The Silent Partner

After his win last week at the Canon Greater Hartford Open, his second victory of the year and the 19th of his career, Phil Mickelson, the No. 2 golfer in the world, told a national television audience what PGA Tour insiders have known for years--he's got one of the best caddies in the game. "Bones and I really mesh well on the course," Mickelson said of Jim (Bones) Mackay, who's been with him since he started on the tour in 1992. "He's one of those guys that, under the gun, when it's a critical time, he thinks his clearest."

It was a well-deserved tip of the hat to the most unsung and unique characters in big-time sports, a rare public acknowledgment of the crucial role played by caddies in professional golf. When Allen Iverson has the ball, he doesn't stop and ask an assistant whether he should pass or shoot. When Barry Bonds is at the plate, he doesn't step out of the batter's box between pitches and consult with the batting coach. But when a pro golfer plays a round of tournament golf, his caddie is at his side every step of the way, the ultimate partner, answering questions about yardage, offering opinions about which clubs to use, actively participating in the dozens of decisions that have to be made during 18 holes of professional golf.

With $185 million up for grabs this year, the prize money on the PGA Tour has never been bigger and the quality of the golf being played has never been better; there is no margin for error. To negotiate the tour's pressure-packed fairways and win his fair share of the loot, a golfer needs every possible advantage, and a good caddie is as indispensable as a good set of clubs. Great as he is, even Tiger Woods credits his caddie, Steve Williams, with helping him play his best. In the two years since Williams replaced Mike (Fluff) Cowan (dismissed, many believe, for being too high profile), Woods has won 20 tournaments, including five majors.

The relationship between golfer and caddie is unlike any other in the sports business. The caddie is the golfer's employee, friend, psychiatrist and fan, all rolled into one. "People talk about it like a marriage," Mick-elson told NEWSWEEK. "We're both working for the same thing. It's not like I'm try-ing to boss him around or he's trying to boss me around." And after nine years together, they've reached a level of mutual understanding that any couple might envy. "He knows what I'm thinking," Mickelson says.

Mickelson and Mackay are friends, but they are also business partners, and their financial fates are linked. For his efforts, Mackay receives a percentage of Mickelson's winnings as well as a weekly salary. The average weekly salary for a tour caddie is about $800, but it can be hundreds more for top caddies. The industry standard for caddies is a 10 percent cut for first place, 7 percent for a top 10 finish and 5 percent of any other winnings. Based on those percentages, Mackay's estimated share was close to $400,000 last year, when Mickelson won four tournaments and total prize money of $4,746,457. "I have no problem paying a large check to a guy who has worked hard and helped me perform my best," says Mickelson. Mackay, who is incorporated, also receives money for wearing a Titleist hat, through a deal Mickelson has with the company. With top caddies getting nearly as much TV time as their players, sponsors are anxious to have them sporting their logos.

The effortless two-man rhythm Mickelson and Mackay have developed over the years was evident as they worked their way around the Cottonwood Valley Golf Course in Irving, Texas, in May while preparing for the Verizon Byron Nelson Classic. They executed the elaborate choreography of the pro game--passing clubs and balls back and forth, stepping off yardages, lining up putts, tending pins--with style and ease. They analyzed the lay of that sculpted land like a pair of surveyors. They monitored the prevailing winds. And in the midst of it all, Mackay took a moment to demonstrate his mastery of "Caddyshack," quoting handily from the film he considers "the greatest golf movie ever." (Thanks to his status in the caddie world, Mackay once met Bill Murray, who starred in the film as Carl, the deranged greenskeeper.)

An accomplished golfer who played for his college team and worked as an assistant pro before becoming a caddie, Mackay understands the subtleties of the game as it is played at the highest levels. (Many of the 150 or so regular caddies on the tour developed their love of competition playing college golf.) "What do we do here, Bones?" Mickelson asked as he studied a shot at Cottonwood. The answer came quick. "A good 9," said Mackay. He knows Mickelson's swing almost as well as Mickelson does, and when the golfer wants to know if something doesn't look right, the caddie can tell him. During a tournament Mackay, who has kept a written record of every shot Mickelson has hit since they started working together, is a bottomless well of information for Mickelson to draw on. "Part of my job is to provide options," says Mackay, who readily offers his ideas about which club to hit and how hard to hit it. Mickelson welcomes the input, up to a point. "What I don't want Jim to do, and what he does not do," says Mickelson, "is tell me how to play."

No. 2 behind Tiger Woods on the tour money list as well as in the world rankings, Mickelson, 31, is an aggressive golfer whose intensity is best appreciated in person. Television captures his good looks and ready smile but misses the energy and burning desire to win he exudes in competition. Mackay, 36, is the yin to Mickelson's yang, an affable Georgian with a rare gift for remaining calm in the heat of battle. The two or three times they've had problems, Mackay wanted Mickelson to play it safe. "Granted, he may have been right," says Mickelson. "But that's not the point." The point is, playing it safe isn't part of Mickelson's game, and Mackay accepts that. "I've got the greatest job in the world," he says. "I can't tell you what an amazing experience it is to caddie for a player of his ability."

Not all caddies are as fortunate as Mackay. "The top 50 guys out here are doing pretty good," says Dale McElyea, president of the Professional Tour Caddies of America. "But if you're down around 100th on the money list, you're not living too high on the hog." A caddie at that level makes about $50,000 in salary and percentage. With typical expenses running about $30,000 for the season, it hardly seems worth the effort. Unless, of course, you appreciate the arcing flight of a perfect drive, the unerring roll of a perfect putt, the distinctive "plop" of a ball falling into a cup for a birdie. "If they cut the purses by 75 percent, we'd still be doing the same thing," says McElyea, a 13-year tour veteran. They'd still be walking up sun-blasted fairways with 60-pound golf bags on their shoulders, squinting into the distance, thinking and talking and trying to figure out a way to win. They'd still be doing it because golf may be a business, but it's also golf.