caddie for more than a decade. "Back then, you could work your way up. Plus, I had been a salesman and knew how to greet people. Now the money is so big that everybody wants to be a caddie. It's popular."
Each player interacts with his caddie differently. Some, such as Phil Mickelson, one of the most successful players on the PGA Tour, accept and even solicit advice on their swings and strategy from the caddie. Jim "Bones" Mackay has been Mickelson's caddie for the past 15 years, one of the longest-running partnerships in golf. (Joey Sindelar and caddie John Buchna have been a links couple for 25 years.) Mackay was a solid player in college and has no qualms advising his multimillionaire star client on what to do. Or, as Mickelson told Golf World magazine earlier this year: "I respect his grasp of the game. He's right about 80 percent of the time out there ... to my 20 percent."
That Mickelson and Mackay are close friends with similar interests doesn't hurt, either. As with any other business relationship, compatibility plays a large role in who works together and for how long.
Consider Tiger Woods. He worked with walrus-mustached Mike "Fluff" Cowan during Woods's early years on the tour, turning Cowan into a mini-celebrity (replete with his own TV ads for a national hotel chain). By 1999, though, the relationship had soured. Some speculated Woods had grown tired of Cowan's budding popularity and loose lips. Others said a 20-something millionaire golfer and a crusty, paunchy middle-aged man were less an odd couple than an estranged couple.
Enter Steve Williams, Cowan's replacement. An athletic New Zealander with a passion for driving race cars, Williams seems a perfect match for Woods's competitive spirit. As Woods noted at a 2005 press conference at the Wachovia Championship, the relationship works because they are "two peas in a pod, I guess.... We both love to mix it up. That's our rush. That's our rush, to get in there and feel that adrenaline, handle it, and try and come out on top."
When Williams isn't admonishing fans in the gallery for snapping photos during Woods's backswing or shooing away reporters seeking sound bites, he is pushing his boss. "We go for runs together," Woods said. "You know the last mile is a sprint, that's just the way it is. You've got to beat each other's brains in."
Earlier this year, Woods attended Williams's wedding in New Zealand and, while there, the duo participated in a car race and later went bungee-jumping.
Williams, who has earned millions of dollars carrying for the world's best player, represents the apex of looping. And the bottom end? Myles Byrne fits the bill best, at least in recent memory.
Five years ago, during the final round at the British Open, Byrne had the misfortune of mistakenly including two drivers in Ian Woosnam's golf bag. The mistake meant Woosnam, a former Masters champion, was carrying 15 clubs, one above the 14-club limit, giving him an automatic two-stroke penalty.
"You're going to go ballistic," Byrne told Woosnam as he realized, with horror, his error. Byrne was right. Woosnam tossed his hat to the ground in disgust and threw the extra driver aside. At the time, Woosnam was one of four co-leaders. He didn't win that day – and the relationship between the men ended two weeks later.
Wadkins can relate. "I always had specific things I wanted in a caddie," he says. "No. 1, I wanted to know where he was. I didn't want to get to the golf course and have to go looking for him. When I'm getting out of my car, I want him there."
While Wadkins usually kept his caddies three to five years, every player differs on when to end the relationship. Sometimes changing caddies makes sense to a player just to shake things up.
Tim "Lumpy" Herron took a six-month sabbatical from Scott Steele, his caddie of seven years, then re-hired him. Their first tournament back together came at the Bank of America Colonial earlier this year, where Herron claimed his first win since 1999.
Because they lack guaranteed contracts and have to proffer advice under intense pressure and scrutiny, caddies have to "know when to say something and know when to shut up," Wadkins says.
Of course, there are ways around job insecurity.
Robert Ames, who has played on the Canadian Tour, never worries about offending the man he caddies for: his older brother, Stephen Ames, who won the Players Championship this year.
"The beauty of our situation is, I'm not a yes-man," Robert Ames says. "I don't have to worry about my job. He can find someone else. I know that and he knows that. That allows me to rock the boat when I need to."
As long as he doesn't stutter on the tee box, job security is all but assured.