In good times and bad, caddies play larger role


AKRON, Ohio – The third-person plural has become a trending topic this year on the PGA Tour.

A sport defined in large part by its individual nature has seen its scope expand recently, with the spotlight on player-caddie relationships growing brighter by the minute.

Jordan Spieth’s insistence on using “we” was never more evident than two weeks ago at Royal Birkdale, where Michael Greller proved invaluable down the stretch.

But caddies are again a topic of discussion this week at the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational, where Rory McIlroy is expected to arrive Wednesday with a new man on his bag after splitting with longtime looper J.P. Fitzgerald.

The mid-season timing is certainly curious given that McIlroy will enter next week’s PGA Championship as one of the favorites on a course where he has often dominated. But it shows that while the nature of “we” means sharing the spoils when times are good, it can also cloud things considerably amid a downturn.

“It boils down to this. The pro, the player, is always going to blame anybody else but himself,” said Dave Stockton.

Stockton came up in a far different generation on Tour, winning the PGA Championship in 1970 and 1976. He now serves as a short-game guru to the stars, which gives him an up close look at a player-caddie bond that’s a far cry from the one he enjoyed with the estimated six caddies he used during his career on Tour.

“I think it’s more of a partnership. The one thing I hear is ‘our team.’ Spieth does it, a bunch of them talk about their team,” Stockton said. “When we were out there, my team was my wife and I. That was it. That was our team.”

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The modern-day team is receiving more attention than ever because, well, it’s become more important than ever for many of the top pros.

It’s a shift that has been seen even by players who have spent the past two decades inside the ropes. Lee Westwood had his regular caddie, Billy Foster, by his side for a practice round Tuesday at Firestone Country Club, where the Englishman reminisced on how times have changed since he turned pro in 1993.

“I think you get a lot more players bringing friends out now rather than just hooking up with people when they get out here,” Westwood said. “I think caddies are more professional in everything they do, really. They have a lot more responsibility now than they did at the end of last century, or when I came out here. It was more just carrying a golf bag, and I think they do a lot more now. They’re consulted by the players a lot more.”

The days of “show up, keep up, and shut up” are long gone. As the dynamic between player and caddie continues to evolve, it’s clear that the role of looper is becoming more critical rather than the other way around.

A good caddie can afford top players with a 15th club in the bag, but it also means that high-profile changes like McIlroy’s split with Fitzgerald can cause shockwaves.

“I think nowadays with social media and all that going on, you’re part of a massive brand,” said Paul Lawrie, who turned pro in 1986. “Especially with Rory, because he’s got what, 3 million followers on Twitter? So the slightest thing and you’re under scrutiny. But that’s just how it is. You sign up for that, to be part of the team.”

Of course much of the recent caddie scrutiny started in June, when Phil Mickelson surprisingly split with Jim “Bones” Mackay after a 25-year partnership. Theirs was a rare bond inside the ropes, and one that Mickelson held in high esteem from the start.

“When I came out on Tour, there weren’t as many quality individuals like Bones that were great caddies but also had their stuff together,” Mickelson said. “And now, everybody does. You don’t see a lot of caddies like you did 40 years ago, out partying and doing things. You see them rested, walking the course, really impressive individuals.”

There remains no perfect formula for creating golf’s third-person plural. McIlroy will reportedly embark on the friend-turned-caddie route starting this week with childhood pal Harry Diamond. A similar choice has sparked a resurgence this year for Tommy Fleetwood, while Mickelson turned to his brother after Mackay’s departure and others like Spieth have taken a more conventional approach.

While tactics in choosing a caddie may vary, it’s a bond that continues to receive more and more attention. And with the scope of the role continuing to expand for top players, it’s a trend that likely won’t reverse anytime soon.

“I tell people really the caddies now are in better shape than the players were when we were playing,” Stockton said. “The relationship to the player has changed dramatically, and I think for the better. They’re very serious, and there’s no stone unturned. And that’s kind of it. If you’re going to beat everybody, you kind of have to do that.”