ST. ANDREWS, Scotland – “Mercer,” Frank says, “caddying for you is like searching for oil: I know it’s there; I just have to extract it.”
The simile draws a laugh from the rest of the group and even a smile from me. It’s certainly a new assessment of my game.
Frank Carter has been caddying at the Old Course in St. Andrews for over 30 years. His height is average, his build solid; his hair full and gray; his accent English, his age over 50 and his skin toughened from spending work days in the sun, wind and rain.
He lives in Stratham-von-Avon, rents an apartment in St. Andrews during the golf season, and works six days a week, 36 holes a day. He tried “proper jobs,” but found them restrictive and banal; though, he characterized them in more colorful language.
This is Frank Carter. The man who says he worked the 1978 Open Championship. The man who says he's caddied for the likes of Ian Woosnam and Sandy Lyle. And the man who now has the considerable misfortune of carrying a bag for me.
It’s a few minutes past noon on May 22, when Frank and I are formally introduced on the first tee of the Old Course. On assignment to get some pre-Open Championship material, I elected to employ a local caddie, in part to help me play the course, but mainly to enhance the experience.
“You must play fairly regularly,” Frank says upon learning about my profession and reason for visiting Scotland.
“First round this year,” I reply.
That comment, combined with the fact that I’m wearing tennis shoes, leaves Frank likely expecting to see 18 clubs, a dwarf and a range finder in my bag.
It couldn’t have helped his confidence in me when I skirted my tee shot on the first hole about 8 inches above the grass down the center of the fairway.
But there had to be some level of forgiveness for that. Playing for the first time in nearly a year, on the world’s most famous golf course, my right hand was shaking like Joe Cocker just trying to put a tee in the ground.
At least I hit it straight. Looking over the landscape it was difficult to believe that Ian Baker-Finch actually hit a tee shot out of bounds left. Evil Knievel couldn’t jump that far in his skycycle.
“Ever see people hit it OB left on this hole?” I ask Frank while walking down the first fairway.
“All the time,” he replies and then proceeds to tell me a story about Baker-Finch playing here three years ago and shooting 67 “without breaking a sweat.”
Frank has plenty of stories. After seeing my Ben Hogan clubs, he points out that Hogan never played the Old Course, just Carnoustie, where he won his only Open title in 1953. He adds that his parents were among the crowd in tow with Hogan, which included Frank Sinatra.
Frank – Carter – has plenty of opinions as well.
When asked if he has a favorite for the Open, he responds: “No favorite. But I can tell you one person I don’t want to win.”
That one person would be Tiger Woods, who Frank finds rather boorish.
“It’s not so much what he has done off the course,” he explains. “It’s his behavior (on the course) – the spitting and the cussing and the throwing of clubs. He’s no gentleman.
“Tom Watson, now there’s a gentleman.”
Proper behavior is important in these parts. After all, it is their game.
Regarding the Open Championship – to which Frank is impressed that I never refer to it as the British Open – Frank believes that the back nine will play so difficult that “only one in 10 will beat their score through nine holes.”
“Mark my words, with the new tee, the Open will be won or lost on the 17th hole. Someone in contention Sunday will make six trying to make three,” he adds.
One of the first things I learn about the Old Course from Frank is: “Left is your life. Right is your death.”
One of the first things Frank learns about me: I tend to make people doubt the veracity of my summa cum laude diploma.
On the par-4 sixth, Frank says, “St. Andrews is about where NOT to hit it. Do not go right here.”
I go right.
On the par-4 eighth, Frank says, “Do not go left here.”
I go left. At which point Frank looks at me and says … nothing.
“When a caddie is quiet,” Frank later tells me, “that’s not a good thing.”
Earlier in the round, when we were on speaking terms, Frank said, “You’ll never forget your first par at St. Andrews.”
I shot 10-over 46 on the front side. With no pars.
Frank now has a mission. For as much as he enjoys watching great players play great golf, nothing thrills him more than shepherding the lost.
Right now, I’m Moses without a map.
While my playing companions, the very affable Dougie Harvie and Bill Leech, a pair of neighbors from Glasgow, take a snack break at the turn, I ponder the thought of not making a par on the Old Course, knowing I’ll likely never play here again. That thought sucks.
My play is no reflection on Frank’s caddying. He proved his prowess just a few holes in when he said, “A good caddie gets to know his player quickly. I can tell you just need to know what club to hit.”
He was dead on. I don’t need a yardage. I can’t hit the ball exactly 158 any more than I can play a fiddle.
He picked good clubs. I hit poor shots.
But my score is secondary to the occasion. And Frank has heightened that with his knowledge of the course, its history and his stories.
“One of my favorite experiences,” he says, “came when I caddied for a kid playing with his father, grandfather and great grandfather. From 10 to 81, four generations. An absolute joy. The son was a credit to his father.”
The son probably made a par that day.
On the par-4 10th, I managed to hit the green in two. Forty-five feet away, I sent a ball screaming like Janet Leigh toward the hole. It hit the back of the cup, popped up and plopped in for a birdie.
“That thing would have gone right off the green if it hadn’t hit the hole,” I said to Frank, to which he replied, “I’m not interested in where it might have gone.”
I bogeyed 11, 12 and 13, but did manage to avoid Hell Bunker at the par-5 14th. Frank encouraged me to take my tee shot down the adjacent fifth fairway to which I obliged – for once. A nice lay-up put me back on the proper hole. Walking past the bunker Jack Nicklaus took four shots to get out of in 1995, Frank added to the moment by saying, “You pay for a round here, you buy a part of history.”
Jack made a 10 that day on the 14th. I have a chance to make a 5. All I need to do is convert a 2-footer for par, which, for anyone who knows my putting stroke is as much of a certainty as a Brett Favre commitment.
“I want you to make this more than you do,” Frank says, which only adds to the pressure, but is better than, “Don’t pull a Doug Sanders.”
I made the putt. I then parred 15 and 16. A perfect drive on the Road Hole 17th gave me a chance at four in a row, but a lip-out led to bogey. Three more putts on the 18th green closed out my back-nine 40.
Not an impressive number by most standards, certainly not the overall 86, but I played the same course as Old Tom Morris, did something Ben Hogan never did, birdied the hole named for Bobby Jones, beat Jack Nicklaus by five at 14, and crossed the same Swilken Bridge as Arnold, Seve, Tiger and every other golfer famous enough to be known by one name.
“Mercer,” Frank says on the 18th green, “It’s been a pleasure.”
My one name won’t live in Old Course lore. It’s long forgotten me by now. Perhaps Frank has, too.
But I won’t forget the course or the caddie or the experience. At least not until senility sets in. Which is why I took pictures.