Alistair Noakes brings us an inside story.
When the Walker Cup came to Hoylake last September it wasn’t only the men of the USA and GB and Ireland who would face off on our historic seaside links - so too would their caddies. But who were these men on the bags? How big a part would they play in proceedings? And what stories do they have to tell?
There has always been a certain mystique, an unspoken bond between golfer and his caddie. In Tom Watson’s case the friendship he shared with his lifelong bagman Bruce Edwards went well beyond the many emerald green fairways they trod together. Sadly, Bruce died from the cruel motor neurone disease, and Tom, his loyal professional and life-long companion was by his side till the very end. In Tom and Bruce’s case their friendship ran deep, but other players and caddies have been known to go their separate ways before they’ve even reached the first green.
Caddies Alistair Noakes, John Mackay, John Cotton, Steve Scott and Ray Hughes support their players as the Americans practice together.
At Hoylake, caddies have worked the course from the moment the game was first played. Many have come from The Village Play Club, the artisan club whose members carry out the divotting and repair work on the course in return for their membership. For the 2019 Walker Cup they were joined by additional local but regular caddies, including two who had plied their trade on the professional European Tour. Twenty one bagmen were required in all, ten for each side and one additional reserve. They were to form an eclectic mix of young and old.
Spectators and players on the 12th tee.
The decision as to who would be assigned to each individual player was given to John Heggarty, Royal Liverpool’s Head Professional. It was an important one, as all concerned were keen to ensure fairness throughout and an equitable match of caddie to player. Those highest in the world rankings would likely be playing 36 holes on both days; thus, the more experienced and fittest caddies would be matched accordingly, but they would be split equally across both teams.
The 2019 Walker Cup matches were played on Saturday and Sunday, 7th and 8th September, but final practice sessions began a full five days earlier on Monday. The caddies were only told which player they had been assigned to early that morning, so there was tension as they awaited the arrival of the team coaches in the clubhouse car park. Jason dos Santos, regarded by his fellow caddies as the most enthusiastic of them all was desperate to meet his man - Sandy Scott, one of the stars of the GB and Ireland team. By the time the coach pulled away though, Jason’s face was as long as a broom handle putter. He had no golfer. He was ‘playerless’. Sandy had just won a tournament the day before in the States, so would be arriving the following day. But worse was to come. By Tuesday, Sandy had pitched up, but without his clubs. They had been lost in transit. Frantic phone calls to Taylormade ensued, for there was no way Sandy would play with anything but his own make and model of clubs. A new set finally arrived on Wednesday afternoon, but the pair had now lost valuable time together, leaving them just two days to prepare.
Time to consult – from left to right Matty Moores, Danny Mulla and GB and I players, Tom Sloman and Tom Plumb.
Meanwhile, out on the practice range, the players were doing their best to get to grips with the wild weather blowing in from across the Irish Sea. Brian Gibson was on duty here working his shift from 7am till 7pm, dishing out balls and collecting them in. The conditions weren’t easy. It was an average 25 miles an hour out there and gusting far higher. Cole Hammer, the American amateur number one, had never experienced anything like it, but he was determined to have fun all the same. One moment he was hitting exhibition shots curling the ball around the 150 yard marker and back to the 250 yard one with his driver, the next he was playing trick shots into the wind. “Hey watch this, Wu!”, he shouted across to his teammate Brandon Wu. Ray, Cole’s caddie, threw him a ball. With a controlled yet powerful stroke he hit down hard with his 54 degree wedge. Just as ordered the ball took off. As spectators looked on, it climbed ever upwards into the strong headwind before being caught nonchalantly in fine quarterback style by Cole’s attentive and eagle-eyed captain, Nathaniel Crosby. The man was standing right next to him. The ball had travelled not a yard forward nor back but 70 or 80 foot up in the air. Amazing stuff. Cue high fives all round.
Out on the course, Joe Williamson was getting on great with his man. That was until Thursday morning. On setting out, his player Isaiah Salinda took a quick look in his bag. His pitching wedge was missing.
“But I had it yesterday. I was using it. Where is it Joe?” he enquired accusingly.
“Haven’t seen it, boss,” Joe replied.
“Well, when did we last use it?”
‘Not sure,” Joe replied sheepishly.
It was a big worry. The air remained frosty for those first few hours of practice. Joe was fretting. It wasn’t until the 9th that things improved, for there, beside the greenside bunker, was the missing wedge, glinting contentedly in the sun, just where they had left it the day before. It was a let off for the young bagman! Whatever you do as a caddie, never, ever lose a club. Your airline can seemingly do what they like, but a caddie? No way!
For both caddies and players those few days of practice before the competition gave them valuable time to unwind. Whilst the pressure was off, they would pair up and get to know the course, but the team’s approaches were markedly different. For the Americans, in the end the wind became too much. They restricted their practice sessions to just a few holes each day and would take things easy. For the GB and Ireland team, they felt the need to be out there and get to know the course, its every nook and cranny.
Jason dos Santos was pleased at last to be able to support his man despite the weather. On the Friday morning the day before the match began, he had had it all planned out: plenty of golf balls – tick, water – tick, enough gloves – tick. One thing missing – tees. And then he saw some, a whole load of them on the table by the first tee. There was just enough time. He put his bag down, jogged across, grabbed a handful and stuffed them in his pocket – phew. Now fully prepared, he changed to a quick trot to catch up with his man.
By the time Sandy had played his second to the first green things were beginning to come together. Two perfect shots to 15 feet into the wind on Hoylake’s cruel opening hole and Sandy was getting into his rhythm.
“Putter please,” he called back. Jason handed over the weapon and took back his partner’s 5 iron in return.
And then, for a moment, Sandy just froze. In a bewildered state of total confusion, he turned to his caddie, pointed down the fairway and came out with it,
“What’s all that?”
Behind them for almost 250 yards was a long perfectly aligned trail of white golf tees stretching all the way back to that table by the clubhouse. It would take Jason a full hole to catch up by the time he had gathered them all up. The odd half day’s rest would come as a welcome break for a few of the caddies. Those bags were heavy, and even heavier when the wind blew. Keeping up with play and remaining focussed just isn’t easy with a 50lb bag on your back. However, there were ways of making things slightly less back-breaking, as John Cotton demonstrated. He’d brought along an extra shoulder strap he could hook round his bag. It would even up the load. What’s more, at a small price to his fellow men, he would dish out one or two more and make a few quid on the side. His two years on the European Tour certainly hadn’t been wasted.
As the weekend approached things got more serious. Ray Hughes was sure his expertise as a caddie could make that extra difference for his man. Ray was a scratch player. He had tried his luck at final Open qualifying many years back, but as a regular Hoylake caddie he knows the greens like the back of his hand. However, whether his player, ranked in the top ten of the amateur world standings, would trust him when it came to reading those all important putts, rather than trust to his own instincts, was another matter.
Ethan Davies was similarly keen to put his two-penny worth in. His player was chipping with a 58% wedge on hard running approaches when, in his view, it seemed putting was the far more sensible play. By the end of the week’s practice his player would agree. From those short distances just off the green he’d be putting from now on.
During those practice sessions before the gun went off mini partnerships were being formed, some strong, some far weaker, but each would have a bearing on the final result on Sunday.
From left to right Steve Fisk, Neil Alveston, Cole Hammer, Matty Moores and Danny Mulla.
Golf is a strange game that can change in an instant. The weather in the practice sessions had been tough. Now, on Saturday, all was calm and serene. Finally, after those long and incessant storms, Hoylake would be seen at its finest, for the links was in magnificent condition. Over these next two days it would be enjoyed by players and spectators alike in glorious late summer sunshine. The scene was set for some thrilling golf.
The Saturday morning foursomes saw Conor Gough, just 17 years of age, one of the younger players to play in the Walker Cup, paired with Harry Hall. Mal Jones, Connor’s calm and experienced caddie, provided just the support and encouragement he needed as he and Harry took an impressive point against the 28 year old Hagestad and talented Bhatia. Despite winning their match, the teams were nip and tuck as they lunched on Day One. They would go in two points apiece. Significantly though by the end of the afternoon singles, GB and Ireland had taken a valuable lead, finishing the day 7 - 5 up.
Sunday would be a long day for the home team. They lost the morning foursomes 1.5 to 2.5 when previously in matches past, they had excelled. But then again, Nathaniel Crosby, the USA captain, had worked hard on his pairings, having gone the extra mile to get to know his players, including their families, and it had paid off; leaving the BBC’s Ken Brown to suggest that, “GB and Ireland just weren’t far enough ahead.”
A few hours on from lunch and the afternoon singles had started well for the home side. Sandy Scott kicked his team off with an early victory against Wu finishing on the 15th despite a slight wobble round the turn. The American may have been over 30 places above him in the world rankings, but that made little odds to Sandy. Jason was beside himself with joy at the win, almost sprinting across the green to shake his partner’s hand, only to be told cheekily he’d dropped his putter cover on the way. Scott had found Jason’s enthusiasm infectious and it had rubbed off. Sandy would end up as his team’s highest points winner.
Ray Hughes lines up a putt for his man Brandon Wu.
That point was almost the entire extent of GB and Ireland’s success in the final session as the American came storming back with wins almost across the board. In the end there was little to stop them as they ran away to victory. It was an impressive win for the visiting side. They would take the match, with the final result; 15.5 points to 10.5.
What was their secret? Ray Hughes thought he might have had the answer.
In a rare quiet moment after that last putt had been sunk, he finally had the chance to quiz his man. “I’ve had a good week, Wu. Loved it all, but honestly what did you think of my reading of your putts?”
Came the reply: “Saturday and Sunday morning, they were great, Ray - but the Sunday singles, WHAT was that about?”
For a moment Ray was speechless, until a certain gentleman approached him and offered his hand in appreciation. It was Nathaniel Crosby. Ray had finally won him over and Crosby was truly grateful for all that he had done.
As for the GB and Ireland team; sure they were disappointed, but they weren’t downhearted. The Village Play have their clubhouse to the left of the 18th green and strangely, it has a rather decent and well stocked bar. Caddies, players and friends stayed well beyond midnight as tall tales were told and putting competitions ensued with the strangest of rules that would have tested the most experienced of all R & A referees.
At least half a dozen of the players have turned pro since The Walker Cup. One, in particular, has been extremely successful - Brandon Wu. As for the caddies, they now have a whatsapp group which includes many of the players. They remain in touch and plan to meet up soon, when time allows.
There were many who made the Walker Cup so special, not just the players and the caddies, but also the organisers, the greenstaff, the spectators and the officials. Oh, and in the end the weather chipped in as well. The caddies will remember that magical week in September for the rest of their lives.
Below: Jason dos Santos (in green) typically at the centre of the post event revelries.