What does the mind do to make a person's body shake so much?" was the question Meg Mallon asked me on that momentous afternoon at the 18th tee of the Wycliffe Golf & Country Club's East Course.
She didn't really want a textbook explanation of human physiology. A lighthearted remark to help her cope with what was happening would do. It was Monday, Feb. 4, and she was playing the last hole of the last round of the Oldsmobile LPGA Classic, in Lake Worth, Fla. Moments earlier, Mallon had made a four-foot birdie putt on the 17th hole to move to 11 under par and regain sole possession of the lead. Her tee shot on the final hole, a 380-yard par 4, had just landed safely in the fairway, 165 yards from the flag and an anxious gallery.
Now, as Mallon waited for the other two players in her group to hit their tee shots, her brain was telling the rest of her body that after four years on the LPGA tour she was in the last group of the day, leading by a stroke and on the verge of winning her first tournament. That realization, along with the adrenaline racing through her veins, was making her quiver, literally, in her white lace-up Foot-Joys. Instinctively, she turned to me, her caddie, to help her lighten the moment. It didn't matter that I was a novice at caddying. I was the person she was relying on for comforting words and supportive smiles.
But my mind was blank. I, too, was caught up in the moment. Before signing on with Mallon for the 72-hole tournament, the only golf bag I had ever carried was my own. In fact, I had never been anything except a spectator or working journalist at an LPGA tournament. During my eight days of on-the-job training with Meg, I had gotten a taste of the sore muscles, cumbersome umbrellas in drenching rains and players' delicate psyches that those 90 men and 10 women who make a living carrying golf bags on tour contend with regularly. Now, though, I was about to experience a part of the job that some caddies dream about their entire careers and never realize—the thrill of carrying the winner's clubs up the 18th fairway on the last day of a tournament.
Before Meg and I could march triumphantly to the green, however, she had to get her ball there. To do that, she had to be focused but loose. As we walked along the fairway I whispered to her, "I'm afraid I don't know the answer to your question. If I had known you were going to ask something like that, I would have paid closer attention in biology class." The comment seemed to do the trick. She giggled and flashed me one of her trademark toothy smiles.
Meanwhile, up ahead on the 18th green, Dana Lofland, a 23-year-old LPGA rookie who had been breathing down Mallon's neck on the back nine, left her 10-foot birdie attempt a few inches short. All Mallon had to do to claim her first title was get her ball into the cup in three shots.
She paced off the yardage. I double-checked her addition while she pulled the three-iron from the bag. She swung, and her ball sailed toward the green, stopping four feet from the pin. Amid a roar from the gallery, I handed her the putter and wiped the mud and grass from the grooves of the three-iron. Mallon repaired her divot with her foot, swallowed a bite from a granola bar and began her victory stroll. The crowd was applauding wildly as she reached the green. Shouts of "Way to go, Meg!" came from the group of 30 or so players and caddies clustered near the grandstand. Dressed in navy blue, with a white sun visor crowning her brown hair, she looked positively regal, acknowledging the ovation with waves and a smile. When the pep rally ended, she sank the birdie putt, heaved her ball over the grandstand and hugged nearly everyone in sight on her way to sign her scorecard. For the four rounds, she had shot 66-70-69-71-276.
What an incredible odyssey it had been for us. At an LPGA tournament in Minnesota last August, I had introduced myself to Mallon because I wanted a closer look at one of the fairway woods in her bag. Chatting in the club-storage room, I casually said I hoped to write about her winning a tournament someday. On that summer afternoon, neither of us imagined what would happen a scant five months later.
In December, Mallon agreed to let me carry her bag for two tournaments so that I could glimpse LPGA tour life from inside the ropes. I ended up working only one tournament—the Oldsmobile—because Meg contracted bronchitis and withdrew from the second event, the Phar-Mor at Inverrary Country Club & Resort in Fort Lauderdale, before it started. I had decided to work for nothing except "the greater good of journalism," but if I had been paid, I would have earned between $275 and $350 for the week, plus a percentage of Mallon's tournament winnings—in this case, 10% of the $60,000 first-prize check.
Mallon wasn't on anyone's list of pre-tournament favorites at Wycliffe, and the odds against her winning surely skyrocketed when I showed up to carry her bag. Her record has improved every year since she joined the tour, in 1987, but she isn't a consistent scorer yet. Last season she played 28 events and won $129,381, good for 27th place on the money list, but she also missed seven cuts. I recall telling my editors at SI that she would probably play "well enough" to make my story interesting. I chose Mallon because I surmised that she had the ideal temperament for this assignment. Her fellow players had voted her "most popular" in an informal survey conducted by The Toledo Blade last season. She was easygoing on the course, and didn't throw clubs or scream. Working with me didn't change that. She was patient and considerate, no matter how many times I bumped into her with the bag, stood in the wrong place on the green or dropped my towel on the course.
My orientation began at a practice round with Mallon, Betsy King and Barb Thomas three days before the tournament began. My first assignment was to buy a yardage book in the pro shop and get some help deciphering its hieroglyphics. "Twistin' " Bill Williams, a kind man who does a mean Chubby Checker imitation and who carries Dawn Coe's bag, gave me a quick lesson before my mentor for the week, Carl Laib, arrived. Laib works for King, and as a favor to Mallon, he agreed to give me some tips.
Laib's nickname is the Caddie Machine, because he does his job with such precision. The other caddies make fun of his fastidiousness, but King is grateful for it. That week I was, too. I had planned to walk the course with Laib on Monday morning, but he had done it the day before—on Super Bowl Sunday—and already had annotated his yardage book. Next to the yardage figures for each sprinkler noted, for example, he wrote the numbers engraved on the sprinkler heads, so he would be able to identify them faster. He even drew in a few sprinklers the artist had missed. All of this information he eagerly shared with me, so that by the end of the tutorial, my book was virtually a carbon copy of his. "They call me the Machine because I take my job seriously," he said proudly. "A lot of these guys are too lazy to walk the course beforehand. But Betsy depends on me, and I want to have all the right answers when she asks me a question."
Yardage books are to caddies what legal briefs are to lawyers. They don't go to work without them. The books contain roughly sketched outlines of every hole, including landmarks such as trees, sand traps, water hazards and sprinkler heads. The people who diagram the course also measure the distances to the landmarks, from either the back of the tee or the front of the putting surface. But any caddie worth his or her vest knows the books aren't completely reliable, and they don't contain every piece of information a player will need. The good caddies walk the course before play begins to avoid nasty surprises and costly mistakes during the tournament.
Getting the right yardage was the least I could do for Mallon, because she would be on her own in so many other ways during our time together. I had taken a course on golf when I was in college and have duffed my way through a couple of forgettable rounds since then. But I am clueless about when a driver might be a better club off the tee than a three-iron and have no idea about how to read greens. Such knowledge is de rigueur for tour caddies—sometimes. "A lot of these players could win with a wheelbarrow carrying the clubs," says Eddie (B.B.) Wallace, who works for three-time U.S. Women's Open champ Hollis Stacy.
That certainly was the case with Mallon at Wycliffe. She hit the ball so well that my ignorance of the technical aspects didn't handicap her much. Nevertheless, our success as a team rekindled the debate among the bag toters and the pros about how important caddies really are.
I took enormous grief from the other caddies, who said I made the job look too easy. Some suggested that I take early retirement. Others accused me of not being the genuine article, because the canvas bag Mallon used while I was caddying for her was lighter than the heavy leather bags she and the other pros normally use. "Real caddies carry tour bags," growled Richard Wirthman, who hauls clubs for Tina Purtzer.
This is what Mallon crammed into her bag every day: three metal-wood clubs, one putter, seven irons, a pitching wedge, two sand wedges, a rain suit, nine balls, a plastic bag filled with pencils and tees, at least two granola bars, a wristwatch, one glove, an umbrella, a can of insect repellant, a bottle of sunscreen lotion and a blue felt-tip pen. The load probably weighed about 20 pounds, roughly 10 pounds lighter than if she had used her bigger leather bag. At the end of a round, my back, shoulders and legs were in fine shape, but my feet felt as if I had been in stiletto heels, rather than sneakers, all day.
In any case, it was my responsibility to keep the mood light and make our days on the course fun, no matter what score Mallon shot. "I like to hear you say, 'That's O.K.' when I hit a bad shot," she told me after one of her fairway drives landed in a bunker during practice. "I don't think it does any good to get too down on myself out here."
It's a delicate balance. Sometimes a caddie is better off saying nothing. Melissa McNamara, a second-year pro from Tulsa, and her hometown buddy Brad Ruley ended their professional association after an episode on tour last year. McNamara had slammed her putter into her palm after a double bogey, and she was in considerable pain walking to the next tee. When Ruley tried to make a joke about it, McNamara snapped, "Shut up and carry the bag!" They are still best friends and travel together; but Ruley is serving up one-liners to Bonnie Lauer this season, and McNamara has entrusted her bag and psyche to Ron (Graphite) Matthews, a mellow dude from L.A.
By the third round I was prepared to be whatever Mallon needed me to be: fairway psychologist or human wheelbarrow. No one had mentioned that I might also have to be an octopus. That lesson came during my baptism by rain on Saturday and Sunday. Rain is the caddie's worst nightmare, because you don't have enough hands to do everything that's required. Just keeping the player and the grips of her clubs dry becomes an ordeal when you are trying to hold an umbrella over her head while simultaneously handing her the next club, cleaning the dirty one she just used and zipping up the rain hood of the bag without making too much noise on the green. Colleen Walker and her caddie, Chuck Parisi, performed the routine like seasoned ballet dancers on Saturday. Despite much coaching, I never really got the hang of it. I tried to pretend I was in control, but by Sunday things were getting out of hand, literally. Rain was pouring down, the wind was whipping, and the umbrella almost flew away from me, causing me to nearly drop the bag on the 7th green while another player was just about to putt. Mercifully, tournament officials canceled play and ended my misery a few minutes later. The final round was postponed until the next day.
On Monday, standing with Meg at her ball on the 18th fairway, I remembered that Deb Richard's caddie, "Coffee" Joe Connolly, had described his role as part yardstick, part psychologist, part cheerleader and part mind reader. I would agree with him. And probably add amateur physiologist and full-time octopus to the list.
Steptoe could have used an extra hand to keep Mallon dry.
The rookie caddie's role: clean the clubs and keep the all-important yardage book handy.