It was like death and taxes – inevitable. Eternal, even.
It’s somehow fitting that Phil Mickelson and his longtime bagman Jim “Bones” Mackay decided to call it quits this week. The duo’s last start together, the FedEx St. Jude Classic two weeks ago, was where it all began.
“I do think every time I come back here, 25 years ago to the day basically on Monday, Tuesday, it was at Farmington Golf Course was the first day that Bones and I ever worked together. It was exactly 25 years ago this week,” Mickelson said on June 7. “Every time I come back here to Memphis I always think about that and that particular moment.”
Mickelson didn’t play last week’s U.S. Open, electing to attend his daughter’s graduation instead, but Bones was still there, walking the insanely long fairways of Erin Hills on the off chance his boss of two-and-a-half decades could somehow make his opening tee time.
Lefty didn’t make that tee time, but Bones’ diligence in preparing for the highly unlikely eventuality is as good a place to begin an examination of the duo’s unique relationship as any.
Make no mistake, Mackay was much more than simply an “outdoor butler,” an affectionate term for caddies in Tour circles. He was Mickelson’s friend and confidant. He was Lefty’s competitive compass when things sped up on the golf course as they often do when you find yourself in contention, and Mickelson and his wingman found themselves in the hunt often.
Forty-one of Mickelson’s 42 Tour titles came with Mackay on the bag, the exception being the 1991 Northern Telecom Open which Lefty won as an amateur with his future manager, Steve Loy, pulling looping duties.
“I’m undefeated,” Loy joked earlier this year in Mexico when Mickelson’s brother, Tim, had to stand in when Mackay came down with an illness.
Player-caddie relationships simply aren’t built to last. The stress of playing the game at the highest level combined with the inevitable ebb and flow of a career tend to create an excess of emotional baggage for both employer and employee.
The adage on Tour goes that there are two kinds of caddies, those who have been fired and those who are about to be, but since 1992 Mackay has been neither. In Bones, Mickelson had a perfect yin to his complex competitive yang, someone who could provide a voice of reason when all Lefty could hear in his head was, “Go for it.”
Mickelson has spoken of the annual “veto” he allowed Bones, a one-time card Mackay could use, without question or concern, if he and his boss disagreed on a particular shot.
“I do want to say for the record that I did not use my ‘veto’ this year. I would like to pass it along to [Mickelson’s interim caddie, brother Tim], in all its glory,” Mackay wrote in a statement announcing the duo’s split on Tuesday.
Mickelson playfully fired back in his own statement, explaining that the veto was “non-transferable,” but joking aside, the agreement is a telling sign of the depths of trust shared by the two. It’s the type of agreement that’s not shared by many player-caddie combinations and for good reason. That kind of confidence only comes from decades of trial and, in Mickelson’s case, plenty of error.
The best example of this complex and compelling relationship came on Sunday at the 2010 Masters. Mickelson’s drive at the 13th hole had raced through the fairway and into the pine straw.
Clinging to a one-stroke lead, Mickelson being Mickelson eyed the situation – which included a pair of trees in front of him and Rae's Creek waiting 200 yards away – and informed Bones, “I’m going for it.”
Not once but twice Mackay attempted to talk Lefty into taking a more conservative shot and layup, and both times Mickelson was having none of it. History will hold that Mickelson’s 6-iron came to rest 4 feet from the hole for a two-putt birdie that helped secure his third green jacket.
But it was Bones’ unique approach on that special Sunday that resonated with his fellow caddies. The balance between trying to talk your player out of what you believe to be an overly aggressive shot and not chipping away at their confidence is a fine line, and no one did that better than MacKay.
Bones doesn’t appear to be heading into retirement, which means someone is going to hire a Hall of Fame caddie in the next few months, but there may never be a tandem like Lefty and Bones again. It was a relationship that was built on much more than just golf or glory, and it ended far too soon.