Who’s the Greatest Golf Caddie Who Ever Lived?

Or are they all the same?

Tiger Woods with caddie Steve Williams, left

Less than three weeks after being fired by golf legend Tiger Woods, caddie Steve Williams helped new employer Adam Scott to victory in the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. Williams publicly touted his own role in Scott’s win shortly after the final hole, prompting a slew of golfers to criticize him for stealing the spotlight. Is a caddie critical to a golfer’s success?

He can be, if the player lets him. A few pro golfers want their caddies to conform to the three old-time rules of the trade: show up, keep up, and shut up. These days, however, most players expect their caddies (also known as loopers in golf circles) to master the course geometry in the days before the tournament. The caddie might use a laser range finder to determine the distances between the tees and the course hazards and use a 9-inch level to map the contours of the greens. Although both devices are illegal during the tournament, they have become crucial preparation tools. The topographical backdrop to certain greens, for example, makes judging the slope of the putting surface with the naked eye challenging, and most players rely heavily on their caddies’ pre-tournament measurements.

Great caddies aren’t just handy with a rangefinder—they’re accomplished sports psychologists, like corner men in boxing. Part of their job is to project confidence in their club selection or read of the green, so the player doesn’t second guess himself when he steps up to the ball. A slight hesitation or a minute drop of the shoulders can ruin a golf shot. A caddie who has been with the same player for many years also knows just how long to let his man sulk after a mistake before snapping him out of it with some choice words and how to keep his golfer focused during each of the 200-plus swings required to win a tournament. Top caddies will repeatedly advise a player to avoid his bad swing habits before he takes a shot or remind him of the mistakes he made on the same hole in previous rounds. There are also, of course, the usual high-fives and manly hugs.

Despite these contributions, few golf observers believe that the right caddie can turn a mediocre player into a contender. The game is ultimately about shot-making, and the top players would not lose their positions if they swapped caddies with the laggards. Nevertheless, tournaments are regularly decided by a single shot, so players tend to stick with their caddies if the chemistry is good. (For a particularly tricky course, a player may decide to hire a local caddie instead—someone with years or decades of experience navigating its idiosyncrasies.)

Because it’s so difficult to separate a caddie’s brilliance from the skill of his boss, there are few legends in the field. The World Golf Hall of Fame, established in 1974, has never inducted someone for achievements as a caddie. That prompted the Professional Caddies Association to launch its own Hall of Fame in 1999; there are now 97 members. The first class of inductees included Adolphos “Golf Ball” Hull, who worked with Raymond Floyd; and Jeff “Squeaky” Medlin, who caddied for Nick Price and John Daly. (Nicknames are big with caddies.) In most cases, the only discernible testament to a caddie’s greatness is a long tenure with a single, accomplished golfer.

Bruce Edwards, who worked with golfer Tom Watson for 28 years, is among the few caddies to break into the public consciousness. In 2003, he caddied Watson through a remarkable opening-round 65 at the U.S. Open, despite suffering noticeably from amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. Edwards died just 10 months later.

While fame is a long shot for most caddies, the money is good if you pick the right pro. Caddies typically take home about $800 to $1,000 per week, plus 5 to 15 percent of the boss’s winnings, depending on how well he finishes. At the height of his success with Tiger Woods, Steve Williams earned more than $1 million per year, plus the occasional lavish gift from his boss.

If you want into the business, the Professional Caddies Association offers an online course, and they sometimes get requests for referrals. It’s tough to get on with a real star, though. Many top golfers select college teammates or good friends as their looper.

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Explainer thanks Dennis Cone, founder and CEO of the Professional Caddies Association; Travis Hill of the World Golf Hall of Fame; and Mark Sweeney of AimPoint Technologies.