My orientation began at a practice round with Mallon, Betsy King and Barb Thomas three days before the tournament began. My first assignment was to buy a yardage book in the pro shop and get some help deciphering its hieroglyphics. "Twistin' " Bill Williams, a kind man who does a mean Chubby Checker imitation and who carries Dawn Coe's bag, gave me a quick lesson before my mentor for the week, Carl Laib, arrived. Laib works for King, and as a favor to Mallon, he agreed to give me some tips.
Laib's nickname is the Caddie Machine, because he does his job with such precision. The other caddies make fun of his fastidiousness, but King is grateful for it. That week I was, too. I had planned to walk the course with Laib on Monday morning, but he had done it the day before—on Super Bowl Sunday—and already had annotated his yardage book. Next to the yardage figures for each sprinkler noted, for example, he wrote the numbers engraved on the sprinkler heads, so he would be able to identify them faster. He even drew in a few sprinklers the artist had missed. All of this information he eagerly shared with me, so that by the end of the tutorial, my book was virtually a carbon copy of his. "They call me the Machine because I take my job seriously," he said proudly. "A lot of these guys are too lazy to walk the course beforehand. But Betsy depends on me, and I want to have all the right answers when she asks me a question."
Yardage books are to caddies what legal briefs are to lawyers. They don't go to work without them. The books contain roughly sketched outlines of every hole, including landmarks such as trees, sand traps, water hazards and sprinkler heads. The people who diagram the course also measure the distances to the landmarks, from either the back of the tee or the front of the putting surface. But any caddie worth his or her vest knows the books aren't completely reliable, and they don't contain every piece of information a player will need. The good caddies walk the course before play begins to avoid nasty surprises and costly mistakes during the tournament.
Getting the right yardage was the least I could do for Mallon, because she would be on her own in so many other ways during our time together. I had taken a course on golf when I was in college and have duffed my way through a couple of forgettable rounds since then. But I am clueless about when a driver might be a better club off the tee than a three-iron and have no idea about how to read greens. Such knowledge is de rigueur for tour caddies—sometimes. "A lot of these players could win with a wheelbarrow carrying the clubs," says Eddie (B.B.) Wallace, who works for three-time U.S. Women's Open champ Hollis Stacy.
That certainly was the case with Mallon at Wycliffe. She hit the ball so well that my ignorance of the technical aspects didn't handicap her much. Nevertheless, our success as a team rekindled the debate among the bag toters and the pros about how important caddies really are.
I took enormous grief from the other caddies, who said I made the job look too easy. Some suggested that I take early retirement. Others accused me of not being the genuine article, because the canvas bag Mallon used while I was caddying for her was lighter than the heavy leather bags she and the other pros normally use. "Real caddies carry tour bags," growled Richard Wirthman, who hauls clubs for Tina Purtzer.
This is what Mallon crammed into her bag every day: three metal-wood clubs, one putter, seven irons, a pitching wedge, two sand wedges, a rain suit, nine balls, a plastic bag filled with pencils and tees, at least two granola bars, a wristwatch, one glove, an umbrella, a can of insect repellant, a bottle of sunscreen lotion and a blue felt-tip pen. The load probably weighed about 20 pounds, roughly 10 pounds lighter than if she had used her bigger leather bag. At the end of a round, my back, shoulders and legs were in fine shape, but my feet felt as if I had been in stiletto heels, rather than sneakers, all day.
In any case, it was my responsibility to keep the mood light and make our days on the course fun, no matter what score Mallon shot. "I like to hear you say, 'That's O.K.' when I hit a bad shot," she told me after one of her fairway drives landed in a bunker during practice. "I don't think it does any good to get too down on myself out here."
It's a delicate balance. Sometimes a caddie is better off saying nothing. Melissa McNamara, a second-year pro from Tulsa, and her hometown buddy Brad Ruley ended their professional association after an episode on tour last year. McNamara had slammed her putter into her palm after a double bogey, and she was in considerable pain walking to the next tee. When Ruley tried to make a joke about it, McNamara snapped, "Shut up and carry the bag!" They are still best friends and travel together; but Ruley is serving up one-liners to Bonnie Lauer this season, and McNamara has entrusted her bag and psyche to Ron (Graphite) Matthews, a mellow dude from L.A.
By the third round I was prepared to be whatever Mallon needed me to be: fairway psychologist or human wheelbarrow. No one had mentioned that I might also have to be an octopus. That lesson came during my baptism by rain on Saturday and Sunday. Rain is the caddie's worst nightmare, because you don't have enough hands to do everything that's required. Just keeping the player and the grips of her clubs dry becomes an ordeal when you are trying to hold an umbrella over her head while simultaneously handing her the next club, cleaning the dirty one she just used and zipping up the rain hood of the bag without making too much noise on the green. Colleen Walker and her caddie, Chuck Parisi, performed the routine like seasoned ballet dancers on Saturday. Despite much coaching, I never really got the hang of it. I tried to pretend I was in control, but by Sunday things were getting out of hand, literally. Rain was pouring down, the wind was whipping, and the umbrella almost flew away from me, causing me to nearly drop the bag on the 7th green while another player was just about to putt. Mercifully, tournament officials canceled play and ended my misery a few minutes later. The final round was postponed until the next day.