What’s it like to caddie in the Open Championship?
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story was originally published in July 2019.
“With waterproof paper? Or regular paper?” are the questions that some lucky caddies hear only once a year, which always makes me wonder: “Why is this nice lady actually asking the questions?”
“With waterproof paper please,” is the clever answer. And watching the stress on this lady’s face, being scared of running out of yardage books with waterproof paper pages, always makes me smile.
Welcome to The Open Championship’s caddie lounge. A place where, for one entire week, hot tea, coffee and soup usually run out every day. A place where rain gear, towels, caps, grips and entire golf bags dry by heating systems pretty much every day.
Having nice weather at The Open Championship is like matching a bikini supermodel on Tinder for a single man… it doesn’t happen that often, if it actually happens. Royal Liverpool Golf Club in 2006 was the exception. Most players and caddies got sunburned there.
The history, the best links golf courses, the cold, strong winds, the thick rain drops, the sound of countless seagulls laughing at you from way above, the large galleries, the heavy weight of the golf bags due to rain gear, sweaters, wooly hats, extra towels and so on, the Scottish, British and Northern Irish accents, the smell of sausages on the grill for breakfast in the food trucks by the driving range, the Home of Golf, the low clouds moving as fast as horses racing at the Kentucky Derby, the Gore-Tex shoes, the busy club makers building driving irons and grinding wedges for the right bounce on firm turf, the hunt for hand warmers in sports shops close by, the luck or bad luck of the tee times draw for the weather, the legendary names engraved on the claret jug… The Open Championship.
If you grew up being an ambitious young player from Europe, Australia or South Africa, chances are that winning The Open would be the pinnacle of your golfing career.
I was 8 years old when I watched The Open on television for the first time. And I didn’t miss one shot from Seve Ballesteros’ third Open title and last major win. I was glued to the TV like non-waterproof pages glued to each other in your yardage book if you do not take the clever option this week. And I have not missed one Open Championship on TV since, or caddying in a few.
2005 was my first time attending The Open, at St Andrews, the Home of Golf. It was nice going back there after having played the St Andrews Links Trophy, a great amateur event, a few years earlier.
I discovered then that tee times at The Open run from 6:35 a.m. until 4:16 p.m., every 11 minutes, and obviously all from the first tee. Every year, at all different venues. Great tradition.
I also discovered that St Andrews is the only Open venue which allows caddies to walk on the greens early mornings before the tournament rounds in order to see the pin positions… because the greens are just so big! For instance, you could be 2 yards short of the fifth green and have a 91-yard shot! No joke, this green is exactly 101 yards long and I have seen an 89 on, 4 right pin placement there at the Open Championship. In that case, your putting stroke could look like Rafael Nadal’s strong forehand.
So, as the sun rises around 4:40 a.m. that time of the year in Scotland, groups of caddies stroll on the fairways and greens to get their early homework done. Quite picturesque and a great feeling.
At that Open Championship, the weather was nice, according to Scottish standards, all week. Witnessing the Golden Bear Jack Nicklaus playing in his last Open Championship was very special. Paired with Tom Watson and Luke Donald, he would unfortunately miss the cut by 2, but he would birdie the 18th in great fashion. Christian Donald was caddying for his brother Luke and they must have had an amazing time that week.
In 2008 at Royal Birkdale, the weather would be a different story. As a golf course, Royal Birkdale is clearly my favorite Open venue. It is a gem of beauty and great design, where almost every single bunker is in play. And it is a serious test of golf. During the practice rounds already, players and caddies had experienced different kinds of rain: the thick vertical one, the diagonal thin one and the blustery, almost parallel to the ground, straight-in-your face one. My player then, Frenchman Jean-Baptiste Gonnet, was playing in his first major. And we were sharing a house together about a mile away, along with his girlfriend, coach and agent.
On the Wednesday afternoon, we checked the weather forecast for our Thursday morning’s 6:52 tee time. One forecast looked really bad, another one looked awful and another one pretty much ordered us to stay inside the house. So, I went to a local shop to buy 12 medium-sized towels just to make sure that we’d have plenty the next day.
It is during the really bad weather at The Open Championship that the art of caddying, because it is an art, is appreciated by your player.
Back at home, I prepared the golf bag… 14 clubs, 10 balls, 5 regular gloves, 5 pairs of rain gloves, hand warmers, an extra cap, granola bars, fruits, one towel on top, 2 large extra ones and those 12 medium ones in sealed plastic bags. There was no need to put our rain gear in there, simply because we’d wear them walking to the track really early morning.
And by the time we got to the course at 5:30, we were soaked.
In tough, wet, windy and cold conditions: 1) keep the clubs and the bag dry; 2) make sure that your player is keeping himself as dry as possible; 3) try to save the pages of your yardage book… as the term “waterproof” has its own limits.
That morning was clearly the toughest conditions I have ever caddied in. Jean-Baptiste hit 3 greens in regulations in the entire round, but missed his shots on the correct sides and scrambled like a demon. His 5-over par 75 was actually one of the best scores from the early tee times. And I only had one dry medium towel left by the time we finished.
The next day, JB holed his second on the par 4 fifth… a 116-yard, punch 6-iron… At the Open Championship, the word “wind” simply has a different meaning. He would shoot a 2-over par round, make the cut and we would make memories we’ll keep for a long time.
I was lucky to caddie at other Open Championships afterwards… Turnberry, St Andrews again, Royal Lytham and St Annes, Royal Troon and Royal Birkdale… and every time the weather would challenge all players and caddies at some point.
The look on Søren Kjeldsen’s face on that photo, at Royal Birkdale in 2017, finishing his second round, says it all.
This is The Open. And this upcoming week at Royal Portrush will most likely not be any different: Mother Nature will play a major role in the outcome of the event.
Unfortunately, I will not be caddying this year. Nevertheless, I will watch it all once again, hoping to see the locals Rory McIlroy and his caddie Harry Diamond holding the Claret Jug on Sunday evening.
What a great story would that be.