In line of duty
–Scottish Caddies in St. Andrews
28 Sep 2011
IAIN DAVIDSON is something big in banking, so you'd think borrows would be his thing.
Trouble is, the 17th green on the Old Course is harder to read than anything Stephen Hawking ever came up with, and the line from the front, left edge is bamboozling. His ball is 80 feet from the flag. He decides he's going to chip.
Davie Coyne tells him he's going to do no such thing. It's an interesting dynamic as Davidson is vice-president of Barclays Wealth and Coyne is a time-served joiner, but there's no question who's in charge of the tactical decisions right now.
Coyne hands over the putter, points to a spot a couple of yards left of the pin and tells Davidson to give it a chance. A few seconds later, the ball comes to rest just three feet from the hole.
“Still want to chip it?” Coyne asks. In other circumstances the caddie's remark might have the same kind of effect on his tip as a sovereign debt crisis has on the FTSE 100, but, on this bright afternoon, the humour is unmistakeable. Davidson taps in his putt for a par and a 2&1 win for his fourball partnership with Jim Unick over John McTear and Peter Jamieson.
Good golfers all. Add their handicaps up and you probably wouldn't reach double figures. McTear won the British PGA Seniors in 2001 and Jamieson has a touch that his son, Scott, a fast-rising star on the European Tour, has obviously inherited. They've all hit some lovely shots, but McTear's pedigree stands out. “He's got this effortless power,” says Unick as we walk up the 15th fairway. “The rest of us do powerless effort.”
It's that time of year when late summer starts to give way to early autumn, but the cooler season is biding its time. It's more than warm enough, just enough breeze to freshen the players without inflating their scores. Good guys, good play, good humour and a good tip at the finish. All things considered, it's been one of the easier days of Coyne's working life.
Half an hour later, we're sitting in the Dunvegan, the legendary howff at the corner of Golf Place and North Street. There's a lot of history about this place, and a good part of it has been lived by Coyne and his fellow caddie Bruce Sorley. Between them, the pair have accumulated the wisdom and experience of 50 years and more than 10,000 rounds on the Old Course.
“Today was easy,” says the 51-year-old Coyne, who turned to caddying after suffering a serious accident on a building site 20 years ago. “The other side of it is that you can do two rounds with bad golfers on a really windy day. I don't mind the rain so much, but it's hard, gruelling work when it's windy. You go home at night and you just can't do a thing.
“I don't mind bad golfers so long as they're quick. You're meant to have a handicap to play the Old Course [the minimum is 24 for men, 36 for women] but people find ways to get round that. I've got scorecards from players who shot 200. I've seen some pretty rough ones and I've heard a few horror stories, as well.
“There was one guy who was putting for a 15 or 16 at the first. He asks the caddie for the line of the putt, misses it and then complains about the advice he got because the ball didn't break. That's when you get the steam coming out of your ears.
“Players get nervous here and they put too much pressure on themselves. Then you get the kind, Americans mostly, who come to the first tee and tell you they're a six-handicap. You watch them hit a couple of shots and you realise they're not. There's a big difference between American handicaps and ours. There's been a few times I've added 10 yards to the distances I've given them just to help them along.”
Of course, there have been a few decent players, as well. “Who was the best?” I ask Sorley. Given his answer, it shouldn't take much thought, but he still ponders the question for a few seconds. “It would have to be Tiger,” he says at last. “I was with him at the '95 Open. I caddied for him at Carnoustie the week before. It was his first visit to Britain.”
Caddies have been part of the fabric of golf in St Andrews for almost as long as the game has been played there. So, too, attempts to regulate their working conditions.
In 1771, the Royal and Ancient fixed rates of pay at fourpence for a caddie who went as far as the fifth hole, sixpence – ‘and no more' – for going further. In 1875, the rate for so-called first-class caddies was set at 1s 6d per round. According to the official history of St Andrews Links, 19th century caddies lived ‘in a state of poverty which bordered on destitution'.
The 1894 Links Act brought caddies under the control of the Town Council. Two years later, a licensing system came into operation, but caddies were generally still seen as social outcasts within the Fife town. In 1903, some R&A members submitted a petition to the council, complaining about ‘the general behaviour of the caddies, who recently seem to have got entirely out of hand'.
To some extent, that image still exists. It is also unquestionably true that many visitors come to St Andrews with the fantasy of being guided round the course by some sort of cartoon character, dishevelled of dress and stinking of drink. In almost every circumstance, they are bound to be disappointed, although tension has arisen over the past few years with the number of foreign caddies gaining licences to work on the course.
Coyne treads carefully. “If you've flown all the way here and paid a lot of money for the trip, you're probably hoping you get a Scottish caddie,” he says. “I don't mean that in a racist way; it's just what people are expecting.”
The demographic has changed in other ways. In 2001, the St Andrews Links Trust, who manage all seven public courses in the town, launched a week-long training course for potential caddies. The theoretical grounding, followed by 30 rounds at a reduced rate of pay [the full fee is £45 per round] is enough to earn a caddie's licence. For some newcomers, it is more of a lifestyle choice than a career.
“For a lot of the older guys here, caddying has been everything,” Coyne says. “Their dads and grandads did it, so it's been a family thing. It's like being a miner. Jimmy Reid, one of the great caddies, said he'd still be hanging around here long after he retired because it's a way of life.
“Now, there are a lot of incomers. There are people caddying now who would never have dreamt of doing it 15 or 20 years ago. Some people do it because they've been paid off or made redundant somewhere else, but for others it's almost a fashion thing, a hobby.
“There's close to 200 licensed caddies, but there's a hard core of us, about 40 to 50, and it's all we do. But Rob [Thorpe, the caddie master] knows who we are and he's pretty fair with us. We don't lose any work because of the way things have changed.”
Coyne believes he can save the typical player around six shots a round. If anything, it is a conservative estimate, as Dean Knuth, a golf statistician and handicapping expert who knows the Old Course intimately, says the figure is closer to 10. Course knowledge is a huge part of it, but Coyne reckons that reading the player is more important than reading the greens.
“That's the most important bit. There's a bit of everything in this job. Your part advisor and part entertainer, but your mostly a psychologist. There are times when I've just looked at a guy on the first tee and figured out what sort of player he's going to be. I've usually got them worked out within their first few shots.
“The art of being a caddie here is knowing how to deal with the player you've got. One day, he could be a hacker and he wants a laugh and a joke, but you could have a pro the next day and you have to know how to do that, too.
“You've got to know when to talk and when to shut up. Some of them want to hear your stories and some of them don't. You've got to suss them out quickly.”
Sorley gives another slant. “You're maybe with some guys who had paid a couple of grand to come over here,” he says. “They don't want to listen to your gibbering all day.”
By now, the anecdotes are coming thick and fast. There was the story of the caddie who dropped a cigarette butt in his player's canvas bag and set the thing on fire. And one about a notoriously dim caddie who thought his player, a turban-wearing Sikh, had suffered a terrible head injury. Coyne has plans to publish the best of the yarns some day.
For the moment, though, he's sticking to the day job. “A lot of my job's with golfers who know me,” he said with a smile. “You have a drink with these guys and they become friends. A lot of the guys come back and they are not just coming for the golf, they are coming for the whole experience. And you're part of that.”