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From hitch-hike to the ‘paralysis of analysis’

Caddy Colin Byrne walks off the 2nd tee during Thursday's Round 1 of the 117th U.S. Open Championship 2017 held at Erin Hills, Erin, Wisconsin, USA. 15th June 2017. Picture: Eoin Clarke | Golffile All photos usage must carry mandatory copyright credit (© Golffile | Eoin Clarke)

The most dramatic recent change in the modern era of golf has undoubtedly been technology. But there have been many invisible alterations in the game that may not be as apparent to the erstwhile viewer.

My name is Colin Byrne and I caddie for one of your nation’s finest golfers Rafa Cabrera Bello. I have caddied since almost before Rafa was born, needless to say I have seen some changes over three decades.

Colin Byrne caddy for Ernie ELS (RSA) on the 8th tee during Sunday’s Final Round of the 2014 PGA Championship held at the Valhalla Club, Louisville, Kentucky.: Picture Eoin Clarke, 10th August 2014

It’s the less tangible alterations that are of more interest to those with an ear for the human tale. You see the caddie has not always enjoyed the status that he/she does in the year 2020. I began lugging a bag around Europe when there were more players looking for a porter than caddies looking for a master. We had a wider choice but still little hope of earning more than a hand to mouth wage. Back in the 1980’s the Order Of Merit winner earned less than a top ten finisher in a Rolex event today. So the hope of the caddie then was to survive rather than thrive.

It wasn’t uncommon to hitch-hike to the next event, jumping trains or riding the overnight bus was a common occurrence. Spin forward a few decades and it would not be uncommon for a modern caddie to hitch a lift in a private plane with all the trimmings to boot. The key to caddying despite the varying levels of comfort or discomfort is never to get complacent or too used to a certain life style. A common joke in the ‘caddie shack’ is that you can fall from the penthouse to the ‘shit-house’ in the space of a few untimely bogeys. You need to be flexible and adaptable in an extremely fickle business where the demands of you and your expectation may need constant re-assessment.

© Golffile/Eoin Clarke

When I set out on my caddying adventure in the late eighties, armed with a university degree, it was meant to be a temporary voyage of discovery rather than a probing and very lenghty uncertain career. Certainly for my parents who had educated me, their expectations were naturally higher than ‘bag-carrier’. Ireland was not the most prosperous place for graduates in that era so doing something, anything was probably better than was on offer back home and certainly more exciting.

The demands of a caddie were primarily to show up. Tuesday was plenty of time and hopefully for the player, about an hour in advance of their tee time for the rest of the week. That tended to keep you your job. Believe me, experiencing a new European capital each week made showing up on time or at all a tougher task than it is today. The yardage we provided was extremely basic. If you possessed a measuring wheel you were advanced. It was the era when yardage books were in their infancy and numbers were a lot less detailed than they are today. If you didn’t use a laser, compass and altimetre now you would be considered inadequate. Of course the penchant for statistics is never-ending. Some of us more senior loopers can frequently bang on about the paralysis of analysis that the ‘scientists’ in today’s game require. The numbers have to explain the result rather than common sense and human logic, ie, you had 34 putts and hit 16 greens, you don’t need a clip board to figure out where the problem lies.

In the old days, if a player was seen with anyone apart from his caddie there was immediate suspicion. A swing coach was a rare sight on the range, a psychologist was an admission of insanity. Now you would be considered insane if you didn’t have an entourage of coach, caddie, psychologist, manager, physio, social media guru, tailor and nutritionist. Oh yes times really have changed.

With the advent of the modern yardage book and its complex green reading arrows it is becoming harder to distinguish yourself as an accomplished caddie. The detail of the books makes it easier for everyone and anyone to advise their player. Advising is what we do. It is an important distinction for both player and caddie to observe; the caddie advises and the player decides. This does not shirk responsibility because what you say as a caddie can have a huge influence on the decision that the player makes. But it is vital for the player to take total responsibility, it is what all the best players do. I suppose increasingly our duty as a caddie is to read our player’s minds and deal with them accordingly. You can often tell by how your player greets you in the morning what kind of mood he is in. Reading attitude and trying to cajole your player into a positive frame of mind is very much part of the modern caddie’s important role.

Golfers have travelled a long and winding path to the current environment that tour players now enjoy. So too have their bagmen. We are less likely now to be crammed into a one star hostel and more likely to enjoy the luxury of a five star hotel. We have all risen on the rising tide of professional golf and our roles have become more man-management centred on top of the traditional menial tasks of carrying the bag.

Modern technology has undoubtedly enabled today’s golfer to hit the ball further and get closer to the winner’s podium but their mind’s are what get them to the top and keep them there.