By Michael Davis
ALLOW me to indulge myself (yet again) given that the Masters is coming up in Augusta.
Having had the best seat in the house and ‘backstage’ access to the ‘performers’ at so many fabulous sporting events, I reckon covering the Masters is among the best experiences.
The hairs on the back of the neck still stand up at the thought of going through the turnstiles at Augusta, the Open and Wimbledon.
Locally, the same applies to the Presidents Cup at Royal Melbourne, the AFL Grand Final, the Melbourne and Caulfield cups, the Cox Plate and the Boxing Day Test at the MCG. These events never disappoint.
I FIRST drove down Magnolia Lane at Augusta, in America’s Deep South in the mid-1990s and was immediately struck by the simple beauty of the Georgian clubhouse.
It would not have surprised to see Gone with the Wind’s Rhett Butler and Scarlett O’Hara step from the portals to welcome me.
Two other early memories abide – the captivating southern drawl of the locals and the fact that all the menial tasks were being done by African-American men and women.
Which brings me to Leroy Rose.
Leroy had caddied for Ben Hogan when he won the Masters at Augusta National.
The then 69-year-old had carried many famous bags – Hogan, Byron Nelson, Jimmy Demaret and former US President Dwight Eisenhower.
But on the Monday after this Masters, Leroy caddied for me. With the secretary of the Royal and Ancient at St Andrews, Michael Bonallack and Michael Lunt – both former British Amateur champions – waiting to hit off in the group behind me, I topped my drive about 20 yards off the first tee. But thanks to Leroy, I still made a bogey five at the opening hole.
Let me tell you about Leroy. He grew up just a gentle pitching wedge from fabled Amen Corner. He had caddied at Augusta National since he was a youngster and had been able to raise 10 children – five girls and five boys – on the $US32,000 plus tips the club paid him every year. At the time, all his sons were caddies at Augusta National.
Grey haired and bearded, Leroy was a man of the world even though it was unlikely he had ever ventured out of the state of Georgia.
His wife had died a few years earlier and his 32-year-old girlfriend was expecting his 11th child.
“People say she’s young enough to be my daughter, but we just fell in love and that’s all there is about it,” he said sagely.
The elder statesman of the Augusta National caddie shack remembered all the legends of the game.
“(Ben) Hogan was a tough colt. He was a bit snappy, but all right when you got to know him. Byron Nelson was good, but Jimmy Demaret was my favourite. And the President (Eisenhower) loved his golf.”
African-American caddies are part of the folklore at Augusta National and were mandatory up until the mid 1980s. When American Ben Crenshaw donned the green jacket in 1995, he said he had used the same caddie, Carl Jackson, at the Masters since 1976.
Crenshaw also said a tip from Jackson on the practice fairway before the Masters had transformed his game.
Only the foolhardy attempt to play Augusta National without the help of the local caddies.
The nuances and subtleties of the treacherous putting surfaces are a mystery to all but them. Look at a putt and think it has two feet of borrow in it and the caddie will tell you it has six. They are always right.
Leroy could not stop me from dunking two balls in Rae’s Creek at the picturesque Golden Bell 12th hole as he guided me through the cathedral like amphitheatre of blazing colour that is Amen Corner.
But he made me feel like Crenshaw on the greens.
I repaid him in kind, getting down in two from the back tier of the 18th green from 60 feet, even though the pin was on the lower plateau, in the same spot it had been for the final round of the Masters.
“I thought we almost had that one,” said Leroy, making me feel as if the two of us had taken on the might of Augusta together.
Embarrassment and ego prevent me from revealing what I shot at Augusta that day. Thanks to Leroy, I did bogey four of the first five holes before the wheels well and truly came off. It mattered not one iota to my loyal caddie.