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Original Issue

Missing Masters Of Augusta

IT WAS Saturday night at the mottled two-story building in Augusta called Sand Hill Grill, with its two upstairs windows cracked open like sleepy eyes and swing music tumbling out its double doors.

From the sidewalk, where a street lamp flickered, you could barely detect an image on the joint's brick facade. It was a mural. Or was it a mirage?

In white coveralls and a green cap, with a golf bag slung over his shoulder, a black caddie of Augusta National lore—Tommy (Burnt Biscuits) Bennett, said the patrons, many of them his friends and former colleagues—is painted walking into the distance during Masters week. The figure has faded. Or has it vanished?

Two women, regular pro caddies, worked during the gale-force final round of the Masters on Sunday, but not one black caddie remained in the field after Ben Crenshaw failed to make the cut with Augusta National veteran Carl Jackson faithfully at his side for a 31st year.

These days the old Masters caddies are still heard, if not seen. They are still sought by players, if not employed by them.

About two weeks before the tournament each year pros in nice cars roll past Chevys without hubcaps and bikes without tires. They aren't lost motorists in the hard-worn Sand Hill area of Augusta, a meandering two miles from the club gates, but as they pull up to graying caddies who sit outside the Grill in plastic lawn chairs, they do ask for directions: Which way to the pin?

"They've all been here at some point—Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, Seve Ballesteros—and they come and pick our knowledge," said Fred (Hop) Harrison, who was on Ray Floyd's bag for his 1976 Masters win. "We show 'em [on the yardage books] how the ball rolls, where the breaks are for the greens, stuff like that."

It's an education in greens literacy from the caretakers of Augusta National's course knowledge. They dispense tips to players eager to learn: Does the ball break like an s as in snake, or a c as in curl or a ? as in who the hell knows?

These caddies are the Da Vinci code breakers of Amen Corner. Men like Hop and Burnt Biscuits and Joe Collins understand the mysterious ways of the only major championship that's fixed on a map, year after year. They know wind direction by looking at pine needles as if they were compass arrows. As Harrison noted, Greg Norman could have saved himself a lot of time, angst and bogeys during his '96 collapse if he'd "stopped tossing grass in the breeze and looked at the trees."

An Augusta National caddie would have come in handy for players suffering from wind damage on Sunday. Could one have kept Brandt Snedeker out of Rae's Creek on number 13? Or saved Woods from a three-putt on number 14?

No one will ever know. Though if you polled the caddies at the Grill after the third round last Saturday—"Tiger misread about five or six putts: 13, 15 and 16," they chimed—they'd all tell you that Woods's caddie, Steve Williams, is very good at stomping around, marking off yardage for Tiger. Excellent stomper, in fact.

Putting eye? Not so good. "That's why players come here," said one 60ish caddie who declined to give his name for fear of losing future jobs. "They need us, but they don't want us. Know what I mean?"

The snub occurred 25 years ago, but it still smarts. Once the servile job of caddying went white-collar, the evolving corporate class of millionaire bagmen—from Fluff Inc. to Steve (Valvoline) Williams—pushed Augusta National's everyday caddies behind the ropes of the Masters.

Scratch that. "Ropes? We can't even get a badge to get in the gate from Billy Payne," Harrison said of the Augusta National chairman. It wasn't Payne but one of his predecessors, Hord Hardin, who marked the beginning of the caddies' end in working the Masters. He waived the club-caddies-only policy before the 1983 tournament, relenting to players who demanded a bag carrier of their own choosing.

Some have chosen wisely over the years. Others turn to brothers-in-law, childhood pals or celebrities. Whatever decision they make, many golfers return to the Augusta National caddies at the Masters, if only when they steer toward the Grill. And when they pull up to the building on Wheeler Road, they'll see the faded mural of Burnt Biscuits.

Maybe they know him: He was the Masters caddie for a 19-year-old amateur named Tiger Woods in 1995. It was also the year that Crenshaw, who couldn't break 70 in the month before Augusta, took a couple of tips from Jackson. Four swings later he was ripping the ball. Five days later he was slipping on the green jacket.

Did that really happen? It seems like a mirage.

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The caddies are the Da Vinci code breakers of Amen Corner. Men like Hop and Burnt Biscuits understand the ways of the only major that's fixed on a map, year after year.