Maybe it was an early experience of playing with a caddy that scarred me for life. We were on the 9th hole at the Red Course in Rabat. I was standing over a 2 foot putt to scrape a Stableford point, which I ever so slightly pulled to the left - I don't think I was too sensitive to be annoyed at the howls of laughter which emanated from my caddy and his partners in crime. I use those words carefully as it was walking down the 10th fairway that I noticed they were all sucking on one of the cola flavoured Chuppa Chups which had been lurking at the bottom of my bag. It was not a happy finish to the round.
That was a particularly bad experience but it has taken me quite a long time to get used to playing with caddies in tow. You see the thing is, I'm not really a great golfer and it has been known, from time to time, for me to get a little tense on the golf course. If there is a gathering on a first tee then the nerves jangle just a little more and the idea of another 4 people witnessing every shot of my round initially filled me with dread.
Of course, I have now realised that caddies see all kinds of horrors on the course every day and my 14 handicap is probably one of the better experiences they are likely to have. Oh, and I play fast which is vitally important to them - allowing them to get back to the clubhouse and get another loop in or get off to enjoy the rest of the day.
There have been some other lowlights. At Sandy Lane in Barbados it is mandatory to take a caddy. That's not the end of the world and not unusual at all on the other side of the pond. The only thing is, it's mandatory to take a buggy as well. The caddy's role was to stand on the back of the buggy as we drove around so he could rake bunkers and give advice - at $100 a pop! My playing partner had to take him to one side on the 4th and advise him to quit the comments before he was ejected from his perch.
There have been some highlights too. I remember playing at the Wild Coast in Kwazulu Natal, South Africa, many, many years ago. Our group all had female caddies and I put my drive into a lake on an early hole. My caddy simply stripped off her dress and jumped into the water and came out with the cry of 'Titleist 3?'. I was only 17 at the time but I can see it as clear as if it were yesterday...
Probably the most unusual pace I have played golf was at the Celebrity Golf Club in the remote town of Tema in Ghana. The course was made up largely of 'browns' rather than greens - a mixture of oil and sand - and the course wasn't exactly overplayed. It was really basic, but the people we met there were incredibly helpful, at times to the point of influencing the game. There were 2 of us playing and whenever we got to our balls, wherever we had hit them, they were in a perfect lie, with a wonderful line to the green. Our fore caddy really worked hard for his tip that day.
The American caddy experience takes a little getting used to as it is the norm for them to carry two bags at the same time. The first time I came across it was playing the Blue Monster at Doral. Now, I had problems with that place for more reasons than just this, but safe to say our caddy struggled somewhat that day as I was hooking it and my partner was slicing it. Taking a caddy on that occasion definitely added a good half hour to the round. Yet, we later discovered it is the norm. Most top-end, private clubs in the US insist on you taking a caddy who carries 2 bags - only at Sage Valley have we seen a single bag carrier.
Here are some tips if you do end up with a companion for a 4 hour stroll -
1. Lighten the bag before you get there. Even before the handshakes take place they will be in your bags, looking at what they can take out to make the bag lighter. I had assumed they would all be delighted when they saw my Mackenzie golf bag but the lack of a stand sometimes raises a comment early on.
2. Remember their names. I know this might sound obvious but I have been caught out several times. You will find yourself conversing not just with your caddy but the others as well as you go around and names can be useful for that!
3. Don't worry, they've seen it all before. One of the best caddies I ever had was at Queenwood. The caddy standard there is pretty darn high - mine was an ex-tour caddy for Ryder Cup players - but he made me feel at ease immediately by saying today was about me, not him, and he had seen all kinds of horrors on the golf course, there was nothing I could do to beat them!
4. Find out what the expected tip is from the caddy master. Most caddies are self employed and the course acts as an introducer. Check in advance what the charge is - there is often a fixed fee and a recommended tip,. Ignore it at your peril and over-tip if you had a good experience. It's good karma!
5. Let them know what you're looking for. Some caddies will try and do everything - give lessons, pull clubs, plot you round the course, read every putt. Others will just carry your bag. Try to find what works best for you and then lead them that way. For me, the lesson thing is an absolute no-no and I don't really want them telling me which shots to play as they don't know my game as well as I do. Making that clear early on - in the nicest possible way - helps set some ground rules!
6. They know the course - use that to your advantage. This really is when I get the most out of a caddy. They will not just give yardages but also give advice on different ways to play the hole, things to watch out for, lines to go for - that can really be invaluable. I wish I had taken one at Royal County Down when I played it, it could only have helped!
7. If they can read the greens then follow them to the death, if not - stop asking! To me, this is when a caddy can really make your round. Many of them will have seen each green thousands of times, they will know every break and every slope - use this to your advantage. If however, you get a couple of bum reads early on then stop asking. If you keep getting the reads but ignoring it, it can lead to a little atmosphere - just tell the caddy that you've 'got them 'from now on. I would even consider asking the caddy master before a round to get me one who is the best at green reading and get him or her - it can be that important.
8. Just be yourself. Unless you are a real douche-bag of course, in which case try to be someone else. Generally though I try not to play or act any different because there is a caddy carrying my bag. I'll chat to them a bit - but not to the exclusion of my playing partners.
9. Get some stories. This one requires a little judgement. Sometimes you can get a caddy who wants to make the round all about him. I had one of these once at the Renaissance in East Lothian. The guy was an ex European Tour caddy who had verbal diarrhoea. He just wanted to get his anecdotes out and have a bit of 'banter' with us. I abhor the use of the word 'banter' but this guy personified it. It was awful. But, if you get it right, you can hit gold-dust. Threewood at NGLA was one of those. He had caddied for Matt Fitzpatrick there in the Walker Cup, was Michael Bloomberg's looper of choice and knew the course incredibly well. He was by no means garrulous but had some great snippets and I could happily have him carry my bag for every round I ever play.
10. Under no circumstances, whatever happens, be 'that guy'. I've only seen this happen once. I was playing at Kingsbarns and a French guy playing with us wanted a caddy. Now the caddies at Kingsbarns have pretty much seen it all and are some of the best around. The Frenchman started well - he was a low single figure golfer and had some good game. All was well for 9 holes but on the back nine his swing lost him. The thing is, for some unknown reason, he decided that the caddy could bear the brunt of this. The throwing of clubs for the caddy to pick up, the muttered oaths, it was all pretty awful. In the end I think he realised he had gone too far and gave a more than generous tip but there is no doubt that that evening in the bar the Frenchman would have been the topic of some conversations. So try not to be that guy, even if they do steal your Chuppa Chups.