Four days ago, Sandy Lyle was finishing his first Masters Sunday in four years with a rejuvenating 71. Sub-par rounds at Augusta had become rarer than a red diamond for 1988’s champion.
A quarter century had passed since his famous 7-iron shot out of the bunker at No. 18, and the more that moment recedes, the more heartening a round such as Sunday’s had to be.
Paired with 14-year-old Tianlang Guan on that fourth round, a spirited Lyle remarked, “I think he was surprised at how well the old farts can play.”
On Thursday he was schlepping around with four amateur partners spray-painting TPC Sugarloaf with snap hooks and chili dips, and a guest caddie about as useless as open-toed golf shoes (i.e. me).
This weekend’s Greater Gwinnett Championship, the first over-50 tour event played at the one-time PGA Tour site, is only 150 miles from the goings-on in Augusta, but it seemed so much farther. Especially Thursday, a pro-am day. The real golf at Sugarloaf — the Champions go 54 holes — begins Friday.
Lyle has won two majors, the 1985 British Open and the ’88 Masters. British born of Scottish parents, he was part of the European surge of the 1980s and ’90s that included Nick Faldo, Seve Ballesteros, Bernhard Langer and Ian Woosnam. He was inducted into the World Golf Hall of Fame last year.
The late Ballesteros once said that Lyle possessed the greatest God-given talent in history. “If everyone in the world was playing their best, Sandy would win and I would come in second,” the Spaniard gushed.
Those were Lyle’s considerable qualifications for being involved with the Champions Tour event Thursday, along with the fact that he’s 55 now. His swing now seems to have more parts than Downton Abbey, with a pronounced hesitation on the takeaway, but it remains effective.
As far as my credentials to caddie, I happened to say yes when someone from the Tour called and asked if I’d be interested in looping for nine holes.
His regular man, Butch Wilhelm, was there to make sure I didn’t suggest Lyle use the mashie niblick on the par 3s.
This week will be a little different arrangement for player and caddie. Because of Sugarloaf’s rolling topography and its spread-all-over-creation design, they will be allowed to use carts. Lyle and Wilhelm normally walk, and may later in the weekend whenever the forecasted rain stops.
Just to get the full effect, they suggested I carry the 35-pound bag for a couple of holes. I suggest, in turn, that the whole are-golfers-really-athletes argument would be settled once and for all if the players carried their own stinking bags. Nevertheless, I saddled up.
Some caddies have colorful nicknames. Wilhelm knows fellows by the name of Shampoo (for his perfect coif), Weed (for obvious reasons) and Baghdad (because he gets bombed every night). After one tournament carrying a bag, mine would be Chester — after the stove-up character in the old TV show “Gunsmoke” — because I fear there’d be a permanent limp. Or, perhaps Yeti, given a generally large, hirsute nature that does not fit well in a refined golf environment.
Lyle’s bag was a little heavier than usual this day, as he was trying multiple wedges before Friday’s first round. It also would help the load if his putter didn’t have a head on it the size of Queen Elizabeth’s jewelry box.
The experience brought back some painful long-ago flashbacks of trying to lug my 4-year-old up Kennesaw Mountain.
The player-caddie relationship goes beyond that of prospector and his mule, however.
First-hand I witnessed the intricate planning that can go on between closely knit professional partners, as Lyle and Wilhelm stood on the tee surveying one fairway guarded by bunkers both left and right.
“Hit it between the bunkers,” Wilhelm suggested.
OK, sometimes it sounds pretty simple.
Mostly, though, to walk a mile or two in a caddie’s shoes is to gain an appreciation for the task. Staying one step ahead of the player, having ready every shot distance for him on command while wiping down clubs, raking bunkers and tending pins is not for those challenged by multi-tasking. It’s not exactly air traffic control, but it’s more frantic than you might first believe.
A caddie also must minor in psychology.
“Instead of him walking down the fairway griping or moaning (after a bad shot), we’ll try to talk about whatever other than golf until we almost get back to the ball,” Wilhelm said.
One other bit of advice for all you aspiring caddies out there from the pro: Never tell a player where not to hit the ball because inevitably that’s exactly where the ball will travel.
Wilhelm, a PGA teaching pro who worked in Middle Georgia before taking up as a caddie for players such as Allen Doyle and Tim Simpson, also had to bridge something of a language barrier when he began working with Lyle last year.
Sometimes his manner can be charming. On Thursday, rather than tell one of the amateurs that his putting stroke resembled a man in the grips of a seizure, Lyle merely called it, “a nervous prod.”
Other times it can be baffling. In last year’s PGA Senior Championship, as he left a tee box on the back nine one day, Lyle told Wilhelm, “I’m jaded. I’m knackered.”
“OK,” Wilhelm said, “You told me you’re jaded and knackered, and I don’t know what you are.” (Lyle was exhausted).
For his part, Lyle expects his caddie, “to have my yardage and to match my rhythm on the course. I don’t want to be looking all around wondering where my caddie is. He has to be somebody I can rely on. I want my guy there when I need him.”
With that, I left Lyle and Wilhelm to their labors this weekend. Given Lyle’s description of the job, it seems I’m already working it to a large extent. I’m married.