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Johnson column: How to speed up play? Just BAN the caddies!

Page 11 illustration johnson caddy

by Martin Johnson

Hopping between TV channels on Sunday turned out to be a little confusing, in that more than one programme featured a white ball travelling vast distances through the stratosphere before finally beginning its descent back into the earth’s atmosphere. And only when it hit the ground did it become clear whether you’d pressed the button for live coverage of a returning NASA spacecraft, Twenty20 cricket from India, or the World Matchplay golf from Texas.

Or even, on one occasion, an episode of Question Time. That was on Sunday evening, during Jason Day’s semi-final with Rory McIlroy, when such was the intensity of the discussion taking place in a fairway bunker on the par-four 15th,  I wasn’t entirely sure whether I was listening to Ewen Murray or David Dimbleby.

You could have wandered out to the kitchen to make a pot of tea, or taken the dog for a walk, and still got back in time to see the Australian eventually get around to the business of attempting to remove his ball from the sand. It involved just the one change of club, but Jason felt able to pull the trigger only after absorbing information which included distance, lie, isobars, terrain, and, quite possibly, the possible effect to the behaviour of his golf ball of global warming and the position of Jupiter in relation to the Milky Way.

The chap supplying all the info was middle aged, wearing a pair of not very flattering shorts, a pair of sunglasses, the obligatory hat advertising a brand of golf club, and boy, did he have patience to burn. It was, as you’ve doubtless guessed, Jason’s caddie, and after fielding question number 46, or thereabouts, I began to wonder whether he might suddenly come out with: “Look, according to the world rankings you’re a fairly handy golfer. There’s the ball, there’s the green, so how about just hitting it before one of us dies.”

However, giving the boss what he wants is what caddies do, and if you’re on ten per cent of what Day earns, then 18 holes of non-stop interrogation is a small price to pay. Not all employers are so demanding – John Daly, for example, requires nothing more from his man than to give him the occasional yardage and a Marlboro Light – but for most pros, the dependency is so childlike the only thing missing is breastfeeding.

The curious thing about golfers and their caddies is that the only time the player leaves his man out of the consultation process is when they finally get around to playing the shot. “Hit it wind!” they say. Or “sit!” Or “go left!” Not: “Should I ask the wind to hit it, do you think?” It’s the only time the poor old caddie gets a mental time out.

The only caddies who say what they think, rather than say what they think the boss wants to hear, are found in India and Pakistan. Slice one out of bounds over there, and instead of a respectful silence and a swift dip into the bag for another ball, what you actually get is: “Oh very bad shot, sir. You are a terrible player.”

You often hear people say, without meaning it literally: “I’d give my right arm…”  for something or other, but I for one would give serious consideration to amputation for the privilege of being present if Colin Montgomerie ever hires an Indian caddie and leaves a six-foot putt half an inch short. And watching what happens when his man comes out with: “Not hard enough sir.”

What if caddies were the norm in other sports? Tennis for instance. Would there be a long deliberation between Novak Djokovic and his caddie before serving to Roger Federer? “What do you think? High kicker to the deuce court?” “Mmmm. Not sure, Wind’s a bit off the left. Maybe the slice to the backhand.” Hard to imagine, really.

There are tougher jobs than being a pro golfer. A courtesy car comes round to pick you up, you get a cart ride to the practice ground, a nice sponsored lunch, free bananas and Gatorade on every tee, and just the occasional requirement for a spot of overtime – spent telling the assembled media that you hit it “pretty solid out there, but just couldn’t make anything”.

A more pampered creature would be hard to find outside a poodle parlour. The Matchplay venue in Austin was liberally sprinkled with water hazards, and when the Sky cameras honed in on a motor launch full of cameramen following the action, an understandably concerned studio analyst Paul

McGinley said: “I hope it’s not too off-putting for the players.”

It took a fellow pro to remind us that life is tough enough for the poor dears without the constant menace of a cameraman mistiming his click.

But Paul needn’t have worried about the chaps being inconvenienced when a cool breeze sprung up and left the odd particle of tree debris on the greens. To save the players the bother of having to brush loose impediments off their putting line, the organisers sent out a small army of people with leaf blowing machines.

In fairness, though, golfers deserve a bit of extra latitude given how much tougher it is – by comparison with other sports – when the time comes to finally hang up the clubs.

For instance, after a lifetime of having everything done for you, how on earth do you get across the road without a lollipop lady? And how are you expected to work out how long it will it take you to walk to Marks & Spencers without someone giving you the yardage.

However, if we learned anything from the Matchplay other than the fact that a 298-yard carry over water is a smooth three-wood, it’s how to eliminate the curse of slow play.

All sorts of solutions have been mooted, without any real success, but it was while I was wondering whether Jason would make it to Augusta in time for the Masters when he was asking all those questions in the bunker, that the answer suddenly came to me. Simple. Ban caddies.

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