My kids say that for one of my favourite weeks of the year, I don’t seem to enjoy the Masters very much, and my wife says I’m unusually curt and anxious. They’re right, of course, but they don’t have to figure out the wind at Golden Bell.
I love the Masters. It’s the Holy Grail of golf. If you’re there, you matter. But there’s also a reason why Harbour Town, where most of us head afterwards, is beloved on tour; it’s the first time we can exhale in a week.
Caddies are generally a loose bunch, but everyone is wound a little tight at Augusta National. Conversations are more formal, and we stick to our job. The club and its members treat us well, and we want to reciprocate, but we always feel like we’re being watched when we’re on the property. We know one slip-up could send us packing. It’s just hard to be comfortable, and, no, I’m not talking about the white overalls we have to wear. (For the record, I really dig them, although I’ve had ovens that didn’t run as hot as those suits.)
What’s at stake also plays into the tension. I never get used to a missed cut there. I don’t necessarily expect my player and I to win, but it still hurts to walk away without that green jacket. It doesn’t matter if you didn’t make it to Saturday or were a shot out.
That’s why every year I meet with an Augusta National caddie a few weeks before the tournament. I pepper him with questions about the changes he has seen to the course or how it’s playing. You would be surprised how many alterations occur each year that aren’t announced. Our meetings began with me picking up a bar tab; now it’s dinner, and I bring him a good bottle of wine. I usually leave with half a dozen tips, most of which my player and I would have figured out during a practice round. But the Masters will make even the non-religious turn to prayer asking for the tiniest bit of help. Having intel that others might not is a shot of confidence.
This is also the event where caddies are leaned on the most, which might surprise you considering the Masters is the only Major played at the same course annually. But those greens –no matter how many times you have played them, no putt is ever the same. It’s like trying to figure out an equation, but the variables keep changing. Bubba Watson once told me nothing in golf confounds him like those greens – and he has won the green jacket twice.
That’s why players are more dependent on us at Augusta than at any other venue; the more voices trying to figure out how to get the ball in the hole, the better. A veteran caddie gave me this advice: respect Rae’s Creek, but don’t give it outsize influence. Everyone has heard that putts break towards the creek. I’ve seen enough evidence to know this gravitational pull is real. However, rather than factor that into the putting formula, some players think it’s the only factor and disregard the beautiful, chaotic matrix of the green. The secret? Mention the creek first, not last. If you note where it is last, that is the last thing going through your player’s mind, and it will sway the putt. Note it first, and the creek’s location will merely be an influence. The first year I used that advice, my player finished in the top 10 after missing the cut the previous year.
A lot has been made about the roars of Augusta, and the course always has a palpable buzz no matter where you walk. What’s rarely discussed is the silence. Patrons are on their best behaviour, so the moments when they’re supposed to be quiet can be eerily quiet. Those stretches of silence can be just as pressure-packed as hearing an explosion of cheers coming from another part of the course because the player realises everyone is watching him.
Players are just as uncomfortable as we are. The best advice I’ve received about working the Masters is this: slow down. The player, whether it’s his first Masters or 15th, will be jittery on Thursday. That’s OK; if you’re not nervous, it means you don’t know what you’re playing for. Still, you have to regulate those feelings. My approach is to simply walk slower. It gives the player a chance to catch his breath, to get the heart rate down. Augusta National is one of the harder walks of the year. You can physically wear yourself out if you don’t pace yourself.
Players talk about the importance of blocking out noise during Masters week, and the same applies to us. I avoid social media, and if a number pops up on my phone that’s not a saved contact, I delete it because it’s probably someone looking for an extra badge to get on the grounds. When I’m away from the course, I’ll make sure the TV isn’t on the Golf Channel because you need to excuse yourself from the circus.
Don’t misunderstand me. This is the best course we play and best conditioned. There is no parallel to how well everything is run. Augusta has no jerks in the crowd; there’s just a collective happiness to the place. It can be hard to appreciate in the moment, but I do get small windows to look around and realise, Oh yeah, I’m at the Masters.
My favourite part is the 13th tee during a practice round. No patrons back there: just you, your group and serenity staring down the most famous hole in golf. The tournament, and all its possibilities dance in your head. I never forget to remind myself, How good is this? Because it doesn’t get any better.
Image by Ben Walton