Golf Bucks County

By Bob Oliver

Middletown Country Club

Middletown is a compact 80 acres of challenging golf, with rolling hills and large specimen trees that have watched many golfers travel its fairways over time. It has retained its old time feel with tees and greens in close proximity, allowing golfers to walk the course if they choose.

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"Old Fat Guy" earns his caddie spurs

Written by Bob Oliver on .

NORTHFIELD, N.J. --- It didn’t take long for me to feel uncomfortable in my new part-time job.


Heck, as caddie for John Mahaffey in the Champions Tour Atlantic City Commemorative, I had been on the practice green for only about a minute Monday when I inadvertently stepped on the line of Bob Murphy’s putt.


“Hey rookie, take a second to be aware of where you are,” boomed a stern Murphy. Luckily a big Irish smile appeared and he set me somewhat at ease by saying, “We’ve all done it."

Still my miscue reminded me I was, well, a sportswriter a little out of my comfort zone. Outside the ropes I’ve covered more than 20 major championships. Inside them, well, it was a learning experience. Oh, I had looped for Chi Chi Rodriquez for 18 glorious holes in the early 1990s, but that was a long, long time ago.


That line dance noticed by Murphy was my first mistake of the day, but surely wasn’t my last. All told, though, it wasn’t that bad being a pro tour caddie for a day.


The idea of carrying a bag at the Atlantic City Commemorative came earlier this year. I wanted a firsthand view of what went on inside the ropes at golf’s upper echelon. Were the players all business? Did they interact with the gallery? Up close and personal, did they hit the ball as pure as it seemed? Do caddies give autographs?


The PGA Tour, through Commemorative Tournament Director Mary Ann Saleski, thought it would be a good idea for me to get a bag, and soon I heard Mahaffey was “my man.”


“It’s simple,” he said after early morning introductions. “You give me the club I ask for, I hit the ball, I give you the club, you clean the club, and we move on. Not much more than that. Oh, and just be happy I didn’t bring my Tour bag.”


That was Mahaffey's version of the caddy credo: Show up, keep up and shut up.


My aching back was happy he 10-time PGA Tour winner didn’t bring the 50-pound bag, but the one he did bring was much heavier than my carry bag. Still, I figured, as long as I didn’t confuse a 6 iron with a 9 iron I’d be all right. Oh, and to remember not to walk in anyone’s line, in front of someone hitting, getting behind after raking a bunker, forgetting how to do basic math under pressure…the list goes on and on.


The AC Commemorative was an excellent choice because I’ve played the beautiful, famed Atlantic City Country Club layout numerous times and wouldn’t get lost. I didn’t know up front about reading putts, because I can barely do that on my own ball, but I didn’t think it could be that hard.


It wasn’t, mostly due to the patience of Mahaffey, who turned out to be not only fan friendly but caddie friendly in this, the kickoff to the Champions Tour’s 25th birthday celebration. In 1980 the Atlantic City International was played, and little did the over-55 (now 50-year-old) bunch know it was the start of something big. Now, 25 years later, the Champions Tour flourishes.


Attendance is up 10 percent, 28 events are extended through the next year and a stable of stellar senior professionals compete at a high level while still finding the time to be ran friendly.


“The fans are what this is all about,” said the affable Peter Jacobsen, who is exempt on both the PGA and Champions Tours after winning last year in Hartford. “On the PGA Tour I’d say the players are 85 percent business and 15 percent fan friendly, especially given the amount of money they we play for. But out here (Champions Tour) that it’s almost an even balance between competitiveness and friendliness. Let’s face it, the fans pay our way, so we have to give something back.”


That was evident in Mahaffey’s day. The man never failed to congratulate a playing partner on a fine shot, signed each and every autograph request and joked with the crowd. He even found time to give his amateur playing partners a few pro tips and broke up the crowd with his superb imitation of Chi Chi Rodriquez.


Along the way he made this looper --- another name for caddie --- feel at home. Somewhere around my third bad joke we began a banter that lasted four plus hours. Soon I zigged while he zagged and it was as if we’d been friends for years.


My biggest fear, that I would give him the wrong yardage to the hole, never occurred, although early in the round we felt each other out.


“It’s 135 to the front, 150 to the hole, breeze left to right,” I said with some certainty. “Hump in the green 10 feet short of the hole.”


His pitching wedge shot was hit a bit fat, and his ball didn’t make its way over the hump. Mahaffey gazed daggers at me and just said, “135?”


I gulped, then nodded my head.


“I know, I hit it fat,” he said with a smile.


I can’t say I saved Mahaffey any strokes, but then, I didn’t cost him any either on his way to a 2-over-par 73. I counted his clubs before the round to ensure he was within the 14 club limit. I didn’t tear any grass, using only mowed loose grass to check the wind. After a wary start he soon trusted my yardages and my instincts on the greens.


Along the way I learned some golfisms: “That ball hit where it landed,” and “If I can reach this par-5 in two I know I can hit it long enough.” Where was Yogi Berra when I needed him?


I learned a lot about caddies, good and bad. Some have nicknames, like Rabbit, Stovepipe, Bones, Breeze, Fluff and even Six Pack Jack. I learned another is serving a 10-year sentence for a drug violation. I learned that when a caddie is asked about how his pro played, a good round is always preceded by “We” and a poor one by “He.”


Caddies are hired to be fired. I once saw, close up, Billy Kratzert fire his caddie mid-round at the Anheuser-Busch Golf Classic when he --- get this --- ran out of golf balls. Yes, the guy thought the bag was too heavy on the hot Virginia afternoon and only carried a couple sleeves of balls. Kratzert hit a couple wayward shots, gave out some used balls to fans, and all of a sudden he didn't have a ball to play. Another time, at the United States Open, I saw Ken Green carrying his own bag when his caddy left to try and Monday qualify for the next week's PGA Tour event. Good thing he wasn't in contention.


Stories of guys getting fired for oversleeping a tee time were traded in the historic Fraser Room in the Atlantic City clubhouse after our round, as were embarassing times when a caddy took a wedge from his player coming off the practice area and didn't realize he put it in an opposing player's bag. That player took to the course, his caddy didn't count clubs, and when they realized it there were penalty strokes to pay. Being a successful caddy means paying attention to details, details and details.


Overall I didn’t embarrass myself, which is quite an accomplishment by itself. Being inside the ropes, seeing up close and personal the talent and grit of a tour professional is unbelievable. Mahaffey’s poor shots were better than my best.


Now, about that nickname.


“I like Old Fat Guy,” said Mahaffey.


We’ll go with that.