AUGUSTA, Georgia – Everywhere Carl Jackson turns at Augusta National, he keeps hearing the same word.
Jackson, 64, will be caddying in his 50th Masters this week, taking his familiar turn on the bag with Ben Crenshaw. They’ve been together for 35 of those years, first hooking up in 1976 and teaming for a pair of wins.
“That’s awesome!” one fan said, learning of the caddie’s longevity as they stood together alongside the practice green.
Jackson had a few minutes to reflect while he waited for Crenshaw to come out to the practice range at Augusta National.
His mind turned to all those men who came before him, the African-Americans from his neighborhood who grew up in tiny houses right down the road in the Sand Hill section of Augusta. Most barely had enough money to put a meal on the table but were allowed through the most exclusive gates in town if they’d carry a golf bag for rich white men.
“I tend to keep thinking back to the old days,” Jackson said Monday, adorned in those familiar white coveralls that all Masters caddies must wear. “Pappy Stokes. Iron Man. Those guys are just on my mind right now.”
Jackson is a link to that segregated past, an era when all the players were white and had to use black caddies who worked for the club. He was only 14 when he carried the bag for Billy Burke in 1961; he’s been back every year since then except one, which means this will be his 50th Masters.
Jackson has long held the record for most Masters worked by a caddie, but this one is something special. He’s as much a part of this place as Magnolia Lane and green jackets.
“Fifty Masters is more than a lifetime,” marveled Crenshaw. “A lot of blood, sweat and tears go into those 50 years.”
No wonder Jackson – head shaved and sporting a wispy salt-and-pepper mustache – signed about as many autographs and posed for as many pictures as the golfer he works for, who just happens to be a two-time Masters champion.
“I don’t count,” Crenshaw quipped, putting his arms around Jackson as they dutifully posed for yet another picture, this one together. “He’s the one who counts.”
While Jackson points out the business side of the relationship – “I work for him,” the caddie said – their pairing is more about friendship than dollars and cents.
Crenshaw was a young stud trying to harness his erratic golf game when he first hooked up with the 6-foot-5 Jackson in 1976. Their temperaments meshed perfectly – the golfer, outgoing and a ball of emotions; the caddie, quiet and steady – and the result was a runner-up finish.
This will be their 35th Masters together – the only break coming in 2000, when Jackson was battling cancer. He beat the disease and intends to keep coming back as long as his health holds and Crenshaw keeps coming back.
“We are so lucky to have come this far and shared so many things,” Crenshaw said. “I couldn’t have accomplished the things I’ve accomplished (at Augusta) without Carl.”
They worked together only one year on the Tour. Jackson had children to care for and didn’t want to be away from home that often. Besides, the local knowledge he had at Augusta wasn’t so helpful at other courses, so it has been largely a once-a-year partnership.
But, ohhhh, what a partnership it’s been.
With Jackson on the bag, Crenshaw was a perennial contender at Augusta National through the prime of his career, winning his first green jacket in 1984 and posting nine other top-10 finishes over a 16-year period.
“A lot of near misses, and some really fun times, and some painful times as well,” Crenshaw said.
Then, with his career in a downward spiral and mourning the death of mentor Harvey Penick, Crenshaw teamed with Jackson for his most memorable triumph in 1995. A tip from the caddie helped Crenshaw get his swing straightened out on the practice range. After returning from Penick’s funeral, Crenshaw put together three straight rounds in the 60s to beat Davis Love III by a single stroke.
The picture of Crenshaw – bent over and crying his eyes out on the 18th green, Jackson having walked up from behind to put his two large hands gently on the golfer’s shoulders – remains one of the most memorable in Masters history.
“It just happened. It wasn’t planned,” Jackson said. “I was going somewhere else, and something changed my mind. I turned around and there was Ben, boohooing.”
True to his stoic nature, Jackson didn’t shed a tear himself.
“It’s a hard job sometimes,” he said, breaking into a big smile, “but that’s not me. I’m not crying.”
His long relationship with former Augusta National chairman Jack Stephens took him to Arkansas in 1973. These days Jackson runs a caddie program at the Alotian Golf Club near Little Rock, hoping to lure people of color into the sport.
He was a pretty good golfer in his day, getting his handicap into the single digits. He might’ve made it to the Tour himself with the right instruction and access to the best courses, and he certainly knows of other African-Americans who were even more skilled but never got the chance to advance beyond the caddie ranks.
Times have changed, of course. Augusta National has black members. Tiger Woods has won 14 major titles. The days of being forced to use club caddies ended nearly three decades ago.
But there are still few African-Americans in the golf pipeline, something that Jackson hopes to change by working with the youth. The first rule of being a good caddie, he says, is being a good golfer.
“If you’re going to make suggestions, you’ve got to have an understanding of what you’re trying to suggest,” he said. “I can’t see myself making a suggestion to a surgeon.”
Jackson wants to help ensure the next Tiger Woods doesn’t fall through the cracks.
He can think of no better way to honor those who came before him, like Pappy and Iron Man.
“I was a baby when I walked in here, and they just adopted me,” Jackson said, again gazing out toward the practice range. “They thought I had some instincts for the game, and they helped me bring them out. Those are the guys who did it.”