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Bones and Lefty 'a perfect match'

Their friendship survives every test

Friday, April 01, 2011

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If the strength of a relationship is measured by its darkest moments, Phil Mickelson and Jim "Bones" Mackay's friendship was built to last.

Phil Mickelson and his caddie, Jim ''Bones'' Mackay, have a relationship that transcends golf. When Mickelson's wife, Amy, was diagnosed with cancer, Mackay was there to lend support. (Rainier Ehrhardt/Staff)

Two days after a final-hole U.S. Open meltdown at Winged Foot, Mickelson picked up the phone and called his left-hand man.

Was it to vent one more time about the dreaded double bogey that extended a career curse in the national open that Mickelson desperately wanted to win?

Nope.

"He called on Tuesday and said, 'Hey, we're taking the kids to Disneyland. Do you, Jen and Oliver want to come?' " Mackay said. "He's a very, very resilient guy. He's got his head in the right place."

The man everyone calls Bones is as much a friend as he is an employee for Mickelson. For almost 19 years, theirs has been a masterful partnership -- Bones supplies the information and sometimes the voice of reason; Mickelson supplies the skill and accepts the consequences, good or bad.

Mackay, 45, has carried Mickelson's bag since the day he turned pro in 1992, in 40 of his 41 worldwide wins and all four of his major titles. Along the way, the lanky, 6-foot-4 man with the toothy grin is one of the most recognizable caddies on the PGA Tour.

Phil Mickelson said he gives his caddie, Jim Mackay, one veto a season when it comes to golf strategy, but Mickelson reserves the right to override that veto. (File/Staff)

"They are quite a pair," said Mickelson's wife, Amy. "They are so different but a lot alike. They're like brothers ... I couldn't imagine either of them with anybody else. They are kind of the perfect balance."

Mickelson, 40, considers having Mackay by his side "one of the most fortunate things" to happen in his career and one of the keys to his success.

"I think the three most important people in a golfer's life are their wife, their manager and their caddie," Mickelson said. "I've been fortunate to have the same three throughout my career. From the first time we've been together, I realized he was a great caddie, but over the years he's become a lot more than that."

The shoulder that isn't lugging Mickelson's Callaways is the one Lefty has leaned on through difficult times on and off the course.

"When you're in Jim's position, you're an employee, a friend, a psychologist -- all of the above," said Rob Mangini, Mickelson's college roommate at Arizona State. "Jim takes those responsibilities as serious as anything he does in his life. It is a perfect, perfect match."

Mackay's professionalism is the model of a modern tour caddie. He is as comfortable mingling with presidents, celebrities and corporate executives as he is with fans, roadies and other caddies. As easily as he can carry his 2 handicap to the world's most prestigious courses, such as Pine Valley and Cypress Point, he can lug lenses for photographers on the sidelines of a college football title game.

Phil Mickelson and his caddie Jim Mackay walk to the 2nd green after Mickelson hit from the crowd on the hole during final round play at the 2005 Masters. (File/Staff)

And he has been an invaluable sidekick to the three-time Masters champion.

"Phil was successful before he met any of us," said Steve Loy, Mickelson's manager and former college coach who helped broker the partnership with Mackay. "He was bound to be successful at anything he wanted to do in life. But do I think he would have been as successful without Jim? No way."

Caddie calling

How does a college graduate with a job offer to become a financial analyst end up carrying a 50-pound golf bag and stepping off yardage for a living?

With Mackay, it started when he was a kid watching the caddies who got to share the space inside the ropes with his idols.

"I was a (Tom) Watson guy," he said. "This was 1980, and he was a great player, and the way he carried himself. So I thought (Watson's caddie) Bruce Edwards had the coolest job in the world, and that's what got me thinking about caddying."

Phil Mickelson and caddie Jim Mackay walk up No. 18 during the final round of the 2010 Masters. (File/Staff)

Edwards was one of the first men who redefined the role of the professional tour caddie, but it was another old-school caddie who impressed Mackay.

"I'd go to tournaments and watch Bill Rogers, because he was this skinny Texan and I was skinny," Mackay said. "He had this caddie named Big Money Griff (John Griffin). At one point his caddie said, 'There's that kid again.' And he spoke to me and was nice to me, and that was really cool. That was another chapter with me falling in love with caddying, even though I'd never done it a day in my life."

While he played for Columbus (Ga.) College, Mackay worked at Green Island Country Club and befriended resident tour pro Larry Mize. Mackay often shagged range balls for the 1987 Masters champion.

A week before Mackay was supposed to start his career at Synovus Bank, Mize had broken up with his caddie after the 1989 season. Mackay begged for the chance to pick up the bag.

"I was really reluctant," Mize said, "because I said, 'You've got a good job here, Jim, and I don't know if you really want to do this caddie thing. Stay here and do that. But he was adamant about coming out and he talked me into it."

The opportunity changed Mackay's life.

"He gave me the greatest break I could ever have," Mackay said. "I knew nothing about caddying and had no idea what I was getting into or what it entailed. And it certainly entailed far, far more than I thought."

Mackay requested a two-year leave of absence from Synovus, but after his first event with Mize, he was hooked.

"I knew the first week I caddied at the Bob Hope that no matter what went on between Larry and I that I was going to caddie," he said. "I can't even describe how much I wanted to do this for a long, long time."

Finding Phil

Mackay started the 1992 season with 37-year-old Scott Simpson, a two-time NCAA champion from San Diego and the 1987 U.S. Open champion.

"The very first hour I worked for him at the Bob Hope, I picked him up at his hotel and we were driving to the golf course and he said, 'By the way, if you ever get offered a better job than working for me, I expect you to take it,' " Mackay said. "At the time I was like, come on. We were just starting out."

A few months later, the reigning three-time NCAA champ from San Diego was getting ready to graduate from Arizona State and turn pro. Mickelson was a dream bag for any caddie, and Mackay sent a handwritten letter to throw his name into the hat.

"If Scott hadn't said that to me at the Bob Hope, I probably wouldn't have done it," Mackay said. "I want to be loyal and do the right thing and honor the fact that he gave me this opportunity to work for him. But he gave me this out, and it was just too good an opportunity to turn down. I'm very grateful for that."

Mackay was already in the running. Loy, Mickelson's coach at Arizona State, had met Mackay years before at the Future Masters in Dothan, Ala. Years later they reconnected at the 1992 Tucson Open while Loy was waiting around to see whether Mickelson made the cut.

"When I was out caddying for Phil as an amateur, I was really out trying to learn and observe how others do their jobs and bring that back to make notes to avoid some of those shortfalls," Loy said. "One of the first guys I ever met because of the personality he is was Jim Mackay. He was the most engaging, sincere person that I had been around out there in the caddyshack. His height and personality and smile and age said to me, you've got to meet Phil and spend some time with him. You guys could be a perfect match."

Mickelson first ran into Mackay during a practice round at the 1992 Players Championship.

"You want to give this a try?" Mickelson said.

Learning curve

After a couple of brief phone calls, Mickelson and Mackay next met on the first tee at Farmington Country Club in Memphis, Tenn., at the 1992 U.S. Open qualifying.

"He didn't play a practice round, and I didn't have a clue how far he hit anything," Mackay said.

He had spent years working for medium hitters, so that first 36-hole day together was an eye-opener.

"This guy hits it 50 yards past everybody else I've ever caddied for," Mackay said. "He's driving it off the fairway. I'm looking under the trees and he's standing next to me looking over the trees. He said, 'What do you like?' and I said you can punch this 6. He says, 'Punch a 6? I can hit a 9-iron over everything.' There was a big adjustment period for me. Of course, he played very aggressive. It was great."

Mickelson shot 69 the first round and, after a hamburger for lunch, shot a 63 that still stands as the course record and won the qualifier handily.

"I'm thinking, oh my God, this guy is incredible. I've got to get my act together here," Mackay said.

The only thing harder than adjusting to Mickelson's aggressive style was handling his left-handed clubs.

"To this day he still teases me about this," Mackay said. "Have you ever cleaned a left-hand club? I'm telling you what, I couldn't do it. First day on the job, you'd think I'd be a little competent and I can't even get the dirt out of his grooves. I'm sure he was thinking, 'What have I gotten myself into with this guy?' "

Picking your spot

Caddying for an aggressive player presents its own challenges.

Not everybody can handle it.

Loy, who caddied for Mickelson as an amateur and coached him in college, understands better than anyone what Mackay faces.

"It's Jim's and my most frustrating moments when we really know for his best interests to tell him the right thing to do and he won't," Loy said. "So we both had to learn, and Jim's very good at it, in picking his spot. Not spots."

It's not an easy technique to master, as Mickelson's college roommate can attest. Mickelson asked Mangini to caddie in a Japan Tour event in 1995 so he could help his friend earn a little cash while he tried to make it on the mini tours.

"He was one of the best players in the field, so I'm ready for the caddie's portion of the winner's check," Mangini said.

With Mickelson leading, Mangini vehemently tried to talk him out of hitting driver off the deck on a par 5 with out-of-bounds flanking both sides.

"We got in an argument," Mangini said. "I said he was going to hit this hill right in front of him and he said no I'm not. ..."

Mangini took a picture of Mickelson hitting on the 72nd hole while Mickelson glared at him in disgust.

"I figured that was the last shot he'd hit with me on his bag," Mangini said. "This was definitely not going to work. We laughed about it and raced to our flight and he paid me the caddie portion of whatever it was and said, 'No more of that.' "

Mackay understands how to handle those situations.

"You have to learn how to present your case," he said.

Mickelson allows Mackay one veto per season, though he spontaneously attaches so many riders and disclaimers -- doesn't count in majors or overseas or in tournaments he hasn't won before -- that it's hard to tell whether the vetoes carry any real value.

"Jim doesn't take it for granted, and Phil always takes it seriously, but he'll always try to come up with a way out," Loy said. "He's always coming up with something very witty to put Jimmy back on his heels. I'd hate to know (when he vetoes a veto) because I'm sure Jim was right and I'm sure Phil thought he could prove him wrong and the outcome wasn't good."

For all his go-for-broke tendencies, though, Mickelson and Mackay both concede that it's really an easy working relationship.

"In my opinion there are two kinds of golfers -- there are blamers and there are guys who are not," Mackay said. "It always seems to me that the guys who tend to be more successful are the guys who take responsibility for what goes on out there. It's not my caddie's fault or the guy-who-made-my-omelet's fault. Right away, it was a joy to work with this guy."

Said Mickelson: "I don't think I'm a hard guy to caddie for, and I'll tell you why. Ultimately, it's my decision. Ultimately, the club I pull, I'm the one who has to hit the shot. Regardless of what he says or likes, I'm the one who has to pull it. Regardless of what he reads in the break, I'm the one who has to go with it.

"It's easier for me to live with my mistakes. If I play the wrong club or don't pick the right read on the greens or mess up, I can deal with that. I will never blame him for a shot.

''It's not his responsibility."

Mackay brings a professionalism to the job that is miles from the old stereotypes of the caddie-yard lifestyle. He doesn't drink much, smoke or ever show up late.

"If you had world rankings for caddies, Bones would be pretty high on that list, if not No. 1," said veteran tour pro Paul Goydos.

Hunter Mahan's caddie, John Wood, was rooming with Mackay on the 15th floor of the Golden Nugget hotel in Las Vegas in 2005 when an earthquake shook the room in the middle of the night.

Mackay leapt out of bed and ran across the trembling room in a half-panic to where Mickelson's clubs stood in the corner and laid them gently on the floor.

"So, in an earthquake, Jim's first thought is to secure Phil's clubs," Wood told Golf magazine.

That's the kind of ethic that Mickelson values.

"They can have the close relationship like brothers or best friends or family, but his work ethic is as exactly high as it was the first year on the job," Amy said of Mackay. "A lot of the things that he does are not necessary but are really appreciated. Believe me, Phil knows he has the best caddie in the world."

Mickelson agrees.

"Bones, after 18 years, has been so good at what he does," Mickelson said. "On the caddie side, he's always on time, he's always where he needs to be, he's protective of the clubs. He takes notes on every shot we hit on past courses so we have a reference point to go off of based on temperature, how far the ball flew, what type of shot we were trying to hit. He takes incredible notes, so we're prepared for any golf course."

Second marriage

In most cases, caddies are hired to be fired. Few ever last two decades with the same player. Mackay and Joe LaCava, who has been with Fred Couples for 21 years, are exceptions.

"They jokingly call it a second marriage because you're with your caddie so much of the time -- six, eight sometimes 10 hours a day," Mize said. "And you're with them through such an emotional roller coaster at times -- the bad times, frustrating times, angry times. Even though you're outside you're in such close proximity, it's very easy to wear on each other over the years."

It's even harder to maintain a friendship. Mackay and Mickelson have grown closer through the years, but it's not something Mackay ever takes for granted.

"Absolutely not," he said. "I never will. I'm capable of making mistakes, but I don't plan on making that mistake. I always remember he is the boss. He's my boss."

Mackay was so careful to try to keep their personal and professional sides separate that he was reluctant to even court his future wife. Jennifer Olsen was Amy's best friend since their sophomore year in college and became a familiar presence on the road. Even after both Mackay and Olsen were out of previous relationships, he resisted asking her out despite constant urging from the Mickelsons.

Then, on the morning of 9/11, the first instinct of Mackay and Olsen was to call each other. After knowing each for eight years as friends, they started dating and got married in 2002 in the Mickelsons' backyard.

Since Amy's breast cancer diagnosis in May 2009, the Mackays have taken on a supportive role beyond the golf course. But on it, the bond between player and caddie has grown even closer.

"It has evolved," Mickelson said. "Last year, he was more of a friend than he was a caddie. Things are in a much better place now so I can go ahead and crack the whip more."

Made for the Masters

Like his boss, Mackay's favorite tournament in the world is the Masters.

Some of his Columbus College teammates got tickets to the 1987 Masters and invited Mackay to attend a tournament round for the first time on that Sunday. He was standing directly behind the 12th tee when local favorite Mize chipped in on No. 11 to defeat Greg Norman in the playoff.

"We got in a car and drove back to Columbus, and I remember lying in bed that night and my ears were still ringing," he said. "Nobody expected it. It was such a roar out of nowhere. It was incredible."

Three years later, Mackay was wearing a white jumpsuit and caddying for Mize in the Masters.

"I didn't think it could get better than that first Masters," Mackay said. "I was the biggest Masters fan in the world. Getting to walk inside the ropes and caddie there, I just love that tournament. I just can't get enough of it."

Mackay has caddied every year at Augusta since 1990, missing only 1994 when Mickelson sat out with a broken leg from a skiing accident. With Mickelson guaranteed a spot for as long as he chooses, Mackay hopes to keep spending the first full week of April for the rest of his life wearing white coveralls and toting Mickelson's bag.

"There's something very special sitting here thinking about caddying for Phil at the Masters when we're both quite old," Mackay said. "I think that would be the coolest thing ever. I'm 5 years older than Phil. If I was 60 and caddying for Phil at the Masters, that would be a blast.

"This is a terrible thing to say, but it would be kind of cool walking up the 18th fairway and having a heart attack and getting carried out of there. That's the way to go."

For Mackay, there are no regrets about how his life has played out.

Still, at every Masters, James Blanchard, the retired CEO and board chairman of Synovus Bank and an Augusta National member, reminds him that his two-year leave of absence has expired.

"When are you coming to work?" Blanchard always asks. Mackay just laughs and thinks of the road not taken.


More About Bones

ENGLISH BORN

Jim Mackay was born and raised in England. His family moved to New Smyrna Beach, Fla., when he was 7.

After applying twice, he became a U.S. citizen in the late '90s, taking the test and swearing his oath in Atlanta.

Bones married Amy Mickelson's best friend, Jennifer Olsen, in 2002 and they have two children - Oliver, 6, and Emma, 4.

BECOMING 'BONES'

Caddies are famous for their nicknames, and "Bones" is among the most recognizable in a current field that includes Fluff, Bambi and Squirrel.

During his first year as a caddie, Mackay attended a group dinner at a tournament in Paris. Fred Couples was trying to get his attention from across the room, but he couldn't remember the tall, skinny kid's name. He just hollered "Bones."

"For the rest of the trip that's what he called me, and it stuck," Mackay said .

GEORGIA CONNECTION

Mackay moved from Columbus, Ga., to Athens, Ga., in 1996 and connected with the college town and its thriving music scene.

"I love what the town has to offer, whether it's going out to eat or to listen to live music," he said. "At the time that was a huge part of my life because I was single and able to do that kind of thing."

He became good friends with members of R.E.M. and the Drive-By Truckers.

"One of the hardest things I ever did was move out of town there in 2002," he said.

Phil Mickelson would sometimes stay with Mackay in Athens before the Masters and go play University of Georgia Golf Course with Georgia golfers such as Nick Cassini, Erik Compton and Bubba Watson.

"That was so cool," Mackay said. "He just wanted to get away and really work on his game. I had this little house there in Athens and he'd just roll up and sleep on this nasty bed I had in the guest room. He'd go out and eat dinner and hang out with guys on the golf team. It was really cool and was really nice of him to do that."

Mickelson on occasion used Athens to escape the bedlam of Augusta on the Wednesday before the tournament.

"He really enjoyed the town," Mackay said. "The seclusion you could have at the back of the range there at UGA was great to clear your head before the tournament."

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